Monday, June 17, 2013

After Hurricane Devastation, NC Town Turns To Solar Power, Other Innovative Solutions

By The Raleigh Telegram
ORIENTAL, NC – After Hurricane Irene devastated the small town of Oriental almost two years ago and flooded homes, businesses, and even the town hall, the Town of Oriental has rebuilt its municipal offices using some innovative solutions. The new structure will not only help prevent damage to vital town records and hopefully eliminate costly repairs in the event of flooding, but will also save money on electricity in the meantime.
In 2012, Hurricane Irene passed directly over Pamlico County and devastated the area. Right on the edge of the Neuse River near New Bern, boats in Oriental were tossed like toys, houses were under water or in some cases totally destroyed, roads were washed out, and areas received flooding that traditionally did not see damage in previous hurricanes.
Even the local fire station had water coming inside of its engine bays despite being located far from the water’s edge. Their main generator went out due to the heavy rains, causing them to rely on a small portable Honda generator to power their radio system.
The town’s municipal building flooded and several feet of water entered the structure, leaving city workers to try and save maps and other vital records by drying them out on chairs. As power lines were blown down by Hurricane Irene’s strong winds, the town was without electricity for several days. Since the local police department is also housed in the town hall, there was no “operations center” that had power.
As The Raleigh Telegram reported first hand, the town was pretty much cut off from the rest of the world by the river and the scores of fallen electric poles that fell across the main road into town. The fire department communicated to those in town by a loudspeaker on a fire truck driving through the streets and handed out bags of ice and food to those stuck in the area.
Oriental Town Hall town manager Robert Maxbauer started working for the town after Hurricane Irene hit, but said he had to deal with the after effects. Even today, many visual reminders of the hurricane can still be seen in the area such as boats still lying where they washed up in yards almost two years ago and reconstruction of some homes still underway.
Maxbauer said that the community should be proud of the way everyone came together and helped each other out during the Hurricane Irene disaster but he hopes that some changes to the town hall will help make it easier to deal with the next extreme weather event.
In a recent visit to Oriental, Maxbauer showed off the recently rebuilt town hall that features extra innovations that were added with minimal expense.
Maxbauer said that the new building was raised several feet, uses solar power for heating, has a backup generator, water grates at each entranceway, a bilge pump, internal wall blowers to dry out the internal walls, and special masonry construction to keep out the water.
Unlike the town hall during Hurricane Irene which was basically useless until it dried out, Maxbauer said the new town hall would be the center of action to restore normalcy to the town in the event of another hurricane.
Beginning the tour, Maxbauer showed how the town hall was raised several feet from the ground, keeping the main part of the building above water for all but the most catastrophic of events.
Even if water does rise to the level of the building, Maxbauer said there are features built into the town hall to deal with that contingency as well. As he opened up the doors leading into the building, he pointed out a grate on the floor that covers a wide area inside of each entranceway. In the event that water comes into the building, these grates will allow the water to drain away from the inside of the building to underneath it.
Not unlike the sailing boats which Oriental is famous for, the building has a bilge pump that will pump away the water from the collection area at the bottom of the building after it drains down from the grates.
The outside wall of the building is made of 100% solid masonry materials for several feet up, which will keep the external walls from being soaked and retaining water, which would be the case if they were made of wood.
Inside the building, if the water manages to reach the internal sheetrock walls, they have a removable air vent at the top of each building. The town employees can flip a switch and turn on blowers inside the wall that will blow out the moisture and also insert an additive that will prevent mold, said Maxbauer.
In the event that the power goes out, the town has installed its own large generator. Unlike the generator that was located at the fire station, the town hall generator is raised on a platform several feet off the ground. In addition, all electrical connections outside the building are several feet off the ground as well.
Perhaps the most innovative feature seen at the new town is a solar heating system installed on the roof of the building. The sun heats up a liquid solution in the solar panels during the day, raising it to a temperature of over 100 degrees within the tubes. The tubes collect in a storage tank that is located outside of the building where the heat energy can be stored.
Maxbauer says that in the winter, the solar-generated heat can be used to keep the building warm and reduce electricity costs. It also can be used in the summertime as a sort of thermal vent to reduce the heat entering the building. The liquid is stored during the day after being heated on the roof and then recirculated to the top of the building at night to release the heat energy. This keeps the roof of the building from getting too hot and therefore cuts down on air-conditioning costs, says Maxbauer.
As an added bonus, the town saves on labor and materials costs in the winter, as the sidewalks out front can be heated using the system, eliminating the need to scrape away ice or put down salt.
Using town maintenance workers and doing much of the work on their own, the town managed to implement these changes at a minimal costs. Maxbauer says the entire budget was under $300,000 and that the entire project has been paid for without having to raise property taxes or issue bonds, which could be costly.
Maxbauer says there were “naysayers” who did oppose the project but added that the town will not have to rebuild the town hall every time a large storm passes through, making the changes pay off even more in the long run.
After decades of working in management and public service, he is leaving this year to enjoy all that the town has to offer in his retirement, but says he is happy with the new building and the way the town has recovered from Hurricane Irene. Maxbauer said he hopes he has helped in some small part to contribute to that recovery.
“I’m leaving the town with a new town hall, a new police car, and more money in the general fund than when I arrived,” said Maxbauer. ”In the next hurricane, the town hall can be the center of the recovery instead of trying to recover from the storm themselves.” ::