Politics & Government

’You can’t go back and build over and over.’ But buying out homes won’t be cheap.

Drone video of flooding in Lumberton

Aerial view on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 as the city of Lumberton braces for the rising waters of the Lumber River in the wake of Hurricane Florence.
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Aerial view on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 as the city of Lumberton braces for the rising waters of the Lumber River in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

Three months before Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office published extensive studies of flooding concerns and possible solutions for the three rivers that flooded during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

The studies looked at a range of flood prevention projects — including new dams, reservoirs and levees — and concluded that the most cost effective approach is elevating flood-prone buildings or buying out the properties and demolishing buildings.

The studies spanned hundreds of pages and were produced by N.C. Emergency Management along with other state agencies and experts from N.C. State and East Carolina universities. In a May news release announcing the findings, Cooper said Matthew “showed us that we must rebuild better and smarter to withstand future floods. ... Many communities are seeing more frequent and intense floods and we need to help communities plan now.”

The studies attracted little attention in May, and the recommendations didn’t get much discussion during the recent legislative short session. But they could get a second look after Hurricane Florence flooded many of the same areas, and some local leaders say more must be done to reduce the destructive impact of Eastern North Carolina’s major rivers.

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Greg Cummings, the mayor of Pembroke in Robeson County, said there’s been a need for years to clean out debris and sediment in and around the Lumber River.

“I could take that $500,000 (spent on studies) and go in there and start cleaning out and could save a lot of property and lives and disruption,” he said.

A “resilient redevelopment plan” produced for Robeson County in 2017 recommends “a countywide effort to restore and remove debris from streams, channels and closed storm systems” to address “unnatural changes in the water flow” that put “more properties at risk to future flooding.”

The debris clean-up has been discussed for years, but the Lumber River study released in May looks at more extensive projects, estimating the cost of each option and the value of the property it would protect. The options include building several “dry dams” upstream from Lumberton that could hold back and store excess water during storms, as well as new levees around the towns of Fair Bluff and Boardman, and an effort to buy out and/or elevate homes and buildings.

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The Lumber study — along with flood studies for the Tar and Neuse rivers — found that buying out and elevating buildings in the flood zone was the “most effective strategy evaluated for flood damage mitigation.”

To cover areas likely impacted in a 100-year flood, about 2,400 buildings would need to be razed or elevated along the Lumber and 1,500 along the Neuse.

The state has already been working in that direction since Matthew through the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which has so far provided $82 million for about 800 properties. A more extensive project along the Lumber would cost around $430 million but could reduce damages by $418 million during a 50-year flooding event, the study says.

Lenora Alford was the last to evacuate from Bakersfield apartments in Lumberton, and when the van came to get her in her wheelchair, she didn’t really want to go.

While the buy-out and elevation program was identified as the most cost-effective solution, another option in the study involves building a dam and dry reservoir in the Raft Swamp area upstream from Lumberton, which would cost about $54 million to build but reduce damages by about $81 million during a 50-year flooding event. Building a levee at Fair Bluff — the town that flooded during Matthew and Florence — would cost $3.6 million but would reduce damages by $4.2 million during a 50-year flooding event.

Options in the Neuse River study included a plan to put dams on the Neuse and two tributaries in Johnston County at a cost of about $330 million, which could reduce damages by about $127 million in a 50-year flood. A new levee at flood-prone Seven Springs would cost $5.2 million and could reduce damage by about $30 million in a 50-year flood, and a dredging project at Kinston would cost $20 million and could reduce damage by about $58 million in a 50-year flood. River basin studies were not conducted this year for the Cape Fear and Trent rivers, which caused extensive flooding after Florence.

Rep. Ken Goodman, a Richmond County Democrat, represents communities along the Lumber River, and he says state leaders should consider more property buy-outs in the wake of Florence.

“You can’t go back and build over and over on a place that you know is going to flood,” he said. “There’s a lot of evidence that the frequency of these things is going to increase. People are at risk and we need to take that very seriously.”

Goodman said he also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of new levees and dikes and thinks more study is needed. “I think we need some time to sort through the issues and get it right,” he said.

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