Months later, Wrightsville Beach still recovering from Florence

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Businesses in the New Hanover County resort town still show the scars from the September hurricane

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — The region may have rounded the corner into a new year, but the continued recovery from Hurricane Florence more than four months ago is still to blame for several closed businesses in Wrightsville Beach.

As of this week, two of the town’s major resorts — Blockade Runner and Shell Island Resort — remain closed, though the former announced last week it would partially reopen on Feb. 15. Additionally, several restaurants haven’t fired up their kitchens since the storm, including The Oceanic and South Beach Grille.

Mayor Bill Blair said when the storm initially made landfall in Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14, early signs gave the impression Wrightsville Beach was spared the brunt of the storm.

“Once Florence came through, the visual damage was easy to access,” he said. “The non-visual damage, especially the wind-driven rain damage, was only known in the weeks after when people came back.”

Slow recovery

At the Blockade Runner, the balcony building roof was ripped from the structure during the storm, exposing the interior room and sheetrock walls to the elements.

In a release, owner Bill Baggett said the total cost of repairs to the resort will likely edge close to $10 million.

The damage was significant enough that all the walls in the balcony building and 75 percent of those in the main building will be replaced.

“I think a lot of the damage on the island has been underestimated,” Baggett said in the release. “Inventory will be tight at Wrightsville Beach in 2019. Tourism is a significant part of the North Carolina economy, and I hope we can get all the properties at the beach open as soon as possible.”

The resort will first open its main tower on Feb. 15, followed in March or April by the balcony building.

That same week, South Beach Grille will reopen its doors after its own slew of repairs, according to a post on its Facebook.

Earlier this month, Mott’s Channel Seafood reopened after its own renovations. In a Facebook post, it shared pictures of the “now open” signs staked in the grass outside — the same signs used after being closed for nine months after Hurricane Fran in 1997.

Meanwhile, Shell Island Resort on the north end of the New Hanover County barrier island lost numerous oceanfront windows to Florence’s wrath.

The resort’s general manager Dara Newberry couldn’t comment on the status of the resort’s recovery, but its website notes a reopening date of March 1.

Surf Suites is also closed for renovations. It’s website indicates it has cancelled all reservations through April.

Financial impact

The town itself is also still in recovery mode. Town manager Tim Owens said the town’s Parks and Recreation buildings has been deemed a total loss after a roof HVAC unit was caught by Florence’s strong winds and pulled the roof off with it.

“It’s been gutted,” Owens said. “We still don’t know if we will rebuild it or just move the staff.

On the whole, he said the town has about eight to 10 buildings still left to repair.

The biggest cost could be to the town’s annual take from room-occupancy tax (ROT), an additional tax placed on hotel and short-term rentals stays. Since many of the island’s tourist attractions and accommodations were closed for much of the fall, diminished room-occupancy tax returns could impact the town’s bottom line going into the 2019 summer season.

Blair said ROT numbers were off by about 20 percent in December compared to December 2017.

Owens was more conservative in his take on the ROT impacts.

“We are down, but not tremendously down,” Owens said. “It is not a big blow.”

While much of the town is still powering through renovations or just now dusting their hands off from the work, Blair said he expects Florence to be in the rear-view mirror come late spring.

“I think we will come back pretty strong in mid-second quarter,” he said. “Whatever short falls we have, they will be made up. We expect a full recovery on all fronts.”

Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or