Top Stories of 2018, No. 1: Hurricane Florence drenches, disrupts Wilmington region

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The slow-moving hurricane dropped between 23 and 30 inches of rain across the area during a 4-day period

WILMINGTON – Nearly four months after Hurricane Florence arrived, the Cape Fear region is still pockmarked by the impacts of its winds, rains and floods.

It’s in the blue tarps dotting the roofs of downtown Wilmington, visible from the deck of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. It’s in the tall escarpments carved into many area beaches. And it’s in the people, many of whom have lost everything they owned to the storm and are in the midst of navigating bureaucracies to recover what they can.

“Part of the return to normalcy is returning to the daily routine,” said Beth Schrader, New Hanover County’s recovery manager. “We have a lot of folks that have been displaced or out of work.”

Florence, which once looked like it might reach North Carolina’s coast as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, made landfall Sept. 13 at Wrightsville Beach as a Category 1 storm. Almost immediately, and for days after, the hurricane rendered useless nearly everything convenient about modern life — from electricity to roads to supermarkets.

The storm

The numbers are staggering: 30 inches of rain recorded at a Wilmington weather gauge between Sept. 14 and Sept. 18. At one point, the storm crawled along at 2 mph. The National Weather Service confirmed nine tornadoes formed in the storm’s bands and touched down in the Wilmington area.

According to the N.C. Department of Emergency Management, six people died as a result of Hurricane Florence, including Lesha Murphy-Johnson and her son, Adam, of Wilmington who died when a tree fell on their Mercer Avenue home.

Flooding throughout the region reached historic levels, with the Northeast Cape Fear River at Burgaw cresting at 25.57 feet — passing Hurricane Floyd’s record by more than 3 feet. A gauge on the Black River crested at 31.34 feet, flooding homes that had suffered the same fate after Hurricane Matthew just two years before.

Thousands of people who had evacuated the region in anticipation of Florence were left stranded wherever they went, cut off by floodwaters sitting on familiar arteries, including Interstate 40 and U.S. 17. Some in Leland’s Stoney Creek community learned their homes were flooded when they saw The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore go live from their neighborhood.

When residents were able to return, many found damaged roofs or flooded homes — and nearly all of them had to clean out refrigerators full of rotten food.

Damage estimates were not immediately available for Brunswick or New Hanover County, but Pender sustained an estimated $261.8 million to residential properties and $6.2 million to non-residential properties.

Infrastructure recovery

Historic flooding pushed infrastructure throughout the region to its breaking point, resulting in several dramatic incidents, including the failure of Boiling Spring Lakes’ Sanford Dam and breaches to the dam separating Sutton Lake from the swollen Cape Fear River. At the Sutton site, floodwaters also topped into a Duke Energy coal ash pond, raising concerns that the substance had leaked into the river.

Brunswick County’s roads have largely been repaired, at least to the extent that the region is navigable, said Scott Garner, the county’s deputy director of emergency services. Driving down frequently flooded N.C. 133 in recent days, for instance, there are newly built stretches of road where floodwaters washed the old one away.

“For the most part,” Garner said, “the roads are all passable or there are appropriate detours around them. You can get all around the area.”

On U.S. 421 at the New Hanover-Pender county lines, a 500-foot stretch of road was washed away by raging floodwaters. A temporary bridge built over the spot has allowed traffic to flow again, and the N.C. Department of Transportation will start work on on a permanent pair of 560-foot bridges in January, with the project set to take about a year to complete.

Human recovery

In Florence’s aftermath, there were countless reminders that people will always find a way to help each other during troubled times. Most famously, José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen aid organization teamed with local chefs to serve more than 200,000 meals.

The spirit was also visible in Pender County’s Cross Creek community, where floodwaters eased into dozens of homes, causing catastrophic damage. For days after, the front entrance to the Hampstead neighborhood featured a donation stop, frequently tended by people who had been flooded out of their own homes.

At least 2,400 residents of apartments in New Hanover County were evicted, Schrader said, forced to leave because of damage from the storm or mold that had grown in damp walls shortly after. Forced out, people found a city already grappling with an affordable housing crisis and now suffering a lack of hotel rooms due to contractors and other aid workers.

Schrader said New Hanover is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to enact the federal agency’s Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) program, an effort designed after Hurricane Sandy to help people return to their homes. The program is not designed for homes to be rebuilt to their pre-storm state.

“Essentially, this is for folks to restore their home to a safe and sanitary condition. … It’s getting it back to a place where people can get back in it and live in it,” Schrader said.

FEMA has approved the use of the STEP program in the county and selected a contractor, Schrader said, and is beginning to review applications to determine who qualifies.

The county is, she added, tracking when repairs to apartment complexes could be completed — a process that may take six to eight months in some instances, leaving those who were displaced without or needing to re-apply for federal benefits.

“This is an evolving situation that seems to be happening day-to-day, so we’re trying to keep a sense on the pulse,” Schrader said.

Mitigation efforts

Recovery officials throughout the region are also paying attention to applications opening up for mitigation programs that allow people to either have their homes bought out or fixed to better face flooding and other threats.

“It’s just like what was going on with (Hurricane) Matthew,” said Garner, the Brunswick emergency services official. “There’s funding that will keep getting distributed or keep getting sent down through the different programs, and different ones will open up. We’ll definitely be on the forefront of it and we’ll know what comes down.”

In New Hanover County, 20,965 residents have applied for FEMA individual assistance, while 10,094 residents applied for benefits in Brunswick County. It is not uncommon, however, to hear stories about benefit applications being denied — particularly in some of the hardest-hit areas.

“If you’re denied benefits, it’s critically important that they contact FEMA and contact (the Small Business Administration) and come to the Disaster Recovery Center,” Schrader said. “Very frequently is has to do with a documentation issue, and it’s something that can be addressed. So don’t give up.”

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or