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The Future After Flo

By Cece Nunn, posted Sep 21, 2018
In the days after Hurricane Florence’s landfall, workers spread out to clear fallen trees blocking major roadways, such as this one above on Market Street. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
Hurricane Florence will go down in history as a disaster that tested the ability of a hurricane-prone region to cope.
 
In some cases, emergency preparations were, and are, being pushed to their very limits. And it’s likely businesses, service providers, local governments and residents will be dealing with the aftermath for weeks and months to come.
 
Even before Hurricane Florence made landfall, officials were predicting a lengthy recovery.
 
“The message we’re getting from everyone is that this is going to be a major event that’s going to last a long time,” said U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-NC.
 
Despite its downgraded Category 1 hurricane status (from a potential Category 4) when it made landfall Sept. 14 near Wrightsville Beach, the storm hit hard, with record-breaking winds and rainfall leading to flooding that had not reached its peak as of press time.
 
A number of deaths have been attributed to the storm, with more possible because of the flooding and additional hazards. Fears about the future were high in the hours after Florence made landfall, when at one point even water service in the city of Wilmington seemed in peril. Officials were warning residents who had fled not to come back until receiving the all-clear.
 
Three days after Florence rolled in, though, power was beginning to be restored in parts of the area, and the community was already looking to what the future might hold.
 

WILMINGTON, DISRUPTED
 

In a previous study by experts at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, research showed that one of the largest economic impacts that can be caused by a hurricane is the lost productivity from the disruption caused by storm preparations, said Adam Jones, regional economist at UNCW.
 
Some Florence preparation by area companies and residents started early and was frenzied because the hurricane was at one point a Category 4 storm, with winds up to 156 mph.
 
Of Hurricane Florence’s economic impact in general, “This storm will be considerably more costly.
 
If we look at other storm samples, the storm will displace activity from now to the future and reshape spending as people repair homes rather than spend on consumption and fun expenditures,” Jones said.
 
While many stayed, many other employees at Wilmington-area companies headed out of town before the storm came ashore. A couple days after Florence’s landfall, those who had fled were concerned about how they would get back to the Wilmington area, with many roads impassable and others potentially susceptible to becoming impassable as a result of additional flooding.
 
Members of the business community were predicting the need for time and patience long before Florence’s strike.
 
“We are hopeful that impacts will be minimal for you personally and professionally, but know that getting our business community back to normal may take days or weeks,” wrote Natalie English, president and CEO of Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, in a president’s report Sept. 13.
 
Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, said Sept. 17 that it was natural for people to be worried about what the economy will look like in the wake of a disaster.
 
“Realtors are concerned about pending closings or short-term future sales. I’m sure the retail market is concerned about access to goods and food stuffs to prepare meals and sell things; the service industry – lawyers and waiters and hotel workers – are all without employment right now. So in the short-term, the economy does contract significantly, but any first-year economist will tell you that that contraction is short-term and also ultimately results in expansion as the essential infrastructure gets reestablished via roads and electricity.
 
“Everyone has to play the same 18 holes of golf. Everybody is going through this together and we will all recover together.”
 

REBUILDING
 

Contractors to do repair work for homes and businesses could be at a premium as a result of Hurricane Florence, experts say.
 
In one example, the city of Wilmington already had an emergency response contract with DRC Emergency Services for tree and debris removal and was able to mobilize 30 crews in the two days after Hurricane Florence hit to begin making roads passable.
 
But it remains to be seen whether contractors will be available to address regionwide repairs.
 
“An idea to be wary of is that this will help the economy because of all the spending on cleanup,” Jones said. “First, that claim ignores the fact that every dollar spent on cleanup cannot be spent on something else, kind of like spending on new tires for the car, it has to be done but I’d much rather spend the money on a vacation…. The destruction of storms is only damaging over the long run as capital is destroyed. Further, in a tight labor market like we are currently in, finding labor and construction crews to do the work is going to be difficult and will likely lead to price increases as services are bid up in cost.”
 
Woody Hall, retired UNCW professor and economist for Cape Fear Realtors, said after Hurricane Fran, “the wait time [for a contractor] was fairly substantial, and this is going to be as substantial if not more.”
 
Despite the anticipated challenges, Jones said he is optimistic.
 
“Looking to Houston and Hurricane Harvey as an example, workers and talent are likely to come to the region to help rebuild; maybe we can retain some of that talent for the future and ‘social capital’ measured many different ways is a robust contributor to growth,” Jones said. “This storm has tugged at the fabric of our region, but it is not torn and the bonds formed as we go through this could be a valuable piece of social capital going forward.”
 

FLOODING AND ISOLATION

 
On Sept. 16, state and local officials warned residents that there were no safe routes to the city of Wilmington.
 
“Road conditions across the state are changing constantly, and motorists are asked to stay away from areas affected by the massive and slow-moving storm. As of noon today, Wilmington remained inaccessible by road,” a news release stated.
 
The N.C. Department of Transportation was reporting that several sections of interstates 95 and 40 were flooded.
 
The next day, some officials said there was some access to the city, but did not appear to want to publicize a route, continuing to warn drivers of the potential for drowning if they attempted to drive through floodwaters. In one of 17 deaths in North Carolina that were attributed to the storm as of Sept. 17, a 1-year-old boy in Union County was swept away in floodwaters and died after his mother drove around barriers that someone else had pushed aside, according to news reports.
 
In Wilmington, despite downed traffic lights and damaged roads in some parts, residents ventured out into the area in search of gas and supplies. Some gas was available and some grocery stores were open, allowing a small group of people in at a time.
 
“There’s a shortage of everything so people want to stock up, make sure they have what they need,” said Ron Lickfeld, a truck driver and Wilmington resident who was standing in line at a Lowes Foods grocery store on Sept. 17. “As people panic and groceries and fuel and stuff don’t get in here people are going to start... it’s getting crazy already.”
 
Food was on the way to area counties on Sept. 17 ahead of setting up distribution centers, with 20 trucks coming in to the Port City carrying food and water from Fort Bragg in one example.
 
On the same day, some Pleasure Island residents return to the towns of Carolina and Kure beaches, and Wrightsville Beach reopened to residents and business owners the following day. In Brunswick County, crews from the county public utilities were working to restore water pressure to some of its customers, officials said.
 
Also on Sept. 17, the Northeast Cape Fear River near Burgaw in Pender County rose higher than it did during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, considered one of the worst storms in North Carolina’s history because of the flood damage it caused.
 
Three days after Hurricane Florence made landfall, 12 miles of N.C. 53 were underwater, in some cases 7 feet deep, between the Northeast Cape Fear bridge and the town of Maple Hill.
 
 Nearly 200 homes were already underwater in that part of the county.
 

REAL ESTATE

 
While the real estate market in the area felt little impact from Hurricanes Bertha and Fran, the same was not true for Hurricanes Bonnie and Floyd, said Hall.
 
In a previous study, Hall and other UNCW researchers found that Floyd and Bonnie resulted in a noticeable decline in home sale prices as compared to before the storms hit.
 
Jones said Hurricane Florence could jolt the real estate industry.
 
“The real estate market may take a little bit of a hit over the next year as some people sell their homes and move away and others avoid moving to Wilmington for fear of storms,” Jones said. “However, with baby boomers retiring and the city rebuilt, I expect migration to Wilmington will recover fairly quickly.”
 
In a statement after the storm had passed from Cape Fear Realtors, officials said, “It’s hard to process the estimated impacts to the housing market, but our collective spirit is stronger and stronger together than the damage. Wilmington is a great place to live, work and play. No storm can change these facts. The flood waters will recede and we will rebuild our roads, homes, and community. We know that the heart and soul of our community were unshaken.”
 
Before the storm, realtor.com chief economist Danielle Hale stated in a release, “Prior to the Hurricane Florence, the Carolinas real estate market was experiencing an inventory shortage resulting in fast-selling properties and rising prices, similar to the rest of the country. Extensive property damage from the storm will only exacerbate its already-limited inventory conditions. While this would ordinarily drive up prices, a drop-off in demand should tame price increases post hurricane as would-be buyers reevaluate whether to live in these areas.”

Click here for other storm-related coverage:

-Publisher's Letter
-Florence photo page 
-Post-storm resources
-Open for Business list of reopenings

 

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