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‘Things like this don’t happen to people that we know. They happen to people far off in other places’
WILMINGTON — Hurricane Florence will be remembered for the way it pushed residents of the Cape Fear region to their limits and, ultimately, for how they came to each other’s aid in times of the greatest need.
After lashing New Bern and causing flooding throughout that city’s historic downtown, Florence curved south, making official landfall near Wrightsville Beach about 7 a.m. on Sept. 14. Then, the storm virtually stopped moving — heading south at 2 mph at one point.
The worst-case scenario never came true for most of the area’s beach towns, with dunes bearing the brunt of Florence’s storm surge and largely keeping the ocean from destroying homes. But the sheer amount of rain that fell across the region caused flooding in areas that were still recovering from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew — and in areas residents never imagined would flood.
Between Sept. 13 and Sept. 16, Hurricane Florence would ultimately drop 23.02 inches of rain at the Wilmington International Airport — a record.
A day later, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said, “It is probably going to be the most significant flooding event the southeastern part of the state has ever seen.”
River gauges proved Saffo right, with the Cape Fear River in Wilmington cresting at 8.28 feet, the Black River near Currie reaching 20.3 feet and the Northeast Cape Fear River near Burgaw rising above 25 feet.
In each instance, the river would set a new record. And in each instance, it would mean more residents needing swift water rescues and more homes or businesses suffering catastrophic damage.
Isolated and damaged
As the floodwaters rose, officials were forced to grapple with previously unforeseen problems.
Wilmington was effectively turned into an island, with the familiar Interstate 40 turning into a waterway for miles-long stretches. Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram found his forces cut into three separate units by floodwaters, with one group in Southport, one north of Town Creek and another located at headquarters in Bolivia.
“We’ve been faced with a lot of challenges I’ve never seen before and frankly never planned for,” Ingram told county commissioners, “but we’ve been able to work together and overcome them.”
In Brunswick County, the Sanford Dam failed Sept. 15 in hard-hit Boiling Spring Lakes, sending water from Patricia Lake, North Lake and Pine Lake gushing across the low-lying area around N.C. 133.
As the Cape Fear swelled, it overtopped the earthen dam on the edge of Sutton Lake, with water eventually overtopping yet another dam separating a Duke Energy coal ash basin from the lake.
When the Sutton Dam breached Sept. 21 in multiple spots, it brought with it fears that coal ash had been carried into the Cape Fear — concerns Duke said were unfounded based on test results even as environmental groups said their own water samples indicate significant contamination.
Waves of destruction
The lack of routes into Wilmington and the surrounding areas proved frustrating for thousands of residents who had heeded forecasts and evacuated.
Those who stayed lined up at distribution points throughout the region for National Guard-distributed MREs and water. At gas stations, frustrated and tired residents often found themselves idling in a lengthy line under the watchful eye of a police officer.
As routes came open and residents trickled home, they were often shocked at what they found, from flooded homes to downed trees to roofs that failed amid Florence’s sustained winds of 66 mph.
The numbers are staggering — Wilmington estimates 1.2 million cubic yards of vegetative debris; an estimated $449.4 million in damage in New Hanover County; more than 3,000 buildings flooded in Pender County; 910 buildings impacted in Brunswick County.
But the impact was strongest when visiting communities like Cross Creek in Hampstead or Stoney Creek in Leland, areas where armies of volunteers dragged people’s sodden belongings out of their homes, knocking out walls and pulling up carpets. The tunnels of debris and heavy smell of mold were overpowering in these communities and others.
Daphene Morris took a break from the task at her Stoney Creek home to describe how she’d watched the disaster unfold from afar, with The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore broadcasting from the neighborhood at one point. Standing outside the home her family had saved up for over the course of 14 years, Morris said she didn’t know if they could return.
“Things like this don’t happen to people that we know,” she said. “They happen to people far off in other places.”
Pain and progress
Failed box stores were repurposed as recovery warehouses, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies setting up shop in the old Sears store at Independence Mall and the sprawling parking lot in front of the shuttered Kmart location on South College Road transformed into a headquarters for nonprofits and aid organizations.
Most tragically, Florence has claimed the lives of at least five residents of the Cape Fear region and 40 statewide. In Wilmington, a tree fell on a Mercer Avenue home on September 14, killing Lesha Murphy-Johnson and her 8-month-old son. Early that same morning, a woman died in Hampstead after Pender County emergency services were unable to reach her.
The recovery has also proven deadly, with a Brunswick County man collapsing while clearing debris and a Pender County man falling to his death Sept. 22 while making repairs to his roof.
During a Sept. 22 visit to the Brunswick County Emergency Operations Center, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said, “We mourn each and every one of these losses, and we grieve with their family and friends, but I’ll tell you, many more people would have been killed but for the coordination and effort here in this county, with your leadership, and at the state emergency operations center.”
Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.