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Downtown Recovery Ongoing, Flooding Still An Issue

By Cece Nunn and Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Sep 19, 2018
The Wilmington Convention Center in downtown Wilmington was one of several businesses that sustained some damage during Hurricane Florence. (Photo by Cece Nunn)
Downtown Wilmington is beginning to make strides in its Hurricane Florence recovery efforts, but residents and businesses along the riverfront are still at risk of flooding, officials said during a city-county briefing Wednesday.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said that the Cape Fear River is expected to rise in downtown Wilmington three or four feet, which will mainly likely affect Water Street, particularly in lower-lying locations such as Chandler's Wharf.

“We want every to stay safe. The aftermath of the storm now is starting to come home to all of us. We know that we’re going to have cresting of the rivers going into next week. So we are going to have some considerable flooding in Wilmington and the downtown area ....,” Saffo said during a city-county briefing.

Residents and businesses, especially along Water Street, are advised to take precautions, he said.

The Wilmington Convention Center on Nutt Street by the Cape Fear River sustained damage in the storm, he said, mainly from water coming in through the roof and doors, but he did not know the extent of it. Crews were evaluating the situation Wednesday.

 "I haven't had a final analysis on that," Saffo said.

Of downtown in general, he said, "We'll know more as they start assessing the damages down there, individual businesses start looking at the damage and what they sustained. I know we had blown-out windows, we had roofs torn off. Cape Fear Hotel is obviously uninhabitable right now . . . that one is definitely going to have to have help from the federal government, from FEMA to get those people temporary housing until such time as the apartment complex is back in operation."

Many of the residents of the Cape Fear Hotel, which provides affordable housing to people ages 62 and older at 121 Chestnut St., were at the county shelter at Hoggard High School. 

In the city update, Saffo said that 80 percent of the city's street-clearing is now complete, with the removal of debris starting Monday, if not sooner.

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White joined President Donald Trump and federal officials at Cherry Point on Wednesday in a discussion about the storm, while other county officials held a media briefing at 11:45 a.m. at the county government complex in Wilmington.

"To all of our residents who are currently evacuated, we know you want to come home; we want you to come home. That being said, we are asking you to stay where you are if you can," County Manager Chris Coudriet said during the briefing. "The routes into New Hanover County are continually changing and there is limited access. There is a way in and out of our community on some of our small roadways, but these roads cannot sustain interstate-level traffic. We’re doing our best to only run essential supplies, energy crews and emergency responders on these routes at this particular time."

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein sent a notice to Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous saying that the N.C. Department of Justice's main concern is price gouging.

The targets have been gas and water for the most part so far.

“We are getting more fuel trucks into the community. You can start seeing more gas stations opening up," Saffo said of the city's gas situation.

Traffic signals are also becoming operational, including the busy intersection of College Road and Oleander Drive.

Saffo also advised in-town residents to begin picking up their vehicles from the city parking decks.

“For those residents that are still out of town, the city will continue to allow your vehicle to be stowed with no charges until you can safely return. And I know we have a lot of people that still want to get back and we still have this situation with our roads,” Saffo said.

Terry Espy, president of MoMentum Companies and president of the board of the Downtown Business Alliance of Wilmington, said that few businesses she has been in contact with in downtown Wilmington have experienced major damages. But she also worries downtown flooding may be an issue.

“We’re still a little nervous about the tidal flooding downtown…. It looks like we could see some tidal flooding over the next day or so,” she said. “But that’s as bad as it's getting downtown; we are very grateful.”

Downtown residences were mainly impacted by falling trees and structural damage, while commercial buildings also had some structural issues and leaking. Businesses and residents, however, have banded together to support, she said.

One local downtown business owner has helped gather a group to help supply the area's recovery efforts. And short-term rentals downtown have been supporting some traveling nurses, contractors, and others coming in from all over the nation to help the Port City in recovery efforts, she said, adding that some are giving discounts to nonprofits coming to town.

"I am really impressed with the short-term rental people. There's not been anybody price gouging," she said. "It's been very rewarding to see what the community has been doing."

At least two of the area's waterfront hotels have gained power, and are recovering from the storm with little damages.

Brooks Johnson, director of development for Harmony Investments Inc., the developer of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Wilmington Riverfront, said the hotel's power was restored at about 6 p.m. Monday. The hotel had been without power since Friday, he said.

Hotel staff members were working to make rooms rentable Wednesday morning. Electrical and all of the mechanical systems were functioning normally, he said.

The hotel can serve walk-in customers, as long as there are rooms that are safe and available, Johnson said.  And reservations will resume Friday. The hotel’s rooftop bar, Cloud 9, did suffer some damage but should be open “within the week,” he said.

“Although some business has been lost, for such a devastating storm, it appears that the Embassy Suites will emerge without major damages,” Johnson said.

“We did have some food spoilage. But all in all, it's not bad. It could have been worse. It could have been much worse," he added.

Parts of the region were still coping with current and anticipated major flooding, including Pender County, on Wednesday.

In downtown Wilmington, The Hotel Ballast was also without power from Friday morning until Monday evening, officials said. The hotel was able to serve customers during the hurricane and continues to do so with limited services.

"We were very lucky and sustained minimal damage," a representative of the hotel said.
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