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The governor’s recovery plan is focused, in part, on making infrastructure more resilient
WILMINGTON — While speaking to the Wilmington Downtown Incorporated (WDI) on Tuesday, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper took readers back about six months, to the days immediately after Hurricane Florence when he came to the city to visit still-open shelters.
In one, he recalled, he met a woman who had been rescued from her home by a Wilmington firefighter even as waters rose. Cooper recalled telling her he was sorry, to which the woman said she thanked God she was alive, for the firefighter who had rescued her and for the volunteers at the shelter.
“You know what? I’m gonna make it,” the woman said, according to the governor.
Speaking Tuesday, Cooper said, “We have a responsibility to come together to help people like her to make it, to make sure we emerge from this storm more resilient and stronger than ever.”
During a visit to the Port City Tuesday, Cooper emphasized the message that the city is open and the recovery is underway, while simultaneously stressing how important it is that the rebuilding process better prepare the area — and the state — for increasingly common storms.
In addition to speaking at the downtown luncheon, Cooper visited several businesses on North Front Street and took a tour of the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), where the rebuilding effort is underway. Cooper’s tour included a visit to the trailers that are temporarily housing the biology and chemistry classes that were displaced by extensive damage to Dobo Hall during Florence.
Speaking to faculty, Cooper said, “I can imagine when you saw what had happened over there, that it was like, ‘What are we doing to do now?'”
A key area of emphasis throughout the day was affordable housing — a long-simmering topic that reached a boil after Florence.
Jonathan Barfield, chair of the New Hanover County Commissioners, referenced the county’s decision in the 2018-19 budget to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour — or $31,000 annually. While that represented progress, Barfield said, employees starting at that wage are not able to find housing in the county.
“In our county, if you’re a single person making $31,000 a year, there’s no single house you can buy on that salary,” he said. “We must do better.”
An affordable housing bright spot emerged when Ed Wolverton, the president and CEO of WDI, spoke: The nine-story Cape Fear Hotel at Chestnut and Second streets, which sustained significant damage during Florence are, he said, “committed to keeping (it) available for senior affordable housing.”
Immediate efforts to address the storm-exacerbated affordable housing crunch include the Federal Emergency Management Ageny’s Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) Program, in which homes are repaired enough to be livable, but not back to their original states.
The Cooper administration’s longer-term efforts to spur the development of affordable housing include encouraging public-private partnerships with tax credits and by funding the N.C. Housing Finance Agency. The state is also working with Habitat for Humanity of the Lower Cape Fear, Cooper said, pointing to a $1.5 million grant in Fayetteville to provide infrastructure for a 47-home Habitat neighborhood for storm survivors as an example of what can be accomplished.
“We’re going to need some help from the federal government with the Community Development Block Grants to do more affordable public housing,” Cooper said. “That’s one of the biggest holes that we’ve got right now.”
Making North Carolina more resilient will, Cooper said, require the strategic use of buyouts in flood-prone areas, elevating strategic infrastructure, and better preparing wastewater treatment plants for disasters like hurricanes.
“North Carolina is still vulnerable,” the governor said. “It takes a while to make sure we institute resiliency plans, but I do know that from a safety perspective, we’ve learned a lot of lessons from (2016’s Hurricane) Matthew and Florence, and I believe that we’re ready to respond to any storm. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do to make our infrastructure, homes and businesses more resilient from flooding.”
Wilmington’s leaders intend to advocate for many of the same improvements, including the elevation of parts of Interstates 40 and 95, with the latter focused on an area around Lumberton. Speaking at the downtown event, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo pegged the projects at $156 million and $350 million, respectively, and said they could take five-to-seven years to complete.
Saffo also spoke about the need to have buildings within the city that can remain standing through a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane, noting the city is designing gymnasiums at Maides Park and at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Center.
“We need to have much more resilient city and county structures here, but the folks in Raleigh hear us and they know that we’ll be back,” the mayor said.
Despite the need for more resilience, part of Tuesday’s story was a downtown business district that, per WDI, has $275.4 million in projects either planned or under construction, including hotels, apartments and the new Wave Transit multi-modal center, among others.
“All of that happened despite the hurricane,” Wolverton, “so thank you.”
Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.