For many in Wilmington area, Florence recovery still underway

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As governments eye next hurricane season, residents try to return lives to normal

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Connie Pickett walks through the spaces that were once walls in her twice-flooded home in Pender County’s Whitestocking neighborhood.

Pickett visits the house twice a day, dumping sand through the open floor where a living room and kitchen once sat, trying to soak up the moisture that is still in her home.

Four generations of Pickett’s family live in this community, a place where debris was picked up and trailers were brought in, but time seems to have otherwise stopped moving at the point Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters receded. A drive down the road reveals homes with plywood in windows and some with no windows at all, lingering trash where the piles of debris containing generations of memories were once strewn and

Six months after Hurricane Florence made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, ultimately stalling over the Wilmington area and causing record-setting flooding, the region’s recovery is still underway. While the number of blue tarps lain across rooftops is dwindling and sand is returning to at least some local beaches, families like Pickett’s are trying to return to their homes. Others, like Shauna Osborne’s, are facing a competitive rental market and grappling with the storms psychological impacts.

Local governments, meanwhile, are continue recovery work even as they look ahead to how they could be better prepared for hurricanes, with the official June 1 start of the 2019 season ticking ever closer.

‘Nothing is being done’

Pickett, who rebuilt in Whitestocking after Hurricane Floyd’s floods in 1999, compares the two recoveries, saying rebuilding Florence has been more difficult so far.

“This is different,” Pickett said. “Nothing is really being done. … You don’t see anybody down here.”

Pickett attributes to uncertainties about Pender County building permits throughout the neighborhood. In Pickett’s case, the county was required her to either raise the house six inches or provide a contractor’s estimate of what it would cost to make fixes before starting work.

“That was the roughest,” Pickett said. “Not knowing if I would be able to get a permit without spending thousands of thousands of dollars to raise the house six inches.”

The permit arrived on the first of the year, and Pickett and her husband hope to start rebuilding soon. Ideally, Pickett would still raise the house, which also flooded after Floyd, but she’d like to use funds from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to accomplish that, a process that would likely take about two years. Shortly before Hurricane Florence, for instance,

 For now, they are living in a FEMA trailer in a small repurposed mobile home park, visiting the house at least twice a day to check how high the moisture levels are and whether any sand needs to be carried from the heap in the backyard and dumped into the crawl space.

“It’s rough, but you do what you’ve got to do. All I have is my faith,” Pickett said.

‘Instrument of hope’

Next door to Pickett’s home stands Sand Hill AME Zion Church, where generations of her family are congregants. At the height of flooding, the church had eight feet of standing water inside, and the facility became a key distribution point for supplies after flooding receded.

Hosanna Industries, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, was starting work there Thursday, preparing the facility for 60 volunteers to start working on it through the 15th in hopes of having its fellowship hall usable again before Easter Sunday.

Brian Hetzer, Hosanna Industries’ construction services director, said, “We figured if we could get them on their feet, they could be an instrument of hope to this community.”

Cartrelia Brown, Pickett’s mother, lives across Whitestocking Road from the church. Like everyone else in the neighborhood, the house she shares with her husband was flooded, and they are staying in Wilmington while trying to secure gas for a trailer on the Whitestocking Road property.

At least three elderly neighbors have died since the storm, something both Brown and Pickett attribute to stress.

Returning to Sand Hill would, Brown said, be “a good start” in the recovery.

“It’ll be a blessing,” Brown said, adding many members of the congregation haven’t seen each other since they scattered during the storm.

On three separate occasions after Florence, Hetzer has visited the Wilmington area to conduct relief work.

“The hope and the desire are there, but the resources are lacking. Because this storm was so big and wide, the resources got so spaced out,” Hetzer said, later adding, “Flying into Wilmington, you see the blue tarps, but not many. Then, when you’re on the ground, it doesn’t look like there’s been a disaster.”

That is not, Hetzer added, the case in Whitestocking.

New Hanover County after action

Following Hurricane Florence, New Hanover County officials conducted employee surveys, held 16 staff feedback meetings, held focus groups with partner agencies, and conducted one-on-one interviews with certain partners, county commissioners and senior staff.

The output was a lengthy after action report that identified ways to improve areas such as communications, supply staging, shelters, infrastructure and managing volunteers.

Beth Schrader, New Hanover County’s chief strategy officer, said, “Patting yourselves on the back isn’t going to help us improve, and the after action report was a very, very honest look in holding a mirror up to see where are the opportunities to improve.”

Among the concerns outlined in report were the seeming lack of a plan, with people on the ground working together on the fly to accomplish tasks such as setting up a helicopter landing zone in the parking lot of Hanover Center.

“Part of this is documenting the things that went well … recognizing that there are some plans that happened organically, and we learned some things about what worked well and could have worked better,” Schrader said.

Many of the administrative tasks are scheduled to be finished by June 2019, including setting up a planning section of the emergency operations center that, she said, would be tasked with looking two or three days ahead while everyone else was focusing on the problems in front of them. Other tasks set for completion by June include a communications plan; a comprehensive shelter policy including resources, staffing and level of service; and contracts for prepositioned resources such as food and fuel.

The New Hanover County Commissioners were originally slated to discuss the report at its Feb. 18 meeting, postponing the conversation until the March 18 meeting.

Staff is asking commissioners for policy choices including an evacuation policy identifying different zones throughout the county; a shelter policy identifying the number of shelters and how they should be operated; and a policy better integrating City of Wilmington employees into the emergency operations center.

“If we were to do a mandatory evacuation of the entire county and it were just us and no other counties were evacuating regionally, it would still take us 72 hours to get everybody out,” Schrader said, adding evacuations would also impact operations at New Hanover Regional Medical Center and the Wilmington International Airport.

Evacuations would likely mean more people in shelters, another component the county is considering. Should shelters be kept in schools, Schrader said, there would likely need to be further structural improvements to ensure they could better withstand storms, as well as improvements to make the facilities more comfortable.

“What we’re asking the board to do is have us go off and do some analysis and do some reviews of best practices,” Schrader said.

Lingering impacts

Every time it’s windy outside, Osborne’s kids ask if a tree is a going to fall on their house again.

While the family was evacuated during Hurricane Florence, a large tree fell on their house at 21st and Metts streets in Wilmington, landing on Osborne’s 6-year-old son’s bedroom, the master bathroom and the bathroom her son and 3-year-old daughter share.

“The kids’ stuff either got rained on or crushed,” Osborne said. “It was weird how much debris got inside the house just from those days of rain.”

After returning to Wilmington, Osborne went out of her way to take a route to the preschool her daughter, Adeline, attends that did not involve passing the damaged house on Metts. That meant adding  time to the morning’s route, though, so she began passing by again.

“Oh look, there’s our old busted house,” Adeline would say as they drove by.

As she cleaned up after the storm, Osborne made sure not to let Adeline or her son, Eliot, inside the damaged house. Along with a group of volunteers and friends, she worked to salvage what she could — kitchen items, linens — and throw away anything that was wet or covered in mold.

Still, Eliot didn’t sleep well following the storm, suffering nightmares.

“He’s alright now,” Osborne said, “but every time there’s a storm or even high winds, both my kids are in my bed.”

Osborne is leasing an Airbnb owned by a friend of a friend for now, but her family needs to find a new place to live when the lease ends April 1.

Ideally, Osborne would like to find a home in the Carolina Place area with at least three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

She recognizes, though, that Wilmington’s housing market is extremely competitive, with an existing lack of affordable housing tied together with hundreds of apartment units shutting down, at least temporarily, after Hurricane Florence.

“We will find a place that will be a sacrifice in some way,” Osborne said. “We’ll all have to share a bathroom or they’ll have to share a bedroom. … We’ll have to leave the neighborhood and live somewhere we don’t want to live, but I’m just … happy to be alive.”

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