Hurricane Florence
The inside of the Chapel Hill store is nearly cleared of merchandise after the store was flooded.

Chad Pickens, manager of our Chapel Hill shop, managed to carve time from navigating his shop through Hurricane Florence to do a gear review.

“For 30-minute periods throughout the night I was able to sleep like a baby,” says Chad, who spent those 30-minute intervals Sunday night into Monday morning tucked atop the Helinox Cot Lite.

That product endorsement is especially impressive considering that in between those cat naps, Chad was a one-man weather center, monitoring radar as well as the online stream-flow gauge for Booker Creek, which actually runs underneath Wild Birds Unlimited, located just a few doors down in Chapel Hill’s Eastgate Crossing. In addition, Chad was dashing outside during the wind and rain to check the storm drain in front of the store and the spot where Booker Creek emerges from the shopping center out back.

“Around 10 p.m., I almost went home because it was looking pretty good,” says Chad. “But there was this one little weird cell on the radar. It looked like it was going to swing to the west and miss us. But on the off chance that it didn’t, I thought I better stay.”

Hurricane Florence
As clothes are loaded into into the back of a U-Haul, Chuck Millsaps works the cell phone.

Should I stay or should I go?

So he did, and good thing, too. Sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., Chad checked another stream-flow gauge, for Bolin Creek, which Booker feeds into a half mile downstream, and noticed an alarming spike. That’s when he began what would evolve into a 14-hour evacuation of the store, starting with moving the electronic nerve center of the store, the check-out stand, to higher ground. (If it seems like Chad is well-versed in municipal drainage issues, that’s because he co-chairs the Chapel Hill Stormwater Management Utility Advisory Board.)

Hurricane Florence
Clothes from the store head into storage five miles up the road in Durham.

Trouble didn’t begin in earnest until around 8 a.m., when Chad noticed water burbling up from the storm drain in the parking lot out front. “Within 10 minutes it reached the curb, in another 10 minutes it had crossed the sidewalk and reached the front door, and 10 minutes after that it was about two feet up the front door.” About 9 inches managed to seep past sandbags and flood the floor of the store.

After nearly a week of preparation for Florence, an odd detour to the south made it appear Chapel Hill would avoid the brunt of hurricane. Up until Sunday evening, Chapel Hill only received about 3 inches of rain. That compares to the 24 inches that fell in Wilmington and a slightly smaller amount that fell in Greenville. Neither of our stores in those communities were damaged.

Break out the kayaks

But the 6 inches that would fall in a 24-hour period Sunday into Monday overwhelmed the area’s creeks and rivers, creating Class III streams down alleyways and lakes such as the one that inundated our shop.

Hurricane Florence
Store Manager Chad Pickens, left, GOPC President Chuck Millsaps, right, and two CareMaster representatives confer on the next step.

Fortunately, the flood waters receded about as rapidly as they rose. By 11 a.m. the clean-up was underway, a cleanup that involved a cross-section of the Great Outdoor family. An all-hands email sent by Chad to store employees brought about a dozen sales associates and managers. Three members of the ownership team were on hand, as were a smattering of other staff and family members, about two dozen in all.

A small amount of merchandise got wet and was deemed flood damaged (distressed clothing sale starts Wednesday – 9/19/18). A bigger initial concern was getting the dry clothes out of the store before mildew set in. To that end, Great Outdoor President/Minister of Culture Chuck Millsaps contacted a U-Haul storage facility about five miles up US 15-501, in Durham. The good news: they had one truck and three climate-controlled storage units left. The bad: flood waters were 10 feet from their front door. Better hurry.

Hurricane Florence
High tide came around 11 a.m.

Chuck did. As he was pulling into the parking lot, his phone rang. It was an apologetic U-Haul dispatcher from central command telling him the facility was closed. Standing in the office by now, Chuck said, “I don’t think so. I’m in the office.”

“Oh,” replied the surprised dispatcher. “Can I speak to the manager then?”

The evacuation begins

By 1 p.m. the store was quickly being emptied. As five industrial fans and five dehumidifiers from CareMaster whirred away inside, staffers boxed fleece jackets and sportswear as quickly as possible. Some gear simply remained on the wheeled display racks and was rolled out the door and lifted onto the awaiting 24-foot truck. It took two runs to the climate-controlled storage facility to empty the store of clothing. Pizza came and was consumed, bottled water and Gatorade disappeared from a cooler out front. Hoses fed out the front door, draining the store of remaining puddles of water. By 5 p.m., the front portion of the store was deserted; only kayaks and camping gear remained in the back.

“We’re really lucky to have such a great crew,” Chuck said as the day’s operation came to a close. “I don’t know how we would have gotten this done otherwise.”

Hurricane Florence
Where are the hats & boxers? Oh, here they are.

When will the store reopen?

“I’m hoping we can do a flood sale soon,” said Chuck. Some of the clothing will be donated to Hurricane Florence relief efforts. When she wasn’t helping to pack boxes, Vice President of Retail Support Molly Cherry was overseeing efforts to take the lightly damaged goods out of inventory and make them available for sale or donation.

As for an overall reopening, that will depend upon an assessment Tuesday by CareMaster, which helps businesses through disaster recovery, of the flooring. Great Outdoor has been in the Eastgate location for 12 years, and no one is quite sure what lies beneath the store’s signature 1” x 6” plank flooring. 

Then there’s the matter of that unique plank flooring itself, which helps give Great Outdoor Provision’s nine stores their comfortable, lodge-like feel.

“I’m guessing,” said Chuck, “that there aren’t a lot of places that have this kind of flooring just lying around but North Carolina has a quite a few lumber yards that we’ve used in the past.  One thing that we have in abundance  are folks like those who showed up today to help with this clean-up.  We are very fortunate.”

Hurricane Florence
We’ll be back open this week …