Daryl Turlington has lived in eastern North Carolina his whole life and has seen plenty of hurricanes blast through.  “Florence is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said the 30-year-old Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center physician assistant. “There’s widespread destruction. You see houses that have been cut in half, downed trees on nearly every street.”  

“The difference between Florence and other hurricanes is how long Florence stuck around,” he said. “We’ve had days of rain, which has limited our recovery efforts.”  

He knows firsthand. Turlington was to have been part of the post-storm relief team to relieve Brunswick team members who’d been on duty during the hurricane. But flood waters render area roads impassable. The relief team couldn’t get to the hospital. And those on-duty since the hurricane made landfall couldn’t leave. Brunswick’s Medical Director of Novant Health Inpatient Care Specialists, Dr. Lawrence Mason, was among them. He spent eight straight nights at the hospital, Turlington said. 

Novant Health’s manager of emergency preparedness, Matthew Merritt, worked in the system command center. “Many hospital team members went days without relief,” he said. “The team that was ready to provide relief – many of them – lived in evacuation zones.” 

But, Turlington stayed behind. He’s worked during and after hurricanes and figured he could be useful. After being housebound for a couple of days, Turlington ventured out with a friend, a New Hanover County school administrator, to visit Wilmington’s John T. Hoggard High School, which had been converted into a temporary shelter. 

Other county shelters were taking on water in the hurricane’s aftermath; the evacuees who’d been sheltered at those locations were consolidated at Hoggard. Turlington estimates more than 600 people were housed at the school at the peak of the disaster. When he was there, 550 remained. 

While Hoggard was supposed to be a shelter for a general population, around 20 had acute medical needs. And all onsite staff were working at maximum capacity.  

Some evacuees had fled without medication they needed. Some elderly patients with COPD were having shortness of breath. Others were dehydrated and needed fluid. “When I see a need, I try to meet it,” Turlington said. He got to work – and called for backup. 

He rounded on the patients who needed the most urgent care and got an emergency supply of medications the evacuees needed. Turlington, who had just chanced upon the situation, stayed to help. 

Since then, he’s been hopscotching between locations where he’s needed – one day at his regular job as a hospitalist at Brunswick Medical Center, the next in Burgaw, a town near Wilmington that’s seen some of the worst flooding. On Saturday, Turlington drove his Jeep on I-40, which had previously been impassable, to reach Burgaw. State troopers helped motorists navigate; there was still a foot-and-a-half of standing water in spots on the interstate.  

Once there, he found a fully functioning emergency department had been set up in a Family Dollar parking lot. The place, which treated about 300 patients that day, was being operated by another hospital network; Turlington was there to pitch in – just as he had at Hoggard High. 

Back in Winston-Salem, Merritt was trying to deploy staff from across the state to meet the urgent needs of evacuees at several shelters and hospitals in the affected area and well beyond.  Also, Novant Health team members from the Piedmont region of North Carolina have been making their way to eastern North Carolina to fill in for clinical staff who needed a break after working for days on end without a break. 

Taking to the skies 

In Winston-Salem, Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum housed hundreds of evacuees from the Wilmington and Jacksonville area. Novant Health sent physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other trained staff. Novant also sent team members to support the state’s hard-shelled mobile emergency department in Deep Run, N.C. 

A shelter at Wilmington’s Codington Elementary being staffed by people from a number of hospital systems needed backup. Merritt was asked to supply two people from his home team – a physician assistant and a nurse – to assist with this population, many of whom are elderly and in need of constant care. 

He determined it wasn’t safe for them to drive; flood waters were still too high. “With conditions as bad as they were, we had been told it could’ve taken ten hours for them to drive to Wilmington – and there was no guarantee they could access the shelter once they got near.” 

“Is there a way we can fly them there?” he asked. 

There was. Someone on the response team knew of an Army helicopter bound from Salisbury, N.C. to the coast. There were two open seats.   

Merritt was working not just with his own team; this was a coordinated effort with The American Red Cross, state and federal authorities and other healthcare systems. Out-of-state resources were involved, too. All told, 23 states sent staff to help with recovery. “This was a massive effort,” he said. 

The need continues. And so do the efforts of Novant Health. Team members and the community in Bolivia, N.C. near Brunswick Medical are still responding to the impact of the storm and will be for some time.  

Merritt’s job means he’s always in the moment but also thinking several steps ahead. In fact, he’s already considering the next hurricane. “The climatologists tell us to be ready for stronger hurricanes. We are already hearing that just on the coast, Florence impacted 11,000 more homes than would have been affected in the 1970’s,” he said. “Our state response systems are robust, and are aimed at our changing hazards, but they can only provide so much protection, we need to heed warnings and prepare.” 

“We need to be ready for the next storm,” he said.