Watch a timelapse of downtown Wilmington flooding at high tide
In Burgaw’s Riverbend neighborhood, homeowners have learned to build with the nearby Northeast Cape Fear River in mind. Most homes there sit on stilts 12 feet high.
The homes built after Sept. 19, 1999, the day Hurricane Floyd brought the river up to 22.5 feet, are higher still, as many of the oldest homes were flooded several inches by that storm. The highest home in the neighborhood, well over 16 feet high, is still under construction.
This neighborhood fared just fine when Hurricane Matthew brought the river up to 17.8 feet in 2016.
But Florence proved too much. On Sept. 19, on the 19th anniversary of Floyd, the Cape Fear, swollen by three days of rain upstream, rose up to 25.5 feet, more than 15 feet above flood stage. Homes were filled with several feet of water.
“This is the worst one yet,” said Jason Atoigue, while looking at river crest readings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The government agency has a gauge on this section of the Northeast Cape Fear.
“Floyd was supposed to be a hundred-year storm, and this has beaten Floyd, what, some 20 years later,” said Atoigue, who built his home above where Floyd barely flooded his neighbor’s house. At the river’s highest, his 16-foot-tall house had a foot of water in it.
Now longtime residents — many retirees — are questioning whether the idyllic lifestyle next to the river is worth it anymore, if flooding becomes more frequent now.
Many were evacuated ahead of the flood by helicopter as the rising river blocked them from leaving their homes. As the Northeast Cape Fear slowly receded, many got their first glimpse of their homes again on Sunday, Sept. 23.
Jamie Johansen, a neighbor who Atoigue ferried to feed her stranded horses, was one of those who had to be evacuated by helicopter. She had stayed to take care of her horses, which remained on dry land, while their home got several feet of water, she said.
While talking to a group of residents waiting for boats by a bridge over the river, Johansen said that if a FEMA buyout offer came she would move.
That’s the rumor — or perhaps the hope — going round the neighborhood: a FEMA buyout.
A FEMA buyout
The Federal Emergency Management Agency does buy homes that are in areas prone to flooding, but the process starts with the local government and FEMA provides the funding to tear down the homes to limit future flooding from storms.
But it’s a very long process. Pender County only received its mitigation funds from FEMA for the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in August — nearly two years after the storm hit.
“Two years is a lengthy time to wait but mitigation is to address structures for the next event,” said Kyle Breuer, planning director for Pender County. “It is not meant to be for immediate recovery.”
Pender County received around $4 million from FEMA after Hurricane Matthew — but those funds were all targeted toward the Black River basin. This time the damage was more severe, with both the Northeast Cape Fear and Black rivers flooding.
Breuer said that residents interested in potential FEMA buyouts need to fill out a property site inventory form, which the county sends to the state as part of its application for funds from FEMA. In the meantime, though, “folks need to make sure they are applying with FEMA for individual assistance,” Breuer added, “and also to make sure they are requesting temporary shelter assistance.”
Only homes in the flood plain are eligible for buyouts, Breuer noted, and if they are eligible an appraiser will determine a “fair-market price” based on predisaster conditions.
Dexter Godwin has lived out by the river for 22 years. He’s another ready for FEMA.
“I told my wife if the water ever hits our floor I am gone,” Godwin, 63, said. “It survived through (Hurricane) Fran and Floyd” but not this time. The water came well above the home’s floor, so much so that they had to evacuate to the second floor of a neighbor’s home.
He plans to get out as soon as he can.
The river has left him and his wife homeless for the moment and staying on the second floor of a neighbor’s house – which also flooded.
Asked where they will go next, Godwin said: “Any place that does have a damn ditch next to it. I don’t ever want to live on a river again.”
But not everyone is ready to leave.
“When it doesn’t flood it’s paradise,” said Bill Blacey, 67, who has lived by the river for 12 years. His home, one of those that sits on 12-foot stilts, got multiple feet of water in it. His family has temporarily relocated to Oak Island, but hopes to return to the river.
And Atoigue, who does maintenance on yachts in Wilmington, isn’t sure yet what his family will do. He built their home here in 2006.
“It’s so nice out here — the kids could just go down the street and fish — which is why I don’t want to move,” Atoigue, 42, said.
But, looking around at the state of his neighborhood from his boat, Atoigue’s not sure what the future will bring. He said around 35 families currently live in the devastated neighborhood.
“I don’t know if we will stay. Lots of people are moving,” he said. “If (this flooding) is more frequent, I will move.”
Getting FEMA aid
Apply for assistance from FEMA by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) or 1-800-462-7585 for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week until further notice.