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6 Months After Florence

By Johanna Cano, posted Mar 15, 2019
College students from Sacred Heart University and Penn State work with NC Baptists on Mission volunteers this month on a Gordon Road home damaged by Hurricane Florence. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
It’s been six months since Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Wilmington area, and John Pike and his family are still not living in their home.
 
The house, in the Cross Creek community in Hampstead, was considered a total loss by the Small Business Administration, Pike said. The family found a temporary place to live but still must make mortgage payments.
 
“We’re struggling to keep the banks off our butts,” he said. “We raised our kids there. We had 12 years left on the mortgage. It was home.”
 
The home was flooded with about 6-8 feet of water and was not covered by flood insurance because Pike said he was told it was not needed.
 
“Do we put that money in fixing up a house that has no equity that is going to flood again?” he said. “Our real hope is that they buy this in a buyout program, and they turn it into wild land.”
 
While Pike expects to know what will happen to his home in a year or longer, he has been encouraged by the unity and help from those around him.
 
“The community was amazing,” Pike said. “The Cross Creek community had like an encampment for donations that were pouring in. It was a real eye-opener to see neighbors helping neighbors. It was beautiful.”
 
Pike and his family’s story mirrors that of others in the area who are still recovering.
 
At about 7:15 a.m. on Sept. 14 Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach as a Category 1 storm. While many were relieved that the storm had downgraded from its previous Category 4 designation, sustained rainfall, storm surges and debris caused damage to homes and roads.
 
Six months later, residents, county officials and nonprofits in the area are still working on recovery efforts to not only get the area back to its prehurricane state, but to help prepare for future storms.
 
State officials called Hurricane Florence the costliest disaster in the state’s history, according to a FEMA news release.
 
More than $1.2 billion in federal assistance has been provided to state residents affected by the storm, according to the release. Of that total, $128 million was provided in grants for rental assistance, home repair or replacement, personal property and other expenses.
 
In New Hanover County, about 5,630 residential structures and 568 commercial structures were damaged by Hurricane Florence. In Pender County, 6,294 residential and commercial structures were damaged.
 
One large cost incurred in the region was debris removal.
 
New Hanover spent about $17 million on debris removal, from which $9.5 million was reimbursed to the county by FEMA. Pender County spent $13 million and received a $3.9 million reimbursement, and Brunswick County spent $8.7 million.
 
In New Hanover County, housing recovery is still one key issue after the storm, said Beth Schrader, chief strategy officer with the county and Hurricane Florence Recovery Coordination Office manager.
 
“We’ve got lots of recovery projects the county is still working on,” Schrader said. “Currently we have 12 homeowners that we’re working with as part of the accelerated buyout program. We have 330 homes part of the STEP program that we are working with.”
 
FEMA’s Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power Program (STEP) coordinates with local governments to provide free essential repairs to homes. FEMA approved $54 million in the state for the program.
 
New Hanover County is also working with state partners and contractors to find housing for about 87 families temporarily living in hotels under FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. TSA has a limit of 170 days, and the county has prioritized 17 of those families eligible for STEP so their homes can get essential repairs prior to the deadline.
 
For the other 70 families, the county is working with FEMA to identify mobile home sites, Schrader said.
 
Brunswick County is also working with homeowners whose homes were severely damaged.
 
“The county and the town of Leland have submitted applications on the behalf of 30 property owners for a FEMA buyout or remediation program. This represents properties with an estimated value of over $6.4 million,” Brunswick County Manager Ann Hardy said. “We anticipate the process will take another couple of years for final determination.”
 
Other current recovery efforts Brunswick County is working on include recording county expenses.
 
“The county is engaged with FEMA consultants, state emergency officials and the insurance carrier to fully document all costs associated with the Florence preparation, response and recovery,” Hardy said.
 
Besides debris removal, Brunswick County accrued $1.1 million in county buildings and equipment costs and $3.4 million in utility infrastructure. The county is still repairing its buildings and utility infrastructures, Hardy said.
 
The county is waiting on reimbursements, which Hardy said have been minimal to date. It is expected for state reimbursements to take two or more years, but that will not affect the county’s budgeting, she said.
 
“The county has a strong history of prudent and conservative budgeting that prepared the county well for this event,” Hardy said. “The county has sufficient reserves to continue all operations based on the anticipated reimbursement schedule.”
 
In Pender County, officials have been working on notifying the public about progress made, including beach nourishment and preparations for tourists.
 
In February, the Pender County Tourism Development Authority hosted a press conference with updates on repairs made at Topsail Beach and Surf City.
 
“Topsail Beach, which had very little dune breaches, is dredging starting this week,” Tammy Proctor, tourism director and public information officer with the county, said earlier this month. “Surf City is rebuilding dunes that were breached this week, and they are rebuilding beach accesses that were damaged. All beach accesses should be complete by May.”
 
Pender County will continue its promotion campaign, and officials are hoping for minimal tourism impact this summer because of the storm, Proctor said.
 
Similarly, the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau has been working on its recovery plan to minimize negative impact on vacation travel planning through its “Comeback Story” marketing campaign.
 
The impact of the storm on summer tourism will depend on room inventory, CVB spokeswoman Connie Nelson said.
 
“While most of our hotels that closed for repairs plan to reopen by spring, we do not yet know how many vacation rentals will be offline by summer,” Nelson said.
 
In a release, the bureau listed repair updates on resorts including the Blockade Runner Beach Resort, Holiday Inn Resort Wrightsville Beach and Shell Island Resort and restaurants including South Beach Grill and Oceanic, noting that many have reopened with upgraded facilities.
 
With recovery underway, area officials are working towards preparations with hopes of mitigating future storm damages.
 
The New Hanover County Office of Strategy worked on an After-Action Report that highlighted strengths and weaknesses in the county’s operations during the storm. Recommendations were included to better prepare county workers and partners.
 
“There’s some training needs for staff, there is some reorganization that we’re doing of our emergency operation center. We’re actually adding an entire section that never existed before, which is called the Planning Section,” Schrader said. “We’ve had preliminary conversations with both our board and with the city about integrating Wilmington into our emergency operations center so there would be only one to help improve communication.”
 
In addition, the county submitted grant applications for debris removal from streams and drainage ditches to reduce the likelihood of flooding outside of floodplains, and for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to elevate 15 houses in a floodplain to prevent future damage.
 
Officials also plan on reinforcing critical structures, such as emergency operation centers and shelters, Schrader said.
 
Brunswick County has submitted letters of interest for hazard mitigation funding for an alternate water system for Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, large-scale generators for schools and senior centers, a secondary water line and fueling sites, among other items. The county hired a new emergency services director who will review and implement best practices for the county.
 
Looking back six months after Hurricane Florence, New Hanover County officials have been working to help those impacted, Schrader said.
 
“From a county perspective, we have been ahead of the curve or have been submitting early and asking for resources from the very first moment the winds died down,” Schrader said. “But from someone who’s affected by the storm and who lives here, it’s not fast enough. I think that’s the challenge.”
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