A cautious approach to a dangerous hurricane is costing Virginia almost $60 million.
Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne estimated Monday morning that the state will pay $59.8 million for safety measures taken under unprecedented orders to evacuate low-lying areas and open state emergency shelters as Hurricane Florence aimed for the Atlantic Coast more than a week ago.
Although, until Monday, the massive storm generally had spared Virginia while pummeling the Carolinas, Layne reminded the House Appropriations Committee, “A week ago at this time, we were right in the crosshairs.”
Layne said he hopes to reduce the net cost to the state by shifting resources to help North and South Carolina, which have been devastated by high winds, storm surge and massive rainfall from Florence since it reached the Atlantic Coast early Friday.
Layne explained that diverting contractors hired by the state to the Carolinas also would pass the cost of those services to the states that benefit from them. Ultimately, he expects the federal government to reimburse up to 75 percent of the state’s costs, but not anytime soon.
House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, commended Gov. Ralph Northam and his administration for taking a cautious approach to the storm and said the state’s new cash reserve could help pay for safety measures.
“It was the right thing,” Jones said.
Virginia spent most of the money to operate emergency shelters and activate search-and-rescue teams. The state operated shelters at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, with Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond as a reserve.
The state spent $32 million to operate the shelters around the clock for a week. It spent about $20 million to mobilize two urban search-and-rescue teams. The remaining $7.8 million included $2.2 million for mobilizing the Department of Military Affairs and $1.9 million for other state agencies.
On Monday, the head of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management stood by the decision to order evacuations in low-lying coastal areas early last week. Even though the storm veered south, it could have gone the other way, said VDEM State Coordinator Jeff Stern.
“The inconvenience of evacuating inland and then going home is far better than dying from storm surge or the winds,” Stern said.
Stern said the department will be reviewing its response in the weeks ahead, including a possible study of traffic patterns to get an estimate of how many of the 245,000 people in the evacuation zone heeded the order to leave.
For a sense of what could’ve happened here, Stern said Virginians can look to scenes of flooding in the Carolinas. Because Hampton Roads is more densely populated, a similar situation in coastal Virginia would be “really bad,” he said.
“We got lucky this time,” Stern said. “We might not next time.”