Friday, February 3, 2023

Florence flooded their homes, so they’re rebuilding. Now a billion-dollar bridge looms

Daphene Morris and her five-year-old daughter Elizabeth walk through her neighbor's yard, where people are still living in a FEMA trailer, eight months after Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Daphene Morris and her five-year-old daughter Elizabeth walk through her neighbor’s yard, where people are still living in a FEMA trailer, eight months after Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

While still overcoming a natural disaster that severely flooded their homes, residents of Stoney Creek, Snee Farm, Planters Walk, and The Farms at Snowfield in Leland are now fighting for a voice in Cape Fear Crossing.

LELAND — The working-class families still left in Leland’s southern neighborhoods are warding off meltdowns, panic attacks, and creeping debt.

Eight months after Hurricane Florence, Federal Emergency Management Agency-licensed trailers and real estate signs, mostly from the same investment company flipping the flood-damaged homes, decorate modest front yards.

Related: In photos: NCDOT’s first Cape Fear Crossing public hearing in Wilmington

Homeowners who chose to stick it out were encouraged to rebuild their homes. This was no small task — many of them had seen floodwaters from Town Creek, the unassuming creek in their backyards, graze their rooflines in aerial footage cast to the nation on the Weather Channel.

Then, it the months that followed, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) trickled out detailed maps of its $1 billion bridge project for a fourth crossing to connect Wilmington and Brunswick County. The neighbors eventually realized: the state could soon take the very homes they’ve just gone into debt to rebuild.

For the most part, these families say they don’t have time to attend public meetings. They don’t have time to attempt to sway NCDOT’s 14 state and federal merger team partners. And they don’t have time to read the newspaper. They’re too busy rebuilding their homes.

Elizabeth Morris, 5, runs through her living room in Stoney Creek, where floodwaters from Hurricane Florence filled two feet of the home. The Morris family is paying rent on a Leland apartment and the mortgage of their Stoney Creek home while they continue to rebuild from the storm. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Elizabeth Morris, 5, runs through her living room in Stoney Creek, where floodwaters from Hurricane Florence filled two feet of the home. The Morris family is paying rent on a Leland apartment and the mortgage of their Stoney Creek home while they continue to rebuild from the storm. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

‘Where are you?’

When Samantha Werner first saw news of Cape Fear Crossing on Facebook a few months ago, she said she crawled straight back to bed. “‘There’s no point in making this a home,'” she said she thought to herself. “‘There’s no point in unpacking.'”

In mid-September, floodwater filled six feet of home on Planters Court. Like many in Leland’s southern neighborhoods, her home is located outside the federal floodplain. She did not have flood insurance.

After Florence, Werner said she felt supported by the town’s planning department. Elected officials did neighborhood walks. They made connections with middle-income displaced families.

“Throughout the hurricane process, they seemed like they were right there with us, in the trenches,” Werner said. Now, Werner said she believes she was being “schmoozed.” 

I think that at the time they were politicking,” Werner said. “And now that this bridge is coming in, it’s like, okay, where are you?”

Reminder: Thursday, May 16, is the last day NCDOT will accept public comment for Cape Fear Crossing.

Living in the nearby Stoney Creek neighborhood, but still connected by the shared experience of the flood, Daphene Morris shares her friend’s skepticism. Morris’ father-in-law is one of Leland’s founding fathers. Her husband, Brian, is a veteran. She recently came across a May 7 email, sent by Leland Councilwoman Pat Batleman, with several local and state elected officials CC’d. “I will cross my fingers as I say this, but I believe BTQ will not survive next Merger Team Meeting.  Now, I will say my prayers!!!!”

(From left) Chris, 14, Millie, 11, and Samantha Werner walk through their home on Planters Court in Planters Walk Friday, which went on the market earlier that morning. Six feet of their home, located outside the federal floodplain, flooded during Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
(From left) Chris, 14, Millie, 11, and Samantha Werner walk through their home on Planters Court in Planters Walk Friday, which went on the market earlier that morning. Six feet of their home, located outside the federal floodplain, flooded during Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

Batleman refers to routes B, Q, and T, proposed NCDOT plans for the Cape Fear Crossing that would cut through Brunswick Forest, where home values are higher. The master-planned community is home to about a quarter of the town’s population. In a letter sent to homeowners last week, Jeff Earp, Brunswick Forest’s President, assured the community he was lobbying officials on their behalf to protect his investment, which added nearly one billion to Leland’s tax base in less than 15 years.

Remaining alternatives, MA and NA, would impact Morris and dozens of her neighbors. Route V-AW impacts a Wilmington historic district, which renders it nonviable because federal funds are involved. (More on that here.)

“It’s just unbelievable,” Morris said, of Batleman’s email. “It’s unfathomable that they would be gloating and celebrating while we go up in flames.”

A FEMA-licensed trailer sits in Don Johnson’s front yard while he continues to renovate his flood-damaged home, eight months after Florence. He’s grateful for FEMA’s role in the U.S., but jokes he can’t go more than a week without a phone call from a FEMA representative checking on its property. “They’ve got inspectors who inspect the inspectors and inspectors who inspect the inspectors who are inspecting the inspectors,” Johnson said. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

At a public hearing in Leland late last month, an NCDOT representative did not mention any of the town’s southern neighborhoods while presenting routes MA or NA.

“I am curious to know if they are going to address our situation at all or if they’re going to continue to celebrate while we go down. Are they going to address that there are people here that are getting destroyed after already getting destroyed once? I would be interested to know if they have any kind of game plan for us at all,” Morris said.

When asked who “they” is, Morris said, “the council, the town, the state, everybody.”

‘No representation’

Morris’ neighbor, Don Johnson, is vice president of Stoney Creek’s HOA. A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, he lives in his front yard in a FEMA trailer with his wife and a puppy (his old dog died months earlier).

Cape Fear Crossing is just one snake on the Medusa head for Johnson; fighting it, while still trying to recover from storm damage, has left him exhausted.

“I’m just so fed up with all of it,” Johnson said. “I don’t have time to fight.”

Don Johnson looks at his renovated bedroom, where he still hasn't moved back in after Hurricane Florence flooded six feet of his Stoney Creek home. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Don Johnson looks at his renovated bedroom, where he still hasn’t moved back in after Hurricane Florence flooded six feet of his Stoney Creek home. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

In March, Johnson emailed Leland’s Council ahead of a meeting, where it voted 4-1 to draft a resolution to oppose routes B, Q, and T.

“[Leland Councilman] Mike Callahan was the only one who stood up for us out of that whole group,” Johnson said. “We’re a thorn in their side.”

At the meeting, Callahan explained to Batleman, who introduced the idea, that opposition to B, Q, and T would mean an endorsement of routes MA and NA. Batleman explained failing to endorse any option meant the town could lose its voice in the process.

Leland doesn’t have an official hand in the process; instead, with a one-step-removed spot on NCDOT’s merger team via Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization, the proposed resolution would have functioned as a political, rather than an actionable item. Later, the town postponed its planned vote on the resolution and hasn’t taken a formal stance.

Related: North Carolina floodplain maps are drawn ‘looking backward.’ These residents are paying the price

“There is no representation for the southern part of Leland. Except for Mike [Callahan],” Johnson said. “They just keep mowing over us. We’re tired of being pushed around, not having any representation.”

On Monday, Callahan said, “I have spoken up in recent past regarding residents in Stoney Creek Plantation and Snee Farm – as well as any surrounding neighborhoods in the southern portion of the town that could potentially be impacted – because I think it’s important to be inclusive and for all voices to be heard. And I believe they have spoken up and their voices have been heard, as well.”

He also cited the official stance of the grassroots group, Cape Fear Crossing Citizen Coalition, to limit the project’s negative impact to as many people possible.

Don Johnson peers over his new fence into his backyard, where Morgan Branch, a small stream off of Town Creek, flooded his home by six feet during Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Don Johnson peers over his new fence into his backyard, where Morgan Branch, a small stream off of Town Creek, flooded his home by six feet during Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

Batleman also pointed to the group’s push for a modified V-AW and a modified MA and NA. Modified MA and NA routes require NCDOT to expand its study area further south, a move the department is resistant to after spending at least $10 million and over 20 years considering the project.

“It does not sit well with me for those residents who have just been through some major flooding that, in its DEIS [Draft Environmental Impact Statement], the NCDOT says it cannot predict what kinds of adverse effects could be caused by construction,” Batleman said in a statement Monday. “I wish I had a magic bullet that would solve all our concerns about the Skyway alternatives, but the Town of Leland and Brunswick County do not have any power in this process to influence the NCDOT. The power rests with the people.”

She said potential damage done to large, planned, urban developments is a major concern.

“At the same time, I have spoken up on behalf of smaller developments, like Stoney Creek and Snee Farm, on numerous occasions at WMPO meetings and with elected officials, including U.S. Congressman David Rouzer, N.C. Rep. Deb Butler, N.C. Sen. Harper Peterson,” she said. “It seems the only solution is for residents to oppose all the alternatives, but doing so means accepting what NCDOT’s merger team comes up with.”

What’s next?

This summer, NCDOT and its merger team partners are expected to select a route. The decision will be non-binding. After that route is studied and approved, the department will begin acquiring as few as 26 residences, in route Q, and as many as 173, in route T.

“If they take our house, what they’ll do, they’ll make the mortgage company really happy, the mortgage company gets paid back, and we’re left on our own,” Johnson said. “We’ve leveraged to hell. We’ve taken out loans, we’ve maxed out our credit.” 

With just two days remaining on the department’s public comment clock, Johnson just hopes he can enjoy the place he spent months trying to make a home again.

“I was told when I was a kid that real estate was your best investment,” he said. “I wish that had been the truth for us.”

Elizabeth Morris, 5, catches a nose in her new room in her Stoney Creek home, where floodwaters from Hurricane Florence filled two feet of the home. The Morris family is paying rent on a Leland apartment and the mortgage of their Stoney Creek home while they continue to rebuild from the storm. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Elizabeth Morris, 5, catches a nose in her new room in her Stoney Creek home, where floodwaters from Hurricane Florence filled two feet of the home. The Morris family is paying rent on a Leland apartment and the mortgage of their Stoney Creek home while they continue to rebuild from the storm. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

NCDOT’s public comment period for Cape Fear Crossing ends Thursday, May 16. Learn more about the project before submitting comments.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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