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Employers Work To Reopen Following Hurricane Florence

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Sep 17, 2018
Flooding and damage assessments are keeping some businesses from opening, as the Cape Fear region works to recover from Hurricane Florence.

New Hanover County and city of Wilmington officials said during a Monday briefing that recovery efforts continue. "Things are getting better slowly and we thank God for that," said New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White.

Corning Inc., for example, activated its crisis response procedures in preparation for Hurricane Florence, Joseph Dunning, Corning’s communications manager, said in an email Monday.

“Because Wilmington and Durham were in the path of the storm and for the safety of our employees, our optical fiber and life sciences plants in these cities temporarily ramped down operations,” Dunning said. “Our optical fiber facility in Wilmington expects to return to normal operations soon. In Durham, operations at our life sciences plant returned to normal on Saturday. We are working to minimize any disruptions to our customers.”

Throughout the storm, essential personnel and volunteer employees remained at Corning’s Wilmington and Durham facilities to ensure the security and safety of its operations, Dunning said.

“Our facilities were designed and built to withstand the high winds and rain that occur in these types of storms. We are monitoring conditions closely and will keep our employees and customers informed of any changes to our operations,” he said. “Our thoughts are with all those who are weathering the storm. We will keep our employees and customers informed of any changes to our operations.”
 
Other large organizations and employers in the region have also been assessing damages in order to open for business as soon as possible.

The Wilmington International Airport (ILM) gained power at about 3:30 p.m. Monday, said Gary Broughton, deputy airport director at ILM.

“That’s [a] big step for reinstating service,” Broughton said.

That negates the need for generator parts, which were either received or were on the way to the airport Monday to get power back to the terminal.

Getting power to the airport was a key step in opening the terminal for commercial flights and travelers, Broughton said. The airport was also working to get some other items running to support commercial traffic.

The FAA sent out a team Monday morning to work on getting navigation aids and radar working at ILM's tower to support pilots. And officials hope to have its largest runway open soon to support air traffic.

"That would be another big plus, if they can get that up and running,” Broughton said.

There were some leaks reported at the airport, but teams were on the way for terminal clean up, he said. TSA and the airlines are sending out personnel to assess their facilities at the airport.

“We’re working tirelessly to get this airport open for tomorrow. That might be a stretch, but that is what we are shooting for," Broughton said. 

Although the terminal might get power, it could be Wednesday before the airport sees its first commercial flight after the hurricane. Broughton said that United Airlines has notified ILM that it will not resume flights at the airport until Wednesday at the earliest.

The airport has not heard from Delta Air Lines or American Airlines about when they plan to resume flights, he said, adding that the airliners could be waiting to see if the situation improves at the airports. Travelers are still advised to call the airlines or check their websites for commercial flights.

In New Hanover County, a little over 77,000 Duke Energy customers were still without power at one point Monday afternoon. Although the power situation across the county is improving, there is "a long ways to go," White said during an earlier county briefing.

N.C. Ports spokeswoman Bethany Welch said the ports of Wilmington and Moorhead City remained closed Monday and will continue to remain closed through Wednesday. However, there is no determination on when the ports might reopen, Welch said.

The ports are working with local, state and federal officials before they can resume landside operations, she said. Damage assessments of port warehouses, equipment and other such things needed for landside operations are ongoing, she said.

“We’re making sure that our port is safe for employees to return back to the port … for us, it’s still kind of a wait-and-see,” Welch said.

GE Aviation is also in a holding pattern until damages are assessed. GE Aviation’s location in the Castle Hayne area of Wilmington closed to staff late last week and activated its hurricane preparedness plan. 
 
It had a small team that stayed behind at the site, those with special training and who volunteered, so that company officials could check on the site periodically during the storm, said Perry Bradley, spokesman for GE Aviation.

“The site itself weathered the storm and is in good shape. No major damage at the site,” he said.

However, the real challenge for the company, he said, was how and when its employee base could return to the site safely and resume operations.

“As soon as we can safely resume operations, we will,” Bradley said.

In addition, the company -- in coordination with General Electric’s Power division, which also holds operations for GE Hitachi and Global Nuclear Fuel at the site in Castle Hayne -- is working to bring in hurricane relief resources for its employees.

This includes items such as chainsaws, basic hand tools, first-aid kits, toiletries, and other basic supplies families might need to personally recover from Hurricane Florence. GE will bring the supplies to the site once a safe path is found into Wilmington, he said.

“It’s a unique situation, but we are prepared for it. We will mobilize all of our teams … to help [our employees] as quickly as possible,” Bradley said. “We’re doing everything we can to be prepared and assist our employees and resume operations against this very dynamic backdrop.”

GE Hitachi's site in Castle Hayne also remained closed Monday.

GE Hitachi spokesman Jon Allen said Monday, "Our facility was well prepared for the storm and the critical employees who remained on site are all safe. No damage was identified that would impact the restart of manufacturing operations once employees are able to safely reach the site. The site is open to essential personnel only and will remain so tomorrow."

Live Oak Bank has been fully operational, closing loans, making transactions and servicing both loan and deposit customers throughout the storm, said Claire Parker, Live Oak Bank's spokeswoman, in an email.

"Before the storm, we deployed employees to various locations throughout the East Coast to maintain our operations. Because our systems are entirely cloud-based, we have been able to maintain service to our customers while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our teams," she said. "We have also been able to communicate well internally to keep employees up to date."

Live Oak headquarters sustained some superficial damage but for the most part is "in good shape," Parker said.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we are keeping the offices closed until it is safe for our employees to travel in town," Parker said. "Thankfully, all of our employees are safe, and since remote operations are working seamlessly, we will return to headquarters when it is safe to do so."

The towns of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach were scheduled to open at noon Monday to residents only, with the identification of residential status required. 

Twenty trucks have also come in to the Port City with food and water from Fort Bragg, and distribution centers are anticipated to open no later than 7 a.m. Tuesday. Distribution sites will be positioned in the north, central and south parts of New Hanover County. The county requested food and water for 60,000 people for up to four days.

Some grocery stores were open Monday, and residents were lining up to stock up on essentials.

City and county offices, however, remained closed Monday, and officials said that damages were still being assessed.  County offices will remain closed until further notice, officials said.
 
Malissa Talbert, spokeswoman for the city of Wilmington said, "We'll make a determination about operations for tomorrow or later today."

Greater Wilmington Business Journal Publisher Rob Kaiser contributed to this report.
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