Hurricane Florence might have become Tropical Storm Florence but there was no downgrading the impact it had. The weather system that, at last count, had killed at least 18 people, trapped hundreds more and made parts of the Carolinas impassable, had stalled out over North Carolina and as late as Monday, was expected to dump another two to five inches of rain on the already saturated area.
Sports events might have been the least of residents’ worries, but they felt a profound impact. Earlier in the week, USA TODAY noted that multiple Minor League Baseball games as well as college football games scheduled for the area, had been cancelled, moved, postponed or rescheduled. High school sports went by the wayside as schools closed and many families moved or were evacuated to safe areas in advance of the storm.
Some long-awaited events were able to be held. In Cary, the Atlantic Tire Championships at the Cary Tennis Park had to undergo hour-by-hour evaluations and scheduled changes as organizers struggled to track the storm and squeeze in matches. (The event eventually concluded successfully, but not without multiple alterations to the time frame.)
Others didn’t fare as well. In Raleigh, the NC State Horse Show had to be cancelled as did multiple events, such as 5Ks, across the state.
But right in the eye of the storm – and the sports event world – was the biggest international event of all: the World Equestrian Games. And despite the fact that the WEG action was located west and inland in Tryon, North Carolina, organizers were making contingency plans for the quadrennial event long before the storm hit, as early as September 11.
The weather ultimately proved disastrous but it wasn’t the only problem. On the opening day, athletes were misdirected at the start of the endurance ride, leaving International Equestrian Federation (FEI) officials with no choice but to halt the action after the first loop. The event was restarted but heat, humidity and heavy rain eventually forced a postponement, then ultimately, a cancellation of the entire endurance event. Another casualty of the storm was the freestyle dressage competition. Show jumping was rescheduled for another day.
Some horses and riders were forced to leave without competing, an experience that, given the challenges to roadways and airline schedules, brought their own set of logistical problems.
“This was not an easy decision,” Tryon 2018 organizing committee president Michael Stone said in a statement that was picked up by Reuters. “But we have explored every option, including trying to reschedule the horse departures, and even looking at moving the competition into the indoor with a change of footing, but the logistics of making all this happen are just not possible. The weather has simply left us with no choice.”
Monday’s weather forecast included a flash flood warning for the entire Tryon area. Conditions, however, were expected to improve dramatically on Tuesday, and it was hoped the competition would be able to go on after that without additional disruption.
No hurricane is ever welcome but for an international event that involved the biggest commercial airlift of equestrian athletes in the world (among the numbers: 23 special flights, 500 horses and 70 countries of origin), the timing and placement of this storm could not have been worse. The event, scheduled to run on a precise schedule between the 11th and the 23rd, had originally been expecting an attendance of 400,000 – but with road access from coastal areas cut off and many individuals leery of the storm, that too suffered.
Beyond Tryon, other North Carolina event organizers were working to balance safety with scheduling – and safety was winning out. Greensboro’s Park and Rec Department cancelled athletic activities throughout the weekend. A major national women's water ski event, the third annual SportsInsurance.com Queen's Cup, which was scheduled to take place September 15 and 16 at Little Mountain Farms near Charlotte, was postponed until October 6 and 7 due to the hurricane as well.
The storm, while devastating to some areas, spared others.
Visit Winston-Salem’s Bonny Bernat said her city was lucky, adding “We’re doing good in central NC but obviously our friends in the east and on the coast didn’t fare so well. We are actually mobilizing our state association to reach out with assistance to those communities.”
Many communities did not sustain lasting damage but were ready to reach out to those that did, offering hotel rooms, hospitals and other resources. The Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, included a special landing page on their website with information on accommodations.
Scott Dupree, Executive Director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance (GRSA)Raleigh/Wake County, issued a statement on behalf of his organization, saying, “Raleigh/Wake County, North Carolina, was mostly unaffected by Hurricane Florence, which passed through our area of the state over the weekend. At this time, our airport is fully -operational with on-time arrivals and departures. In addition, most of the major roads within the Raleigh area are also safe to drive on. Our hospitality community stands ready to welcome first responders, evacuees and visitors with open arms. In fact, many of our restaurants are donating a portion of their proceeds to help with relief efforts. We do not take for granted just how lucky we were here in Raleigh/Wake County, and our thoughts are with those communities within the state which need help most. The N.C. Disaster Relief Fund is also currently accepting contributions for Hurricane Florence damage; contributions will help with immediate unmet needs of Hurricane Florence victims and can be made online or by texting “Florence” to 20222. Together, North Carolina will get through this.”
Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority’s director of communications, Laura Hill White, stated, “No major and/or national sporting events were canceled; we’re in good shape in Charlotte for the most part. We had about 10 inches of rain, some flash flooding and downed trees/power lines. The eastern side of the state has fared much worse. Top Gun Sports, North Carolina NSA, and USSSA (local based baseball and softball groups) all had to cancel events. These organizations run almost every weekend of the year from February through November and often get rained out by inclement weather.”
Alamance County’s DMO, The Cities and Villages of Alamance County, took a tourism hit – but not in sports. “Our 31st annual Carousel Festival was cancelled over the weekend,” noted Amy Love. But the bureau staff is fine as well as our building.”
"We’re doing well, and the weather has cleared up in Cabarrus County," said Julie Hinson, TMP, communications manager for the Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau in Concord, North Carolina. "As for Hurricane Florence’s impact on Cabarrus County, there were approximately 13 groups that cancelled over the weekend (primarily corporate/association or SMERF groups, and most of these events will rebook). Frank Liske Park lost one soccer tournament and one softball tournament. They cannot reschedule due to availability. Frank Liske Park also had to cancel their annual Pow Wow Event."
Coastal areas, as might be expected, bore the brunt of the storm. A notice on the website for Wilmington and Beaches CVB noted the area was still in a state of emergency with no road access, and earlier in the week, a curfew was in effect.
As you are aware, our area was impacted by Hurricane Florence when it came ashore last week," said Kim Hufham, President/CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches CVB. "We are in the process of reaching out to meeting hotels and sports facilities regarding their status as key management personnel are beginning to return to their offices. Once we are able to reach our partners to assess the situation, we will be better informed to answer specific questions about meetings and events. We are already seeing many positive signs of recovery in Wilmington and Island Beaches. Bridges to our beaches are open, we are getting many positive reports of power being restored and cleanup efforts well underway, and businesses are preparing to reopen throughout Wilmington and the surrounding beaches. We have confirmed that the Wilmington Convention Center is planning to be back up and running by Oct. 1. We remain confident that Wilmington and Island beaches willrecover quickly because our tourism community is #ILMstrong. We look forward to putting our best foot forward again, hopefully sooner than you may think."
CNN’s weather report was continuing to track the storm, which was moving north at 13 mph, whipping 30 mph winds. Mountainous parts of southern Virginia were at risk for flooding, mudslides and landslides due to Florence's heavy rains on Monday, and the storm was expected to move north through the Charlottesville, Virginia, area before heading toward the Ohio Valley, hitting West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. After that, its trajectory would take it into the Northeast, where areas from Northern Pennsylvania through central New York towards Boston could see heavy rainfall.
Destinations in other states were impacted and still more rushed to help. The Visit Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) website carried a banner noting the impact of the storm on its own roads and urged caution to those traveling in. Myrtle Beach golf courses, spared the worst of Hurricane Florence’s wrath, were welcoming players back to the game’s most popular destination. As of Wednesday morning, 45 area courses were open and that number was expected to rise to 69 by Friday, according to the website, MytleBeachGolfHoliday.
In Hampton Roads, Virginia, all events scheduled for the Hampton Roads Convention Center were cancelled for the weekend. In South Carolina, all coastal destinations were ordered to evacuate, although by Monday, restrictions had been lifted. Visit Greenville’s website offered a special landing section for those who needed lodging, including pet-friendly options.
Charitable organizations sprang into action, offering assistance to people (and animals) impacted by the storm. USA TODAY published this list, which includes ways to donate. (One note: The American Red Cross has stated that because of the storm, more than 150 blood drives in the area had to be cancelled, so blood donations have become necessary.)
SDM thanks its destination partners in and around North Carolina for providing updates for this article.