As glass from Charlotte's high rises rained down on uptown streets 20 years ago, emergency-response managers faced a hard decision.
Big banks and other businesses wanted to get back to work after Hurricane Hugo passed. Emergency officials, worried that employees would get hit by flying glass, wanted to shut down uptown.
But the conflict wouldn't happen now, said Wayne Broome, Charlotte-Mecklenburg's emergency management director.
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Today, emergency responders could more quickly assess the structural damage, he said, and would have a keener sense of private-sector needs. Advance agreements among jurisdictions, meanwhile, has cut the red tape that can stall quick responses.
"It used to be that when you needed help the first thing out of somebody's mouth was liability, who's going to pay, how we will be compensated?" Broome said. "Now that's all addressed in these agreements."
Better communications and planning are among the reasons Broome says Mecklenburg, facing a Hugo-like storm today, might operate its Emergency Operations Center for only half the 12 days it did in 1989. That's despite a county population 75 percent larger than during Hugo.
Duke Energy, whose workers spent up to 18 days restoring power to nearly 700,000 Carolinas customers after Hugo, makes no advance promises.
Duke spent $70 million on Hugo, replacing 8,800 poles, 6,308 transformers and 700 miles of wire and cable. But a 2002 ice storm (1.3 million Carolinas outages) and Hurricane Ike's visit to the Midwest last September (nearly 1.1 million outages) put more people in the dark.
Since its 2006 merger with Ohio-based Cinergy, Duke can now draw repair workers from the Carolinas and three Midwestern states. It also has 28 mutual-aid agreements with other utilities in the Southeast and Great Lakes states.
The utility has centralized planning to help ensure the hardest-hit areas get attention first. It also has installed technology that lets customers report outages by phone and watch the progress of repairs online.
But assessing damage, and fixing it, still requires deploying armies of workers. And while utility lines are commonly buried for new subdivisions and development, officials say it would be far too expensive to bury above-ground lines across the region.
"When you look at the restoration itself - boots on the ground - not much has changed," said Sandra Meyer, Duke's senior vice president for power delivery. "The single biggest thing that will change our business is smart grid."
Duke plans to invest $1 billion over the next five years in digital communications and infrastructure improvements - called smart grid - that will help minimize outages and respond to them more quickly.
The technology proved its worth recently in Hendersonville, where it's being tested. "Self-healing" sensors detected a faulty circuit and rerouted power around damaged lines, preventing an outage for 1,500 people.
Among local governments, disaster planning evolves gradually - benefiting from the lessons learned from Hugo, floods and ice storms. The changes in Charlotte-Mecklenburg range from basic - agreements to speak plain English when agencies collaborate - to high-tech.
New computer software now gives Mecklenburg and 10 surrounding counties online updates of closed roads, open shelters, hospital status and other information. A reverse-911 system can alert residents to when power will be restored or debris collected.
Computer programs also speed the work of the American Red Cross, whose Greater Carolinas Chapter is based in Charlotte. The chapter has available about 64 emergency facilities in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, and can muster some 300 volunteers in an emergency.
Coordinators can consult a national database that shows how many emergency shelters are open, how they're equipped and how many people they house.
Twenty years ago, said Rick Schou, the chapter's emergency services director, "it was paper and phone calls.
"Now you have systems like the Web's Emergency Operations Center to track resources, human and material, instead of sitting around a table with a message form and having a runner come get it and give it to somebody sitting across the room."
Charlotte has also taken steps since Hugo to better deal with a problem that seemed to hit us all: fallen and damaged trees. The city's landscape-management crews, which labored for months to clean up Hugo's tree debris, would now contract out much of the work.
Current contracts now let the city change duties from pruning to cleanup work, said city arborist Don McSween, who held the same job during the Hugo recovery.
"You can tell everybody," said McSween, "I finally caught up on my sleep."