New Bern rebuilds, but damage remains one year after Hurricane Florence

Friday, September 13, 2019
Florence One Year Later
Florence One Year Later

NEW BERN (WTVD) -- Like the bear on the city's emblem, much of New Bern has roared back from the catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Florence.

One year after the historic storm, though, many streets are still lined with dumpsters and debris.

Yes, there has been a tremendous effort towards restoration, but many residents lament it's almost impossible that they will ever really recover.

"We can't go back to where we were," Christine Moseley, a New Bern resident, said. "We can only go forward. We've lost a lot but we've gained a lot."

$100 million in damage

Hurricane Florence first made landfall in North Carolina on Sept. 14, 2018. The storm was a mammoth system 500 miles wide which dumped up to 35 inches of rain in some parts of the Tar Heel State over the course of three days.

New Bern, which sits on the banks of the Neuse and Trent Rivers before they feed into the Pamlico Sound, quickly emerged as the unofficial Ground Zero with storm surges surpassing 10 feet and rivers cresting to historic levels.

Officially, New Bern municipal reports detail 1,945 structures damaged or destroyed at a cost of nearly $100 million. That includes 1,724 single homes and 221 businesses.

In the first six months after the storm, city crews hauled away an estimated 10,000 tons of debris at a cost of $4.5 million. Officials said the tonnage includes about 180,000 cubic feet of natural debris like limbs and vegetation - enough to stack piles 10 feet high covering 600 football fields.

"It's a work in progress"

Robert and Christine Moseley's modest house on Oaks Road had been their home for more than 30 years before Florence swept away everything from the furniture to their family pictures.

The couple said their total losses exceeded $60,000. They did have flood insurance, but that only paid back some $24,000.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), kicked in a trailer and about $2,500 for essentials like food and clothing for the ensuing months after the floods subsided.

"It was rough in the beginning, but as you go on, you start working, you get so much help from volunteers that every time you get disgusted and you want to quit, other people come in," Robert Moseley said.

"We have really seen the love of God spread out for us," Christine added. "People have been so supportive. They prayed for us and gave us encouragement every time they came that things were going to get better and things have gotten better."

Actually, the real good news only occurred last month when the Moseley's finally moved back into their house from the trailer. Much of the house remains in disarray, but there are new floors, new siding, a bed in the bedroom and working appliances in the kitchen.

Robert estimates another three months of work before the house is totally "back to normal." He says he still has the stamina - and patience - to keep working because of his faith.

"I didn't have this much religion in me, but now I see it."

Businesses come back, but business does not

Rebuilding structures is one thing, but business owners warn that time spent restoring a business is time spent away from conducting business.

StandUp Outfitters, a family-run paddleboard and kayak shop, reopened its doors in time for summer, but owner Charley Lewis says he remains in severe debt from the lost tourism and lost wages.

"There's been no vacations, there's been no free times, there's no going out to restaurants," Lewis says of the effect of the storm on his family. "There's just work as hard as you can to try to get things back to where you were."

Lewis explains there was added frustration with a lack of available local tradesmen in the area to complete work in a timely fashion.

"There were logjams" Lewis recalls. "Everybody got jammed up with electricians because there weren't enough to go around. You'd then sit and wait until the drywallers were available and then you'd sit and wait until the inspectors could show up."

Lewis is hoping next summer will bring a lot better news, but the biggest hotel in town - the DoubleTree - remains closed amid a reported insurance dispute. The convention center, meanwhile, is expected to open its doors later this fall.

Still waiting for answers

ABC11 was there as dozens of frustrated victims attended a disaster information session at St. Peter AME Zion Church. The session, hosted by NC Emergency Management, is part of a campaign by the newly created NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Helen Barrett was among those attending who have not moved back into her home on Pembroke Avenue.

"It's cheaper to go home than to go anywhere else if I can get it fixed," Barrett says. "I don't know how it goes, but I put in a lot of applications. Some I've heard from, some I have not."

Barrett's main issue is that her home falls in an undefined gray area: her home was too damaged for state-sponsored quick fixes but has not yet crossed the threshold for her home to be eligible for a government buyout of the property or other forms of hazard mitigation.

As she waits for answers, Barrett continues to live in a rented room and living off of stipends from FEMA.

"When these people call, you have to be available to answer the calls," Barrett explained. "I was working as a receptionist and I kind of walked away from my job because at their desk I could not answer my phone. I am at their mercy because I don't have the finances to do it myself."

Two big accounts not paid out yet

Helen Barrett's answers haven't arrived yet because officials say the federal government still needs to move on two key sources of disaster relief: Hazard Mitigation and Community Development Block Grants-Disaster Relief (CDGB-DR).

Hazard Mitigation is the state-federal partnership that identifies properties that should be physically raised or bought out to reduce the impact of future disasters and prevent more taxpayer money from rebuilding something that will be destroyed again.

The program, however, is a long one, with emergency management officials compiling the applications and sending them to Washington for government approval. The federal government then turns around and empowers the state to conduct the construction or real estate transactions.

ABC11 has learned that $24 million has been awarded thus to North Carolina, but an additional $144 million is being requested.

"We're doing 2,300 houses in 52 counties," Steven McGugan, Assistant Director of NC Emergency Management, explains to ABC11. "We're trying to go as fast as we can but as with every program you either have regulations we have to make sure we adhere to, the laws have been passed."

Officials also concede that legal protocols are holding up more than $336 million in CDGB-DR funds which have been allocated by Congress but not yet approved by the Federal Register.

"We have no qualm with their impatience."

As for Helen Barrett, she admits she has no choice but to wait. Her choice, instead, is about what kind of attitude to maintain.

"I'm going to wait because I know something good is coming to me as far as going home."