When Hurricane Florence hit small, rural communities in Jones County, hundreds of families were displaced from their homes and dozens of businesses closed down. The storm caused an estimated $8 million in damages to personal property alone. No one expected the catastrophic flooding that occurred, not even emergency responders who performed about 200 swift water rescues.
Hurricane Florence dumped about 20 inches of rain in Jones County, causing water levels in the Trent River to rise. Floodwaters devastated communities across the county, inundating more than 200 homes and dozens of businesses.
Following the hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought in trailers for residents, offered temporary housing at motels, and helped homeowners return their homes to livable condition through the Sheltering and Transitional Assistance Program. Now, more than eight months since the storm, Tim Pike, Jones County Emergency Services Director, said many residents have been able to return to their homes.
“Right now, I think there’s only just a few of the trailers left in the county. And we have just a handful of people that are staying out of the county in motels," said Pike.
Recovery in Jones County is still far from over. So far, the county has received $34 million from FEMA to buy out properties that received significant damage. About 130 people have applied with the state accelerating the buyouts of 35 homeowners.
“If they got flooded during Matthew and Florence, it kind of put them on an expedited list to make it happen a lot quicker," said Pike. "This is not a fast process. It usually takes a couple of years to get it so we’re hoping that this will happen in a year or so.”
Home elevation should start soon. Some county-owned buildings were damaged during Hurricane Florence, including the Jones County Courthouse, which remains closed. During the storm, 30 inches of water filled the basement, which is where the county jail is located.
"There’s different electrical and IT work being done," said Frankie Howard, Jones County Manager. "We’re redoing the floors down in the basement. Took out all the old floors that were there wet and now we’ve got a painted epoxy flooring that’s more resilient if and when it floods again.”
While repairs are being made, inmates are housed at correctional facilities in Craven, Onslow, Pamlico and Brunswick counties.
“$50 a day is the going rate for inmate housing so we’ve had to increase that budget line item. So hopefully, we’re tracking that, hopefully, we can get FEMA reimbursement for a good chunk of those expenditures,” said Howard.
The courthouse is expected to open this summer. Many local businesses depend on the courthouse to bring people to Trenton. Tatina Villahermosa, the owner of Java Dreams coffee house was able to reopen a month after Florence flooded her cafe with two and a half feet of water. But other businesses on the same street aren't so lucky.
“Some of the buildings down here have been gutted out, and I know there’s a couple that are waiting on roofs to be replaced. Even though they’re working on them, they’re not going to be the same businesses they were. ”
With the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season less than two weeks away, Jones County is more prepared to handle a storm than they were last September.
“We were crippled last time. We didn’t have enough people trained to operate our EOC [Emergency Operations Center]," said Pike. "What we’ve done now, we have actually put all of our EMS folks through classes to help man and staff the EOC.”
The county also hired a new emergency planner and is exploring ways to improve evacuations and shelters. In past storms, the county has operated three shelters; at the civic center, Comfort Elementary, and Maysville Elementary. Now, they’re considering having only one shelter, at the new high school, once construction is complete.
“The problem we have in Jones County is the staffing. I mean we’re a small county, having enough law enforcement and nurses to staff three shelters, I mean, we can’t do it. We’re better off to get the people here where we can take care of them, where we can feed them. So we would probably use buses to pick them up in other locations and transport them here pre-storm," said Pike.
Jones County High School is being built to withstand 115 mile per hour winds or up to a category two hurricane. Construction is expected to be complete next year.
As recovery continues from Florence, Pike urges residents to prepare now for future storms by assembling a disaster supplies kit and forming an emergency evacuation plan.
“It’s going to happen again, this is the third time. I don’t know how everyone feels about global warming, but this something that when I was a child you never saw. And it’s happened three times in 20 years, so it’s going to happen again.”