As the community enters the 2021 hurricane season, town commissioners are re-thinking the future of housing for the critical personnel during and immediately after a major storm.
In the wake of 2018’s Hurricane Florence, the Swansboro Board of Commissioners was faced with the realization that there is no safe place for the town’s emergency services personnel to ride out a hurricane, even a relatively minor one.
Simply put, Swansboro Public Safety Facility is not a safe place for the town’s Emergency Operations Center. In fact, no structure on the town hall campus, apparently, is suitable for an EOC, a structure expected to provide the town’s administration and police and fire departments a safe place to ride out a significant weather event. A November 2019 study made that fact clear. (See related story.)
Now, a second study, delivered in May, indicates that the cost of the town providing that safe place – a building that could withstand at a minimum, a Category 3 hurricane – could be very expensive. So expensive, in fact, that most of the commissioners are unwilling to take on such a project.
“This board agreed and provided money in the last budget to hire a structural engineer to determine if any town-owned buildings could meet the standard,” Commissioner Frank Tursi said. “As expected, the engineer concluded that none of our buildings is adequate. We also provided money for a consulting firm to provide us with cost estimates for three options: 1) Reinforce the Public Safety Building, 2) Replace the current building at that location and 3). Replace the building at a location the town doesn’t currently own.”
Russell D. Pearlman, project architect with the Wooten Company, presented the findings of that second study at the May 24 meeting, which took place in a virtual format. He took into account the town’s current public safety needs as well as what those needs will be 30 years from now.
Noting the amount of space the town will need for public safety in the year 2050 – for personnel and equipment – Commissioner Laurent Meilleur asked Pearlman what the cost per-square-foot would be for a suitable building. Pearlman was reluctant to answer.
“I’m just going to have to beg off on the cost per square foot,” he said. “I just don’t feel comfortable.”
At Meilleur’s urging, Pearlman agreed that the cost would be at least $250 per square foot. (The Home Advisor website indicates that the average cost to build a residence is between $100 and $200 per square foot.) To meet the needs of an EOC, a building must be able to withstand a Category 3 hurricane.
Based on the 2050 square-foot needs – 11,774 for fire and 7,165 for police – at $250 per square foot, the cost would be about $4.75 million.
Tursi immediately questioned the cost-benefit ratio, suggesting a shared facility makes more sense.
“I think the basic question for me is, what benefit does the local community have that we would not have if we shared the facility?” Tursi asked.
Meilleur suggested providing an adequate structure for the essential personnel without regard for the equipment.
“To me, it doesn’t seem practical,” he said, “… just move the equipment outside the bay.”
Meilleur also pointed out that the town has an agreement with Swansboro United Methodist Church. The church will allow the town to use space that is safe for people, that is not too far from town hall, for essential personnel during a major weather event.
Tursi embraced the idea of partnering.
“They want their own place, and I understand that,” he said of the town’s police and fire personnel. But neither the police nor fire departments should answer calls during a storm. And after the storm, the departments should be able to return to the existing building to conduct normal operations. Most importantly, he said, assuming a price tag of $4.75 million, “We are not going to be able to do this through normal tax increases.” He said he would not support spending $4 million without justification.
Commissioner Pat Turner agreed.
“I can’t support that either,” she said. “I think the church is the way we need to go.”
Following the May 24 meeting, Meilleur elaborated on the prospect of moving forward with plans for an EOC.
“I agree that the town should continue with its study to better understand what’s needed if we are to consider a new EOC,” he said. “In an ideal world the town would have a structure that could house firemen and police officers and their related equipment during severe storm events. However, based on projected EOC cost estimates and Swansboro’s ongoing financial imbalance, I have grave doubts if Swansboro can afford anything like what was envisioned. My hope is that this EOC discussion along with a realization that the town has been working at a negative financial position will help force my fellow elected officials and the town itself that we either need to cut services, raise income, or both. Once finances are corrected, perhaps we can truly map out what EOC options are viable.
“I would like to make sure we mention that the town owes a debt of gratitude to the Swansboro United Methodist Church for their very kind offering to allow the town to host a temporary EOC during these strong storm events. It may end up being our best, and only, option.”
Meilleur said the town would be wise to consider “the hut concept” rather than trying to retrofit the current building. In this scenario, a structure could be built offsite and moved to the town to provide safe space for personnel.
But he also said that in previous discussions the other commissioners were less-than-enthusiastic and the fire chief raised concerns about firefighting equipment being out in the weather.
“However, this notion may put the whole EOC concept at risk,” Meilleur said. “Building a big structure with large doors that can support wind loads is very expensive.” And, he added, “I think the ‘people only’ option may be the only financially viable one.”
As far as moving equipment outdoors during a storm, it may be the best way to keep it from being damaged.
Norm Bryson, Onslow County Emergency Services director, said in January that the Bear Creek Fire Department structure is considered inadequate it terms of withstanding high winds. As a result, the county moves its operation and firefighting equipment to Sand Ridge Elementary School.
Meilleur said it is important to look at how other local governments function in times of storms.
“We need to search out what other communities do along the Carolina coast,” he said. “With the current situation, the church’s offer, there seems to be time to safely explore options.”
Commissioner Larry Philpott agreed with that.
“I think it prudent to take a long and careful look at all options before making a decision the townspeople may have to live with for many years to come,” he said. “However, whatever is done, the town needs to be sure it follows a plan that will be the most cost-effective in keeping emergency staff safe during major storms and in protecting emergency equipment that will be needed once an event has passed.”
While establishing an EOC is a pressing concern, Philpott said the cost is also a concern.
“I think it wise to study all options with hopes a consultant will provide some viable options that will also include some palatable construction costs,” he said. The Public Safety Facility, Philpott added, has proven to be vulnerable to major storm events both from a personal safety and equipment protection standpoint. “It’s obvious that until replaced or upgraded it cannot be used as a dependable EOC during major storms and its emergency response contents will always be at risk during these events.”
Tursi said the idea of replacing the Public Safety Facility, at a cost that would likely approach $5 million, is just not feasible.
“I have maintained that we should explore two other options: sharing space in the county’s EOC or building a regional EOC with Cape Carteret and Cedar Point to share the costs,” Tursi said.
He wants the consultant’s report to provide an analysis of the benefits of a local EOC versus a sharing arrangement with the county.
“I can’t support putting that burden on our residents and taxpayers without first being convinced that there are real benefits to public safety and welfare,” Tursi said. “While we figure this out, the Methodist Church has graciously agreed to allow us to use a portion of its building, which structurally meets our standard, as our temporary EOC. If that arrangement works, using the building as our permanent EOC could be another option.”
On that point, Turner agrees.
“At this time, my belief is that we can’t afford to purchase property or build a new EOC,” she said. “The church has been so generous to allow us to use their site should we need to have a EOC. We are open to anything that protects our fire, police and citizens but isn’t so costly.”
Email Jimmy Williams at email@example.com.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the July 14, 2021, Tideland News.