Built Back Stronger: Jones County's Florence Recovery Continues 3 Years Later
Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc on Eastern North Carolina three years ago this week. The devastation in small rural areas like Jones County is difficult to forget. PRE’s Meredith Radford reports on the progress that’s been made in recovery and ways county officials hope to mitigate future devastation is still recovering, and that their emergency management team learned some important lessons from the storm.
Tim Pike, Jones County’s emergency services director, remembers Hurricane Florence well.
“It was probably one of the most hectic nights we’ve ever been through here. We were not expecting the water to rise as quick as it did and we wound up doing I think it was nearly 300 rescues that night.”
Pike said the county’s volunteer fire departments even borrowed school buses to haul people out of floodwaters. He says they lost power, water and radio and phone communications.
“We were just very lucky and very blessed that we didn’t lose a single soul that night.”
Though they didn’t have much wind damage, there was widespread flooding across Jones County. The Trent River rose to a record high and damaged many homes and business. Some have still not fully recovered. But Pike says the county has built back stronger and more resilient.
In the ongoing effort to repair homes, Pike says the federally-funded Rebuild NC has played a big role.
“There’s about 98 families that are in that program right now. They’ve either got an active case going on or we have transferred them over to Rebuild NC. 48 of them have actually got cases and 50 of them are pending.”
Through the Disaster Recovery Act, Pike says the county is handling another 11 cases. He says they have helped an overall 595 houses damaged in Florence.
He says the Trenton Volunteer Fire Department received a grant of over $2 million for a new building to move out of a flood zone after the storm.
“Some good has come from Florence. We’ve got a lot of people in brand-new houses. There’s a lot of bad that came with it. We lost over $3 million in tax value.”
Thanks to FEMA’s hazard mitigation grant program, the county has purchased 24 homes from people at pre-storm market value so that the families can move out of flood zones. Nothing can be built on these properties, but Pike says they could be turned into a community park. These flood zones are also being looked at, and Pike says they will likely eventually be remapped, but for now they haven’t changed much.
Businesses like Grilling Buddies in Pollocksville, have been able to reopen as well.
“They actually bought a building beside of them and they have finally reopened. There’s still a couple of things in Pollocksville that didn’t ever come back. For the most part, the business aspect has returned and is back operational.”
He says the county’s emergency management leadership structure changed drastically after the many lessons they learned from Florence. Pike says they had one person doing way too many things.
“Prior to Florence, we had one person in the county that ran emergency management, he was also building inspector, he was also floodplain administrator and the safety officer of the county and it was just — emergency management is a full-time job and we realized after Florence that one person can’t do it all.”
Pike was Emergency Medical Services director at the time, and he’s since moved up to his current position. Ryan Mills, the emergency management planner was brought on to focus on disaster recovery and preparedness. Mills says they’ve completely redone their emergency operations plan.
During Florence, the entirety of Jones County lost water. Pike says they’ve fixed water lines and put generators at well sites so that doesn’t happen again.
“We may have another storm but hopefully we’ll be more resilient and more prepared for it.”
Pike says the county implemented a new mass notification system that sends alerts about community emergencies to your phone.
Pike says the county couldn’t have recovered as well as it did without organizations like Jones County Rise and Rice N Beans Ministries. Overall, Pike says they now feel more prepared for storms.
“We still don’t want to see one but we feel like we could survive it and keep the necessities going a lot easier now than what we were prepared for last time."
For Public Radio East, I’m Meredith Radford.