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The Returning Waters

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Oct 5, 2018
Hurricane Florence caused widespread flooding in Pender County, damaging businesses and residences, including this home in the Maple Hill area off N.C. 53. (photo by Megan Deitz)
Nearly two years after hurricane Matthew’s destruction, recovery starts all over again for many in Pender County

Pender County, along with the rest of coastal Southeastern North Carolina, was hit with a record-breaking storm not long after some had just started getting back on their feet again from Hurricane Matthew’s impact on the region in 2016.
Hurricane Florence made landfall Sept. 14, but dumped more than 30 inches of rain in some areas of the coast in the days-long event, breaking the previous flooding record on the Northeast Cape Fear River.
Pender was among regional communities that suffered some of the greatest effects from the hurricane’s wind, storm surge and floodwaters. The devastating impacts “touched every corner of the county,” Pender County Commissioners Chairman George Brown said.
And the county now faces a blow to its local economy and residents, as hurricane recovery efforts have only just started over again.
“The families that had just got back into their homes or the families that are just starting to get closure from the last one, now they’re homeless again. What do you say to those folks?
“The frustration of the loss. The hopelessness that they feel … The only thing they can be glad about is that their family is still alive,” Brown said.
County Emergency Management Director Tom Collins estimates that as many as 5,000 structures were flooded in Hurricane Florence’s aftermath. The totals, however, were still being tallied up as of press time. And based on early estimates, about 9,000 people could be displaced from their homes, he said.
The storm struck areas previously flooded during Hurricane Matthew but also spread into areas that weren’t in the county’s flood zones, Collins said.
“During Matthew, it was mostly on the Black River and that was somewhere around 250 structures: businesses and homes. That has gone up drastically because this time [Florence] got both the Northeast Cape Fear and the Black River,” Collins said. “There’s places that got flooded that haven’t ever been flooded before.”
And those without flood insurance will suffer financially, he added.
“We just got the funding approvals just in the past couple months or less for victims of Matthew,” Pender County Manager Randell Woodruff said.
Woodruff is referring to FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds, which rolled into the county this year. Pender County received more than $4.2 million between June and July for properties affected by Hurricane Matthew for the acquisition, elevation and reconstruction of 29 properties.
The Hazard Mitigation Program is working to come up with plans to address some of the issues that come with “two very big overlapping storms like Matthew and Florence,” said Greg Thomas, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety- Emergency Management.
“There’s certainly discussions of how to recover … It is a unique situation having two storms so close together that damage properties that were still, in some cases, recovering. It’s kind of uncharted territory,” Thomas said.
The damages and flooding issues that came along with both storms make it difficult for Pender County’s economic recovery, including that of its farming community and tourism.
Brown said that he believes it will be harder for the county’s farming industry to bounce back from the most recent storm than some others in the business community.
“We have a large farming community because the county is mostly rural,” he said.
Mark Seitz, a cooperative extension director in the county, said that every farm in the county has been affected by the storm, some with minimal damage and others that have lost everything.
Commercial pork and poultry farms as well as blueberry farms were among those flooded, he said.
The county’s tourism industry is also suffering from the hurricane’s impact in September, even though the rest of 2018 had been a good year, officials said.
“We really worked hard to extend our shoulder season, and when Matthew hit in 2016 … our numbers were off and lower than the previous year,” said Tammy Proctor, county spokeswoman and tourism director. “Now this storm being earlier is going to hurt us even more ... We’ve lost two weeks just with the storm, and now we’re going to lose some because the beaches are not open.”
On top of getting business back up and running, local officials also have some concerns about the future tax base and population growth.
Collins said those along the Black River that had lost everything to Hurricane Matthew and again to Florence may not return.
“I’ve got a feeling that there are going to be some that won’t come back. I think they’ll say ‘That’s it. I don’t want to do it anymore.’ And be gone,” Collins said. “We’ll lose the tax base in this county, and then we will be relying on the east side to keep the tax base up. But not everything flooded by no means.”
Woodruff said the construction and service industries, however, could help with the area’s sales tax levels as people begin to rebuild.
Hurricane Florence also came at a time when the county is amid its eight-year property revaluation.
“I’m sure it’s going to have some impact on our reevaluation,” Woodruff said. “There’s no good time to have a hurricane. It’s going to impact everything you’re doing.”
The county has already performed rapid assessments of more than 80 percent of the structures in the county as of Sept. 27, according to Kyle Breuer, Pender County’s planning director. There were a total of more than 3,300 commercial and residential structures that were affected by the storm, 962 of those structures were with minor damage, 149 had major damage and 48 of the structures were deemed destroyed, the assessments have shown so far.
The remaining percentage, “are just things we can’t get to because it’s inundated,” Breuer said.
More than a week after the storm, Brown said the county was working to get into FEMA’s Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) Pilot Program. The assistance was not an option during Hurricane Matthew and has not been put into place in the state before, Woodruff added.
It’s an interim solution to keep residents living in the county through federal assistance, officials said.
The local and regional economy, however, is resilient, Woodruff said.
“We’re able to come back even with hurricanes, people still want to move to Southeastern North Carolina to live and retire and raise families here,” Woodruff said. “We’re in a better position than many of the other rural counties in Eastern North Carolina that struggle far more than we do financially. But we’ll just have to see.”
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