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A screenshot from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday showed Hurricane Fiona, located a few hundred miles southwest of Bermuda, and Tropical Storm Gaston, located a few hundred miles west-northwest of the central Azores. North Carolina’s emergency officials offer a “Know Your Zone” program to help coastal residents and visitors know what to do in case of an emergency such as a hurricane. Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Many residents along the coast of North Carolina may be used to the threat of hurricanes, but knowing when to evacuate can still be difficult. N.C. Emergency Management officials hope the process is a little easier with the Know Your Zone effort.

Unveiled in June 2020, the Know Your Zone program designated “tiered” evacuation zones to make it easier for people to find emergency information by their address. Knowing which zone a resident or visitor lives in may make it easier to plan for and know when to evacuate in case of a hurricane or other emergency.

So far, 20 coastal counties participate, but any North Carolina county can join the program.

“We would watch national media coverage during big storms and we would see places like the Weather Channel and national media outlets going down the East Coast of the U.S., and they would list off all of the evacuation zone programs for each state,” said Keith Acree, a communications officer for N.C. Emergency Management. “We didn’t have one in North Carolina, so we kind of took that as a sign that we needed to get on board and build one of these.”

Mike Sprayberry, a former director of N.C. Emergency Management who retired last year, decided to create Know Your Zone. It took one year to create.

The hurricane season has been quiet in North Carolina so far this year, but as Hurricane Fiona’s tumultuous journey highlights, there are still more than two months left to go in the season.

How to know your zone

Know Your Zone was designed to be simple. 

To start, visit the page and find the “Enter your address to find your zone” box near the top of the page.

Next, type in the address of your home, office or vacation rental. The map will zoom in. 

You’ll notice that Know Your Zones includes zones A through E. Zone A will typically be evacuated first. Some counties may only have zones A and B while others may choose to go as far down the alphabet — and evacuation tiers — as Zone E.

Zones on the map are color coded. A sidebar provides links to the websites and social media pages of the chosen county. They can be followed for updates or evacuation orders. A paragraph notes that coastal zones show the areas with the highest chances of storm surge and flooding.

“In addition to helping you avoid unnecessary evacuation travel, zones can also ease overcrowding at local storm shelters and increase public safety,” the FAQ states. “Knowing your zone and when to evacuate can ultimately save your family’s life.”

Acree said residents should make an evacuation plan before a storm, ideally planning to stay with family or friends.

Aerial view of Ocracoke Island after Hurricane Dorian made landfall in 2019. Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service Newport/Morehead City office

“As for evacuation routes, we always encourage people to use major highways and large roads as opposed to using back roads and smaller rights of way, as larger routes are able to carry more traffic more quickly,” he said.

Counties decide zones, which can differ by community 

Counties decided whether to participate. They also chose which areas fell into particular zones and whether to zone entire counties or only the highest-risk areas.

“Some counties, mostly some inland counties where storm surge isn’t an issue but flooding along rivers is, looked closely at flood maps and drew zones based on where the water goes when rivers and creeks and streams flood,” Acree said.

Joey Williams, director of emergency management in Hyde County, said all of Hyde is zoned. Ocracoke Island falls within Zone A, which will normally be evacuated first during an emergency. 

Much of Hyde County is designated as Zone B, with the northwestern corner being in Zone C. Williams said rental companies, hotels and ferry terminals help communicate emergency information.

But just north and south of Hyde’s Zone C, both Beaufort and Tyrell counties are Zone A, highlighting the need for people to know their zone and watch for evacuation notices.

Not just for the coast

Know Your Zone hasn’t yet faced a busy hurricane season.

“We have been lucky we haven’t had a really significant storm, not like a Matthew or Florence, since it went into effect,” Acree said. “Hurricane Dorian in 2019 was the biggest test it had, but it only prompted evacuations in Hyde County.

“Know Your Zone hasn’t had a large-scale, real-world test yet, so when that happens, we will get a lot of interesting feedback, I think, about how it works in the real world.”

And while only 20 coastal counties currently participate, any county is welcome.

The system could be used in the event of other disasters.

“We’re constantly telling counties in the central and western part of the state that it doesn’t have to be a coastal-only thing,” Acree said.

Home to a nuclear power plant, Brunswick is ‘unique’

Special consideration should be made if residents live near the Brunswick Nuclear Plant, which is about 5 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

The Brunswick Nuclear Plant has 13 of its own emergency planning zones within a 10-mile area around the plant, making Brunswick County “unique,” according to Acree. These zones are completely separate from the Know Your Zone project, but the nuclear and Know Your Zone areas overlap. The nuclear zones were redesignated with numbers to clarify the distinction between the two emergency programs, according to Acree.

In the event of an emergency involving the nuclear plant, sirens in the area alert residents to turn on a TV or radio news station for information. The sirens are also tested on a regular basis, and the schedule is posted to Duke Energy’s website.

Imari Scarbrough

Imari Scarbrough is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press. Email her at imari.scarbrough@gmail.com