School district makes weather decisions with lots of caution

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 9/13/19

A school district’s choices when inclement weather hits are pretty simple: a delay, closing or early release. But how that decision is made is far from simple, and for Chatham County Schools, Dorian provided a perfect example.

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School district makes weather decisions with lots of caution

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Posted

PITTSBORO — “Dorian and its rain bands have exited central North Carolina.”

The voice on the National Weather Service’s late Friday morning webinar was music to Derrick Jordan’s ears.

“Hallelujah,” he said. “It’s a beautiful day.”

The webinar closed the NWS’ regular updates on Hurricane Dorian, and with it, Chatham County Schools no longer had to worry about the storm affecting the district’s operating schedule.

A school district’s choices when inclement weather hits are pretty simple: a delay, closing or early release. But how that decision is made is far from simple, and for Chatham County Schools, Dorian provided a perfect example.

Early on, Jordan said, the district was hearing comparisons made between Dorian and 1996’s Hurricane Fran, which dropped up to 16 inches of rain in North Carolina, killed at least six people and left 1.3 million people without power. Couple that with early images from Dorian’s rampage in the Bahamas, where at least 43 people have died, and there was concern.

“You hear and see what a storm like Dorian did elsewhere,” Jordan said. “In the back of your head you’re wondering, ‘Is that potentially going to be us?’ There’s always the potential. That’s the most concerning piece of it. None of us have training in meteorology, so we have to rely on those experts.”

Those experts include the folks at the NWS, the N.C. Dept. of Transportation and local law enforcement and emergency management officials.

Last Thursday, when the district ended classes two hours early, Jordan said the forecast made it appear that students possibly could have been in class the whole day.

“What scared everybody was the statement that, ‘If it shifts, then things could deteriorate,’” he said. “We thought that it was prudent to simply identify the earliest point that they thought something could happen and try to get everybody off the road ahead of that.”

The superintendent said officials also communicate with other districts, like nearby Lee, Durham and Wake counties.

Dorian presented a challenge with its uncertainty. For a while, it looked like it was going to slam Florida, but ended up just scraping by the state. That uncertainty is not foreign to North Carolina, Jordan said.

“Those of us who have been in North Carolina for a while, we know that it can go from zero to 100 in 2.3 seconds,” he said. “And it’s scary.”

So on Thursday at 3:28 p.m., the district posted on its Facebook page that it was going to call for a two-hour delay on Friday.

“This will allow drivers the benefit of daylight to identify any potential road obstructions,” a post on the district’s website said. “It will also provide extra time for the inspection of campuses and to verify projected power restoration at schools with Duke Energy as needed. Should the storm’s track, intensity or impact necessitate a different decision, we will communicate accordingly. Please stay safe.”

Chatham did get some wind and rain. According to Friday’s webinar, the county received 1-2 inches of rain, and Siler City saw the quickest wind gusts at up to 28 miles per hour — notable, but not the kind of weather that causes much damage.

Whether it’s snow or a hurricane, the district does have a routine for making the decision. But each is taken on a case-by-case basis.

“There are no two situations that are the same,” said Keith Medlin, the district’s chief information and technology officer. “It doesn’t matter if we’ve already seen this snow shower before or this is what a Category 2 hurricane looks like. They’re always different.”

The district might not have much time to wait for another evaluation. The NWS webinar closed with a look ahead at more storms. Gabrielle is sitting in the middle of the Atlantic, and another storm has just formed off the western coast of Africa.

There were grumbles emanating from the conference room of Chatham County Schools’ central services building.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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