It could have been a lot worse.
But it was bad enough.
Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach on the morning of Sept. 14 as a Category 1 hurricane, with the eye crossing the New Hanover County beach town around 7:15 a.m., according to a National Weather Service report on the storm.
The report stated that the storm, which had strengthened to a Category 4 before weakening and making landfall, will be remembered primarily for record-breaking flooding, but wind gusts of more than 100 mph caused significant damage to buildings, trees and electrical service.
In addition to homes that were destroyed by flooding, mainly in Pender County but also in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, the roof damage caused by Florence and the rain the storm brought – more than two days of it, with over 30 inches dropped in parts of the Wilmington area – contributed to hefty damage estimates.
The latest estimate for New Hanover County, including the city of Wilmington, in terms of private and public damage, was nearly half a billion dollars at press time. Gov. Roy Cooper has estimated a statewide total of $13 billion.
In Wilmington and the rest of New Hanover, mold quickly became a problem or potential threat, including at some of the area’s apartment complexes.
“The apartment situation is probably one of the more difficult ones because of the amount of displaced people,” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said on Dec. 6. “FEMA of course has been here and has helped a lot, but we want to try to get those people back in those units as quickly as possible so they can get back to normal. The apartment complexes have told us that they intend to put those people back and not kick them out, and we’re going to hold them to their word ... I think the concern that all of these complexes have had, from what I’ve been told, is the mold issue.”
Jonathan Barfield Jr., chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, said the storm situation punctuated an affordable housing problem that remains a concern in the Wilmington area.
“Our county staff has been meeting with different employees and outside stakeholders as well doing an after-storm assessment of what we did well, what we did wrong, what we can improve, right down to commissioners weighing in a lot of thoughts about what was good, what was not good, how would we could get better? What were our blind spots? I think from the whole storm situation, one thing that we definitely see is that we have a lack of affordable housing and affordable rentals here in our community,” Barfield said. “So how do we work with the development community to build more affordable homes so that a sheriff’s deputy starting out in the low 30s [in yearly salary] will be able to go out and actually buy a home versus living 30, 40 miles away.”
Another issue is shoring up buildings and infrastructure in the area. For example, officials have said none of the county’s buildings were erected to withstand a Category 3 hurricane.
“One thing Gov. Cooper has talked a lot about since the storm has been building smarter,” Barfield said. “So as you build back, you know, maybe you're looking at your building codes to make sure that what we're doing can withstand a magnitude storm that we just had … Had it come in as a Category 4 or 5, we would have had a whole lot more devastation than what we experienced.”
As residents, businesses and local governments coped with the power outages, one potentially major problem emerged, even as the storm continued to drop rain on the region – the possibility that the city might be without water.
That’s because with flooded roads, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s fuel supplier had trouble getting enough fuel to Wilmington to run the generators at CFPUA’s plants.
“We were about two days away from not having power to run the plants,” said Jim Flechtner, CFPUA executive director, in an October Business Journal story.“We weren’t hearing from the suppliers that they were confident they could get us fuel. The smart thing to do after that is to let people know so they can make preparations. Fortunately, working with the county emergency operations center and state emergency operations center they were able to find us diesel fuel.”
According to Duke Energy, more than 20,000 people were in place before the hurricane hit to restore power, the largest resource mobilization ever for the power company.
More than 8,000 Carolinas-based workers were joined by 1,700 workers from Duke Energy Midwest and 1,200 from Duke Energy Florida to respond to the storm, a Duke Energy news release stated, with 9,400 additional resources coming from other utilities to help.
Power was restored to some of the millions who lost it within a few days.
But the housing situation worsened as more damage was discovered, with few hotel rooms, short-term lodgings or rentals available in the wake of the hurricane. Federal agencies, mainly FEMA and the SBA, got to work on the problem for some, while others moved in with friends and family members or relocated.
As of Dec. 6, more than $975 million in state and federal funding had been provided to Hurricane Florence survivors in North Carolina. That included $529 million in flood insurance payments to National Flood Insurance policyholders, $118 million in grants to homeowners and renters and $329 million in low-interest disaster loans. FEMA has also provided temporary housing in the form of travel trailers and manufactured housing, mainly in flooded Pender County.
In the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County, downed trees caused a massive debris problem that the city had prepared in advance to cope with, Saffo said.
“We had almost 1.2 million yards of debris. That’s not easy to pick up, and we’re already over $27 million in costs so far,” Saffo said, referring to the total city storm costs, with the bulk of that cost covering debris removal. “We had a very strong fund balance that helped us for these types of events.”
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