When the floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew receded, a state-run tree nursery in Goldsboro took stock of the damage. Most of the property had been under water for five days. Some tree seedlings had floated away. The Little River left behind sediment in some places and created six-foot-deep gullies in others.
Claridge Nursery, the largest tree facility run by the N.C. Forest Service, sells seedlings to private landowners across the state to encourage the planting of native tree species but had to issue refunds to customers after the October storm.
Now the nursery is recovering from the devastation, with a big boost from the $200 million disaster relief bill that legislators and then-Gov. Pat McCrory approved last month.
“The funding we received was a godsend,” said James West, who manages the facility. “Without it, there would be 13 people that didn’t have a job.”
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The seedlings program’s goal is to stimulate North Carolina’s forest-products industry, which includes the production of lumber, paper and other materials and which contributes an estimated $24 billion annually to the state’s economy.
Claridge was among the many government facilities, homes and businesses that flooded in Wayne County, which was hit hard in the hurricane. The nursery lost its entire bare root crop – trees that are dug up and sold without soil around their roots – which carried an estimated loss of $1.2 million, according to Forest Service spokesman Brian Haines. Claridge is one of two nurseries in the program, and the flood damage put its future in jeopardy until the legislature took action, West said.
The disaster relief package includes a total of $25.5 million for the Forest Service, some of which will help restore Claridge Nursery. The rest will go toward response efforts for the November wildfires in western North Carolina and other disaster-related timber restoration projects.
House Majority Leader John Bell, a Goldsboro Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said the Forest Service is facing a long recovery process.
“It’s not like a department store or a business that it floods, you lose some inventory and you replace it and you reopen,” Bell said. “This is something that takes years.”
The Forest Service had to issue about $600,000 in refunds to customers who’d purchased loblolly pine seedlings.
“There are little to no seedlings left that were not impacted by the storm and flood,” Haines said. “Some were lost downstream when they floated away, some remained saturated for as much as six days and others never went under. It should also be noted that N.C. Forest Service personnel made a herculean effort to rescue as much seed as possible so that we can have a crop this year.”
The Forest Service will use some of the funding to fix flood-damaged buildings at Claridge, including roof damage and mold issues. The agency has also applied for money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The disaster relief bill also includes $250,000 for another state government facility in Wayne County: the Cherry Research Farm, which needs dike repairs after the Neuse River flooded the property, destroying the office building.
The 2,200-acre farm started as a food source for the nearby Cherry psychiatric hospital and is now a home for sustainable agriculture research through a partnership between the N.C. Department of Agriculture, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T University.
“The levee has five major breaches and would provide no flood protection from the Neuse in its current state,” said Sandy Stewart, director of the Research Stations Division. “While a new office building will be needed, there is a very basic need to repair the levee because of our vulnerable situation.”
Bell praised the farm staff for ensuring that the damage wasn’t worse. “They had not lost any livestock, which was a huge feat in itself,” he said.
State facilities like the nursery and research farm make up only a fraction of the disaster relief bill. Bell says the state is working to make sure flood survivors can access other money in the bill, which includes a $20 million fund to help low-income people secure housing. One challenge is that some are still waiting on FEMA to determine how much federal assistance they’ll receive.
Leaders are also still working on plans for flood-prone areas where homes and businesses might need to relocate. The disaster relief bill includes $11.5 million for “resilient development planning,” part of which will address that concern.
Bell pointed to the example of Seven Springs, a small town in Wayne County that must decide its future after being devastated by hurricanes Matthew and Floyd. “What do we do with that community?” he said. “Are businesses going to be able to come back in?”
Bell says he expects legislators will work on a second disaster relief package when the long legislative session begins next week.
Highlights of the disaster relief bill
▪ $20 million for a fund meant to help low-income people secure housing.
▪ $66 million as the state’s share of federal assistance.
▪ $11.5 million for “resilient development planning” in the 49 counties declared by the president as major disaster areas.
▪ $45 million for grants to encourage loans to small businesses harmed by one of the disasters, to help local government build infrastructure outside 100-year flood plains, repair infrastructure, and repair wastewater and drinking water systems.
▪ $38 million to the state agriculture department for timber restoration, stream debris removal, and farm pond and dam repairs.
State-sponsored tree sale
Claridge Nursery in Goldsboro has been in operation since 1954, one of two nurseries run by the N.C. Forest Service for a program that’s little known outside the timber industry. Fred H. Claridge, state forester in the 1950s and 1960s, was a pioneer in creating North Carolina’s nursery seedling program in the 1920s.
The program produces an average of 15 million seedlings of native North Carolina tree species per year – enough to plant roughly 30,000 acres. Many buyers are large timber producers, but anyone can buy a few seedlings through the agency’s online store.
With the exception of the disaster relief money for Claridge, the program is funded by tree sales, and the Forest Service stresses that it “does not compete with the ornamental nursery industry ... NCFS serves as a stable provider in the often-volatile tree seedling market, ensuring access to a reliable supply of the best genetic selections.”
Forest Service spokesman Brian Haines says the program stimulates production of timber products such as lumber and paper in the state. “Without thriving forestland that wouldn’t be possible,” he said.