The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged storm watchers not to fly drones in Hurricane Florence disaster areas, warning they could jeopardize emergency response efforts.
Emergency operations teams across the Carolinas have numerous aviation assets prepositioned to engage in search and rescue missions, emergency evacuations, logistics and other types of missions. Those efforts could be put at risk if the skies are crowded with drones.
"Don't fly drones in disaster areas. If you do, rescue helicopters will have a difficult time operating," Cooper said at a Friday afternoon press briefing. "We don't want people to fly these drones and put peoples' lives and property at risk."
The Federal Aviation Authority issued a statement this week restricting drone operators to an altitude of 200 feet and below while operating in North and South Carolina. That restriction only applies to individuals flying in support of hurricane response efforts.
More generally, the FAA wants all other drone operators to avoid all disaster areas so they will not interfere with first responders' activities, an FAA spokesperson said Friday.
Any drone operator that disrupts emergency response efforts or unauthorized flights will result in serious fines exceeding $20,000 and civil penalties.
"Many aircraft that are conducting life-saving missions and other critical response and recovery efforts are likely to be flying at low altitudes over areas affected by the storm," the FAA stated. "Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference."
Drone operators who want to support Hurricane Florence response and recovery operations are encouraged to coordinate with local authorities. They must also contact the FAA's System Operations Support Center.
North Carolina currently has "a significant amount of aviation assets" prepositioned and ready to fly as soon as conditions are safe, said Michael Sprayberry, the state's emergency management director.
In addition to state resources, the Department of Defense has prepositioned seven helicopters at Fort Bragg, N.C. to assist with search and rescue and recovery missions. The Pentagon has deployed dozens of aviation assets throughout the southeastern United States, including staging 35 helicopters at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga.