It's been five years since Hurricane Florence flooded communities along ENC's rivers and their tributaries
Five years ago, Hurricane Florence left behind devastation in communities across eastern North Carolina. Storm surge and relentless rainfall flooded coastal communities and towns along the region’s rivers and their tributaries.
Craven County Emergency Management Director Stanley Kite said hundreds of people were stranded by storm surge and flooding when Hurricane Florence passed just offshore, sending a surge of water into the Neuse River five years ago today.
"We picked up a lot of people in the road that were stranded. We picked up a lot of people off their porch. We picked up a lot of people that had already had to go to the second floor of their home,” he said, “In less than 7 hours, just Craven County 911 alone had over 1,800 calls for rescue. As far as I'm concerned, that was 1,800 that made the wrong choice.”
The wrong choice – not heading the mandatory evacuation order to leave and head for safety further inland.
"It was the first one since I've been working for Craven County and I've been here … I'm working on year 47 ... that we had ever asked for a total county wide evacuation. Which we try not to put those type of messages out unless they're very, very serious and we were hoping to have a better response from those individuals that were in harm's way that they would evacuate, especially those in the flood zones,” Kite said.
The storm was initially forecast to make landfall somewhere near Morehead City but took an unexpected southerly turn and eventually came ashore near Wrightsville Beach. According to a study of cellphone use at the time, Kite said many who initially followed the evacuation order changed their plans.
He said, "Eighty-six percent of those devices appeared to be evacuating the day before, or leaving the area, but then that night, after they changed the forecast to make landfall in Wilmington, 67% appeared to be coming back.”
NewsChannel 12, WCTI is the ABC affiliate in New Bern and was providing wall-to-wall coverage as Florence approached. Chief Meteorologist Donnie Cox said the station was evacuated mid-broadcast.
"They actually came in and evacuated the station at 6:00, during our 6:00 news, right in the middle of reading a story. You heard somebody yell evacuate now, except the meteorologists.”
The reason Cox and his colleague Shane Hinton held off on leaving the quickly-flooding area is because the greater community was still in danger. He said, “There were tornado warnings out from it. We were starting to see those bands that produced tornado warnings and there was a tornado warning until 8:00 and I refused to go before those warnings expired. And at 8:00 they had expired. And that the folks that were here to make sure that the last two people in the building, the meteorologists that were working, which was myself and Shane Hinton, they wanted to make sure we got out of the building safely and at 8:00 they were standing there and it was time to go.”
Meanwhile, in Pollocksville, in Jones County, Mayor Jay Bender watched as the same storm surge pushed its way up the Trent River, which runs right through the heart of the small town.
“We found that the water was rising 4 inches an hour and by Monday morning, it was bad,” he said, “It had covered so much of the town and we had to evacuate. I mean, orders were sent out to evacuate.”
And those waters decimated the community of just over 200 people. Bender said, "When it was all said and done, I think I estimated about 75 commercial buildings and residential buildings had anywhere from 4 inches to 21 feet of water in it.”
The Filling Station is a non-profit formed a year before the storm, but it had only just opened its food bank in Pollocksville days before Hurricane Florence arrived. Executive Director Mary Anne LeRay said they were fortunate that their building was on slightly higher ground, and although the waters inched up the front walkway the building did not flood. Mayor Bender reached out and asked if the organization would serve as the hub for those impacted by the storm.
"Within three or four days after the hurricane, I was getting calls from people saying, ‘We want to help. We want to bring stuff.’ I think The Filling Station had made only one food pantry drop, and I called Mary Ann. I said, ‘Mary and y'all got to crank up, y'all got to move into disaster recovery mode,’ and so for about four months, that's what they did,” Bender said.
LeRay added, “We served for 14 weeks, six days a week from 10-5, and we served about 100 cars a day with food, cleaning supplies, tarps.”
"Hurricane Florence was five years ago for so many people, but unfortunately for the people that were still serving, it may as well been yesterday,” said Kristy Kulberg, the Director of Operations for the Craven County Disaster Recovery Alliance.
It was a small nonprofit before Hurricane Florence, but quickly grew to accommodate the needs of so many families that surfaced after the storm.
She said, "Over the last five years, we've met the needs of more than 600 people through our agency.”
And they’re not done yet. Kulberg said, "We know that there's over 200 people that still need help. That's what we know of, and that keeps going up. Every time we close a case or two, another case or two comes out of the woodwork. The people are still finding out that there's still assistance here. Everybody's kind of thought that all the help is gone. So, there's really no end in sight, unfortunately.”
Standing in the way, though, is a dip in funding because donations have slowed to a trickle in the years since Florence hit, and fewer and fewer people are donating their time to help those that have not yet recovered.
"A lot of people have, especially in our local area, just forgot that hurricane recovery is still here,” Kulberg said, “So, the money has slowed and dried up and … well, not dried up yet, but it's getting there … volunteer, you know, we're pretty solely dependent on out-of-town volunteers right now.”
Volunteers of all types, from construction and renovation to office help and even people able to photograph damaged homes still in need of repair would help the organization help people still living in – or unable to live in – homes that still have damage caused by the flooding.
“These people's homes are killing them. They're in mold, they're in rotting floors. We've we had an 82-year-old woman fall through her floor because it's been rotted since the water sat on it in Hurricane Florence,” she said.
Donations to fund the repairs can be made to the Craven County Disaster Recovery Alliance HERE.
Interested volunteers can learn more and sign up to help HERE.
In Pollocksville, Mayor Bender says the residential portion of the community has bounced back in the aftermath of Florence.
"All but about one or two of the houses that were flooded on the west side of town, which is where most of the flooding was, all those homes have been restored; some by the owners, who lived in FEMA trailers while work was going on in their house and fixed it back up and they intended to stay. In other situations, people said, ‘No, I'm not going to stay, but I'm going to put my house up for sale,’ but someone has come in and bought the house, fixed it up and is living there,” he said.
More challenging is resurrecting the business community, which was also greatly impacted by the opening of the U.S. 17 bypass. The highway eliminated the flow traffic from New Bern to Jacksonville that once passed through the community.
"The challenge for us is going to be how do we resurrect our business, our little downtown business? This was already a challenge anyway because so many of the businesses had had left. We didn't have anything and we knew that with the bypass coming through that we were going to have to reimagine ourselves, figure out a different way to attract people into town.”
The Filling Station in Pollocksville continues to expand, and now includes a leadership academy for Jones County, a teaching kitchen where they can help families learn how to cook healthy meals on a budget, in addition to its food distribution program. LeRay said they are also prepared to jump in immediately when the next need arises.
"We have got ourselves situated in such a way that we can serve a lot of people in the midst of a disaster,” she said.
As for NewsChannel 12, after about nine months working in construction trailers, and then many more months in a cobbled-together newsroom and studio in one corner of the building, Cox said renovations were completed about three years ago.
"There is nothing in this building right now that we're operating with that is older than three years old,” he said, “We have new everything, state-of-the-art stuff. We put in a state-of-the-art studio. We have everything back close to what we called normal before the storm, with all the new bells and whistles.”
And when the next big storm appears to be on a path toward eastern North Carolina, Kite, the Craven County Emergency Manager, hopes more people will head the evacuation warnings and head to somewhere west of the I-95 corridor.
"When certain conditions are imminent, we may not be able to respond,” he said. “We cannot risk dispatching an ambulance across the bridges during sustained winds greater than 50 mph. I mean, those block trucks will roll over. You can't risk killing your crew and losing that apparatus because someone else made a bad choice until those conditions improve.”
There were no deaths in eastern North Carolina caused by Hurricane Florence.