EASTERN N.C. — After Hurricane Floyd struck eastern North Carolina in 1999, community members thought the damage was done.
“Once we get through this and recover, it’s not going to happen again in our lifetime,” Charley Farrior recalled his neighbors believing at the time.
But the mayor of Wallace, a small town straddling the Duplin and Pender county line, described how that presumption didn’t ring true come 2018. Farrior said Hurricane Florence made Floyd almost look like a “non-event.”
In the years following Florence, the state endured two more major back-to-back hurricanes, plus tidal and inland flooding that threatened homes, businesses and overall communities.
Local municipal and county-elected officials, alongside the American Flood Coalition and Environmental Defense Fund, are joining in the Eastern N.C. Recovery and Resilience Alliance to lobby state and federal legislatures for increased funding and improved resources to brace the areas for more storms to come.
“We all have a fear that ‘My God, when’s the next Florence coming?’” Mayor Bill Saffo said in a press conference this week. “Because it could happen again this year, and we’re gonna be right back in the same place. And for us that have gone through these events over and over and over again – we’re basically saying, ‘Enough. We need help.’”
Pender County’s manager, Chad McEwen, said the region, including its inland areas, must replace “reactive or, at times, non-existent” approaches to flooding with proactive projects. Solutions could save taxpayers billions in advance of storms. Collectively, more than $3.5 billion was spent in disaster recovery following hurricanes Florence and Matthew.
“Imagine what we can do if we invest a fraction of that now and deploy those resources to help get ahead,” said Dante Cutrona, senior government relations director of the American Flood Coalition.
Members of the Eastern N.C. Recovery and Resilience Alliance began meeting informally after Florence to share concerns and advice for future storms. Two years later, the alliance has finalized a list of six policy and funding priorities for flood resilience, detailed in a five-page document that is now in the hands of state legislators.
At the top of that list is funding for a flood resilience blueprint, which alliance members envision would employ data and modeling to identify flooding solutions worthy of investment.
According to Will McDow of the Environmental Defense Fund, N.C. Emergency Management, the N.C. Department of Transportation, state universities, private consultants and businesses already possess the data necessary for flood planning.
“We have a good start,” McDow said. “But what’s needed is a common framework to bring all this together.”
Another significant issue – one that contributed to the original formation of the alliance – is transportation infrastructure.
After Florence pummeled record-breaking rainfall onto the region for days, infrastructure collapsed. Interstates 95 and 40 were submerged for at least a week. The flooding in Brunswick County blocked so many access points that it divided the county into three “isolated islands.”
The alliance would like to see some of the improvement options identified in an NCDOT 2019 Flood Resilience Feasibility Study come to fruition. The study mentions lengthening bridges, improving drainage and elevating roads.
“I think it was a very thorough study,” Jacksonville Mayor Sammy Phillips said. “But I don’t know if there’s been . . . a whole lot done with it because of the fact that transportation dollars aren’t there to do it.”
Mayor Saffo recalls how scarce food, water and supplies created a “dicey” situation in Wilmington in the days after Florence. People were fighting over fuel, he said. A National Guard helicopter landed in a shopping center parking lot to deliver supplies. He remembers the city as a “war zone,” largely due to its isolation from the rest of the state.
“Probably one of the most critical and important things that we can do as a state is make sure that we have a transportation grid that is reliable in the aftermath of a significant storm,” Saffo said, “and we are going to have more storms, and as they’re coming up the coast, they seem to be getting bigger and wetter.”
Today homes in Wallace that flooded during Florence are still vacant. It’s unclear whether they will ever be repaired or torn down, Mayor Ferrier said.
By now, leaders can pinpoint high-risk areas – places where there are at-risk buildings sitting in floodplains, undersized culverts, or debris constricting rivers and streams – but say they lack the money, authority and assistance to correct the issues solo.
The alliance believes new local revenue sources should be allowed to benefit resilience investments. It’s also calling on the N.C. General Assembly to increase government support of communities that suffer from recurrent flooding.
According to Mayor Terry Mann, the city of Whiteville struggles to obtain funding awards. Mann said the city is currently filing for a new FEMA pre-disaster hazard mitigation program called BRIC, but it is wary of its chances, considering the competition the small city is up against.
With the help of engineers on staff, larger municipalities and county governments are able to tout “shovel-ready” projects in their applications.
“That seems to be the magic word now with any infrastructure projects,” Mann said. “They’re so competitive as they are, and not being able to afford to get to the point where you’ve got a shovel-ready project is really a deterrent for small communities.”
The alliance is proposing the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency focus efforts on helping localities, and possibly set up multiple locations throughout the state. Also, it would like to see a Division of Mitigation Service program that created local jobs for flood mitigation projects revived after a loss of funding this past year.
The alliance seemed confident Tuesday that state lawmakers will act on their requests. Tony McEwen, legislative affairs director for the City of Wilmington, said legislators expressed serious interest in the issues.
The full list of priorities is as follows:
- Fund an actionable Flood Resilience Blueprint
- Ensure resilient critical transportation infrastructure
- Support riverine and stream management to reduce flooding
- Incorporate resilience investments as an allowable use into any new local revenue authority
- Increase resiliency capacity and technical assistance to local governments
- Fund flood mitigation and innovative pilot projects
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