On the morning after Hurricane Florence had moved out of rural Jones County, N.C., Julie and Kris Ronan opened the front door of their home in downtown Pollocksville and shouted to their neighbors across the street: “We made it!”
The married couple saw only slight damage to the foundation of their one-story home right after the Category 1 hurricane had passed, Julie Ronan said. They were initially ecstatic to have survived the storm with their property almost entirely unscathed, but their joy wouldn’t last long.
“Within fifteen minutes, the water started going back to the river,” she said. “I ran and got him and said ‘There’s something wrong. Something’s wrong.’ And it rose six inches in fifteen minutes. We all realized this is serious – we got to get out of here.”
She and her husband scrambled to save what they could from the rising floodwaters, Ronan said. They put clothes, photographs and items from their 5-year-old granddaughter’s bedroom on top of furniture, in a last-minute effort to protect their valuables from water damage.
“And by the time we left, it was already coming in our house,” she said.
In a matter of minutes, the floodwaters began rushing into their neighborhood, located about 2 ½ blocks away from the Trent River. The couple lost their 2017 Kia Soul and their “forever home,” which they had spent the last 12 years remodeling, Kris Ronan said.
“We were fixing it up to make it so we could sit back and enjoy the rest of our lives. We found a great community with a lot of great people in it,” he said. “We’re all just devastated.”
Fourteen inches of floodwater inside the couple’s home caused roughly $60,000 – $70,000 worth of interior damage, he said. Over the years, the couple installed brand new appliances, hardwood flooring and (about two weeks before the storm hit) new cabinets. All of those upgrades, along with the couple’s furniture, clothing and family photos, were ruined in the flood.
“We lost photos from vacations with our granddaughter,” Julie Ronan said, choking back tears. “There’s so much stuff that we lost.”
“Furniture, yeah, it hurts losing that, but that’s stuff that’s easily replaced. But photos of our granddaughter when she was younger and on vacations -- stuff like that, you can’t replace,” Kris Ronan said. “That’s what really tears the heart out.”
As soon as the floodwaters receded enough for the couple to survey their home, they began carrying furniture, clothing and items from their granddaughter’s room into their backyard to dry. They hoped to salvage what they could, though the smell from chemicals, sewage and animal waste tainted almost everything.
“I’ve never smelled anything so horrific in my life,” Julie Ronan said. “I don’t know how you even save your clothing.”
Like many residents in their neighborhood, they hadn’t purchased flood insurance, Kris Ronan said. They never imagined they’d need it because they live in a 500-year floodplain, meaning the likelihood of a flood occurring there in a given year is .2 percent.
“It’s never flooded, not like this,” he said. “Even with Floyd, they didn’t have this kind of damage and disaster. So, hardly anybody – if anybody – had flood insurance in here. And homeowner’s insurance it will help you with personal belongings and food, but that’s it.”
They haven’t yet decided if they will stay in Pollocksville and repair their home, Ronan said. Even though their home is unlivable, they still have to make mortgage payments, he said.
“I’m fortunate enough. I got a good job that pays the bills,” said Ronan, who works for Orkin Termite and Pest Control. “I have a disability pension from my years of active duty. I can’t even imagine what some of my neighbors – who are living on a small retirement – what this is going to do to them. This is the stuff that bankrupts people.”
Ronan says if they don’t receive enough assistance from their homeowner’s insurance and FEMA’s small business loan, then they might sell their home without making repairs, inevitably taking a loss on a home they’ve invested in for years.
“Floyd was supposed to be the 500-year flood,” he said. “Nineteen years to the day, we meet Hurricane Florence.”
Within hours after the hurricane passed, historic flooding along the Trent River began delivering destruction more widespread than the county’s roughly 10,000 residents had witnessed there before. County assessment teams counted on Thursday at least 572 homes, 43 businesses and 22 non-profit or publicly-owned buildings that were damaged in the flood. Altogether, the destruction amounted to more than $19 million, the county’s tax office estimates.
“I grew up in Jones County, and I experienced Hurricane Floyd and that was a 500-year flood. Those were levels, we felt like, we would never see again,” said Franky Howard, the county’s manager. “And we’ve seen flooding four and five feet higher than what we saw in Floyd. These are unprecedented numbers countywide.”
In downtown Pollocksville, the floodwaters reached the eaves of the town hall, which sits along the banks of the Trent River. About 20 inches of persistent rain and flooding formed a sinkhole on the road off of the Main Street Bridge over the river. The windows in the town’s restaurant and hotel were shattered.
About 10 miles away, flooding in Trenton damaged two schools, the post office, the county courthouse and numerous homes and businesses. “The entire town of Trenton had water. Not every house got water inside, but there was flooding around the homes,” Howard said.
Luke McKinney owns The Rag Bag, an eclectic shop at 112 W. Jones St. in downtown Trenton that sells handmade folk art pieces and vintage furniture and décor. He says the flooding brought about 3 ½ feet of water into his shop, destroying roughly $20,000 worth of inventory.
“It just looked like it was in a washing machine. It [the water] just turned everything around and around,” McKinney said.
Last Tuesday, he returned to his shop to survey the damage and begin clearing out the debris. By Wednesday afternoon, water-damaged vintage furniture, paintings, folk art pieces, records, CDs and video tapes were piled high on the sidewalk in front of his shop.
“I actually feel sick at my stomach,” McKinney said. “Do I want to cry? Should I cry? And I done did. But other than that, I’m just so overwhelmed with it.”
The storm also caused significant damage to his building. It broke the glass on the store’s front door and destroyed the building’s roof and ceiling. “There was so much water up there that it just came through and went down on the ceiling tiles. Over half of them are wet and mildewed and moldy already,” McKinney said.
Despite the devastation to his shop, he’s hopeful that he can repair it and resume operations within a couple of months, McKinney said. But that depends on whether he’s approved for a small business loan through FEMA. “They did call us right back, and we’re filling out the application right now. We’re just hoping that they could help us,” he said.
Like many other small-business owners in downtown Trenton, he had not purchased flood insurance, McKinney said. He says for many, including himself, flood insurance is too expensive.
“A lot of people didn’t have it because they can’t pay two-thousand dollars a year or three-thousand dollars a year. I’m almost sure mine would’ve probably been way up there,” he said.
McKinney says he plans to buy flood insurance for his home and business in the future, but he thinks the government should help reduce the cost. “We’re hoping that they can make it reasonable where we can afford it.”
Across the street from McKinney’s shop, Darlene Spivey, mayor of Trenton, and her husband Glenn, who’s the town clerk, were busy inside the town hall, sweeping the floors and laying out to dry saturated check books and meeting minutes that date back to the 1940s.
“We were lucky that the windows and doors didn’t bust like some of the businesses across town,” Spivey said. “We raised our files up because of Floyd, but we didn’t raise them [high] enough to get them out of Florence.”
Spivey echoes Luke McKinney’s concerns about the cost of flood insurance. She says she and her husband are the only residents in their downtown Trenton neighborhood who had flood insurance.
“Some of our neighbors canceled it last year. Ours is not but one-thousand dollars, but there’s people on our street that’s paying four-thousand dollars and they’re elderly, so they stopped paying it. The prices are all over the board,” she said.
The den inside their South Weber Street home received 4 ½ of flooding, Spivey said. She, like many of her constituents, lost almost everything, she said.
“It’s very sad to see everything everybody owns on the side of the street. We know because ours is out there,” she said.
To rebuild, the town needs help from the state and federal governments, Spivey said. But she says the community can’t rely on public assistance alone to recover.
“We’ve got to pull together and work ourselves. And that’s one thing that’s good about our county. We do pull together and we know how to work,” she said.