Six Months Later, Hurricane Matthew Recovery Continues

Apr 17, 2017

Since October, residents across eastern North Carolina have been recovering from Hurricane Matthew.  While most people have repaired and rebuilt their homes ravaged by floodwaters, others are still living in transitional housing.  Local officials are focusing on long term recovery by identifying properties for buyouts.

On October 8th, Hurricane Matthew made landfall in South Carolina and dumped eight to twelve inches of rain as it moved northeast across our area.  The true impact wasn’t realized until a couple days later, when local rivers started to rise.

The heavy rainfall caused the banks of the Cape Fear, Neuse, Trent and Cashie Rivers to swell to levels not witnessed since the turn of the century.  Even though the skies had cleared, more than 1400 swift water rescues took place as teams used helicopters and boats to save people from rooftops and vehicles. Record breaking floodwaters inundated homes and businesses.

At first, Greenville and downtown New Bern were expected to be hit hard with flooding.  But as the forecast changed day by day, other more rural areas in Beaufort, Lenoir and Craven counties were most affected in our area.  Aside from 28 deaths in the state, Matthew displaced thousands and caused $4.8 billion in damages.

As soon as floodwaters receded, eastern North Carolinians welcomed the  National Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Baptist Men and other non-profits in cleaning out their homes and sifting through their ruined belongings.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency along with the Small Business Administration set up disaster assistance centers throughout eastern North Carolina to help fill out low interest loan paperwork and grants.  Now, six months after Hurricane Matthew, Lenoir County Emergency Services Director Roger Dail reports efforts there have shifted to long term recovery– in the form of property acquisition and relocation projects.

“We have submitted the information to the state, I think there were 230 properties on that list to either be bought out or elevated.”

Property owners from all over the county, in Kinston, La Grange, Pink Hill and Grifton, have applied for buyouts.  Dail says they expect to hear back any day now from state and federal entities on criteria that would make a home eligible for buyout.  He says just because a residents name is on the list doesn’t necessarily mean the property will be bought.

“I’m sure the next step will be as soon as we kind of get word as to who would be eligible and who’s not, that’s when we go back to the ones who are eligible and collect. And we’ll have to collect more information I’m sure, and that’s how that process will start.”

A property acquisition project implemented after Hurricane Fran in 1996 and Floyd three years later helped save money and lives during Hurricane Matthew. About 800 homes in Kinston were relocated out of the floodplain after those two powerhouse storms.  Dail says there’s a definite need for more buyouts, since Lenoir County still has about 800 homes and 170 businesses located within the Neuse River floodplain.

“Where the residents are at now is the ones, we still have some displaced who are not in their homes, and some of them are waiting to see if they’re going to be bought out, although I don’t encourage them to do that. If you’ve got money to fix your home, you need to go back in and start fixing it. Because you might not be one that’s bought out.”

Most Lenoir County residents impacted by Matthew have since returned to their homes or moved.  Dail estimates the number of people living in transitional shelters, like hotels and mobile homes, to be in the single digits. 

“Our businesses are for the most part back open, there still might be one or two that went back in and did extensive remodeling in some cases, or in one case just totally built a new building, and I don’t think it’s open yet.  But we’re slowly getting there.  We’re slowly getting back.”

The cleanup and recovery process continues in neighboring Craven County too.  Director of Emergency Services Stanley Kite says the majority of flooding from Hurricane Matthew occurred along River Road near Weyerhaeuser. 

“We had probably a dozen or so that were severely damaged from the flooding, and another 15 to 20 that had what we would consider moderate damage from the flooding.”

Since the storm, most of the affected Craven County residents have rebuilt and have returned to their homes, although Kite says six to eight people are still displaced and currently living in transitional housing.

“We have now gone for a substantial amount of time where I think good progress is being made.  Most of the debris is gone. We still have the rehabilitation of some of the homes that were more severely damaged than others.  We now have a Disaster Recovery Coalition group of volunteers that are out there working day to day on individualized special needs but I think for the most part, the recovery in our area has been significantly better or improved from what some were experiencing in other areas because of the low numbers.”

Moving forward, Kite says non-governmental organizations like American Red Cross, Salvation Army and Religious Community Services will continue to work with residents until they get back on their feet.  Craven County is currently identifying applicants for a mitigation program which would buy out property or raise houses in flood prone areas.

“There was also a resiliency development plan going on so far as trying to come up with concepts or ideas, means or ways to minimize or reduce this impact from occurring in the future.  So there’s several projects ongoing.  The County Planning Department is kind of working hand in hand with those applicants who may be interested in either property acquisition or those that might be interested in elevation.”

The mitigation program likely will be a topic of discussion at the final Hurricane Matthew Resilient Redevelopment Plan public meeting in New Bern on Wednesday.  The forum, hosted by Craven County Government and North Carolina Emergency Management will collect feedback on strategies that will serve as a roadmap for community rebuilding and revitalization assistance in Craven County’s recovery plan. 

In just six months’ time, a great deal of progress has been made.  But Lenoir County Emergency Services Director Roger Dail it will take years for a full recovery.

“People’s businesses start opening back up.  Your people start getting back into their new houses, and everybody says that’s all, we’re recovered.  Well, we have from that standpoint.  But then you have the economy that you have to deal with, and that’s got to catch up at some time.”

According to Governor Pat McCrory’s Request for Federal Assistance For Hurricane Matthew Recovery back in November, initial estimates show the economic damage of disruption to businesses… is likely to exceed $2 billion.

With the official start to the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season only a month and a half away, $198 million to fund Matthew recovery is coming to North Carolina from federal flood relief.  Governor Roy Cooper has asked Congress for an additional $1 billion and a separate request for additional aid was sent to the General Assembly.