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Monday, May 20, 2024

Four years after Hurricane Florence, $3.1M tackles flood mitigation region-wide

Brunswick County Commissioner Mike Forte speaking at the Tuesday media event. Brunswick was the biggest winner in the Cape Fear for flood grants. Leland and Boiling Springs Lake were each awarded more than $900,000 and Navassa took home $485,000. Also pictured, left to right: American Flood Coalition Carolina Director Tony Ewen, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis. (Carl Blankenship/Port City Daily)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The greater Wilmington region raked up a fifth of state funding earmarked to improve roadways affected by flooding.

Tuesday, local leaders gathered at Leland Town Hall to represent their communities — Wilmington, Leland, Navassa, Boiling Spring Lakes and Pender County — which were awarded grants in the inaugural round of the Transportation Infrastructure Resiliency Fund Program.

READ MORE: Eastern N.C. leaders seek funding to improve flood resilience before ‘the next Florence’

The money is going toward projects directly affected by devastation from 2018’s Hurricane Florence, which equaled $22 billion in damage and losses statewide. The eye of the Category 1 storm crossed Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14 and dumped more than 23 inches of rain across the tri-county region over the course of two days. It brought storm surge over 4 feet and, according to the United States Geographical Survey, broke nine river gauges that exceeded one-in-500-year return intervals

According to the Associated Press, 15 people died, 11 due to flooding incidents.

The funds from the resiliency grant for Cape Fear municipalities total $3.1 million out of $15 million awarded across the state. Leland and Wilmington’s awards were announced in July and equaled almost $1.5 million cumulatively.

Leland was awarded $950,000 to fund an assessment of routes out of the town in the event of flooding. Mayor Brenda Bozeman said the project is important because parts of the town were cut off during Florence, including roads designated as evacuation routes by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Wilmington was awarded $482,000 for the city police department to install 200 backup generators to keep traffic signals at intersections up and running in the event of a power outage during a storm.

The new announcements made Tuesday include $922,306 for Boiling Spring Lakes, $485,000 for Navassa and $200,000 for Pender County.

Navassa’s award is proportionally the largest of the group per capita. The town only has about 1,500 people per the latest U.S. Census estimate.

“For us, that is huge,” Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis said to the media Tuesday.

Willis recounted streaming water polluted with coal ash spilling into the community and flooding roadways.

Willis told Port City Daily two sections of Cedar Hill Road — where the road meets I-140 and about a mile north of that site — flooded and trapped people in between. The Phoenix neighborhood, which is near the old DuPont site, and Old Mill Road to the west, were also cut off. The money will help cover engineering costs — $500,000 — to prevent flooding in those areas. 

“I learned an old adage a while back: ‘There’s things that will make you cry, sometimes to make you laugh,’” Willis said, contrasting living through the destruction to rising above it four years later. 

All three roads are maintained by NCDOT, which is typically responsible for road construction costs. Willis said the exact price breakdown for the project and how much the town will have to invest on its end have not yet been assessed.

“We’re collaborating with the big boys,” Willis said. “They see the benefit of it. It’s going to make it better for everybody.”

Boiling Spring Lakes’ grant pays for an overhaul of Drayton Road. Commissioner Kimberly Sherwood said two of the five dams destroyed in the city were on East Boiling Spring Road and also stranded residents.

“I was one of them,” Sherwood said. “We were without water, power and cell service for several days.”

Drayton, the only other route out, was blocked by felled trees and other refuse the National Guard had to clear so people could leave their homes in the wake of the storm. Sherwood said the unpaved dirt road had hundreds of vehicles crossing it daily and was in need of constant maintenance.

Since Florence, the road has been paved; construction started in late September and was completed by Oct. 21. The grant will reimburse the city. Sherwood said the road will now serve as a reliable evacuation route.

Pender County’s grant will pay for an evacuation route study along N.C. 210. The county staged rescue vehicles on the road after the storm, and portions of the highway flooded, preventing access to nearby neighborhoods such as Lanes Ferry in Rocky Point.

The grants are the direct result of advocacy from the American Flood Coalition. The organization is made up of a long list of member governments from Florida to Virginia, with a small number of municipalities in Illinois and Texas as well. The coalition’s goal is to lobby for money to offset the impact of rising sea levels and more powerful storms. 

This funding was the first of its kind in North Carolina. The largest awards were disbursed to the western part of the state.

Wilkesboro, a small foothills town west of Winston-Salem, was awarded $2.5 million for improvements to its Woodfield Way Bridge. Transylvania County, just south of Asheville, was awarded $2.4 million.

AFC Carolinas Director Tony McEwen said the western part of the state received more funding because of the regular concern of washouts and erosion in the region. A washout occurs when the ground supporting a road reaches the maximum saturation it can handle, becomes liquid and destroys the roadway instantly.

“Their flooding concerns can be kind of scarier sometimes than the east,” McEwen said. “We can watch it on CNN when a hurricane or tropical storm is coming. When rain hits that area you have like a 90-minute notice until you are in a life-threatening situation.”

McEwen pointed to floods in Canton, a town in Haywood County, in August of 2021 as an example. Six people were killed in the small town.

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