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Hurricane Florence, a year later: Where has the money gone in hard-hit NC counties?

A Hurricane Florence escape: a man and his ‘Survivor’ kitten

Robert Simmons Jr. escapes Hurricane Florence floodwaters with his kitten 'Survivor' in New Bern, NC.
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Robert Simmons Jr. escapes Hurricane Florence floodwaters with his kitten 'Survivor' in New Bern, NC.

Tanika Outlaw was working as the food and beverage manager at the Doubletree Hotel in New Bern last September when Hurricane Florence began shoving feet of water into the city’s downtown area.

Ultimately, the storm flooded at least 4,325 homes and 300 businesses in New Bern, The News & Observer reported, causing about $100 million in damages.

Initially, Outlaw received unemployment while hoping for the Doubletree to reopen by the end of the year. That reopening date kept creeping back, though, forcing Outlaw to seek other options and at one point go without health insurance for months because it would have cost an additional $300 for her to go on her husband’s policy.

The Doubletree never reopened.

“It’s been rough, it has truly been rough,” Outlaw said Thursday from her Pamlico County home. “I’m just grateful right now.”

Part of the reason Outlaw, who now has a job working as a teacher’s assistant in Pamlico County, is grateful is the $4,000 in aid she received from local nonprofit Genesis 457 to help her family keep up with mortgage payments, bills and car insurance while she searched for a full-time position.

Aerial footage of River Bend North Carolina Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018 where neighborhoods are mucking out after storm surge from the Trent River associated with Hurricane Florence flooded dozens of homes.

Tens of thousands of North Carolinians’ lives were permanently changed a year ago when Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach in the early morning hours of Sept. 14. The storm had already started to cause flooding farther north along the coast in New Bern and Jacksonville. Additional flooding would come later in places like Lumberton and Pender County. Impacts would continue to resonate in the form of damaged homes, destabilized communities and questions about how leaders could keep residents safe.

This week, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office announced state and federal spending in response to Hurricane Florence has reached $1.9 billion, with an additional $921 million spent on recovery from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

A small but significant part of that spending is the state’s Disaster Relief Fund, a $5.9 million pot of money formed by donations after Florence. According to Cooper’s office, the Golden LEAF Foundation has administered $5.4 million in grants from the fund, helping community organizations with immediate and short-term recovery needs. The N.C. Community Foundation has used the state fund and its own disaster relief fund to distribute an additional $1 million in recovery grants, typically focused on long-term resiliency projects.

Speaking this week, days after Hurricane Dorian caused devastation in Ocracoke, Cooper said, “North Carolina right now is struggling with recovery from ... three hurricanes in less than three years and a number of people who got hit in multiple hurricanes in a very short period of time. This has been a real challenge for our state, and in fact, I’ve had a number of federal officials tell me they’ve never seen anything like the Matthew-Florence punch a number of people in Southeastern North Carolina have seen.”

Florence was one of the wettest storms on record in Eastern North Carolina, a sprawling hurricane that stalled over Wilmington and the surrounding area for days, dropping more than 30 inches of rain in some areas, according to the National Weather Service.

Nearly 140,000 North Carolinians registered for disaster assistance, about 75,000 buildings were flooded and nine river gauges recorded once-in-500-year flood stages. Florence’s floods caused the N.C. Department of Transportation to close 1,100 roads, including Interstates 40 and 95, famously making Wilmington a temporary island.

Interstate 40 near mile marker 387 in Pender County, N.C. is flooded as a result of Hurricane Florence, blocking one of the major routes in and out of southeastern NC . NC DOT posted this drone video Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Disaster relief grants

Golden LEAF started making grants shortly after the storm, focusing on elements such as rental assistance, security deposits, tools for home repair and temporary staffing for organizations working on disaster relief case management.

“A lot of the people that were most dramatically affected by the hurricane had the fewest resources to respond to the disaster, and they had the most needs for this basic assistance like housing, clothing, basic personal property so they could get back up on their feet,” said Ted Lord, the acting president of Golden LEAF. (The organization named a new president, Scott T. Hamilton, this week.)

Often, Golden LEAF helped support state-designated long-term recovery groups, county-level organizations that organize different service providers to determine the most efficient way to address unmet needs.

For instance, Golden LEAF gave $225,000 to the Kinston Area Rebuilding Effort, an established long-term recovery group in Lenoir County, to launch Jones County RISE to serve a similar purpose in Jones County. In Goldsboro, the Wayne County Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group received $20,000 to help with replacing HVAC systems, furniture and appliances.

And in Pender, Golden LEAF awarded $154,800 to the county government to provide rental assistance through the Pender County Housing Department, as well as to support debris removal efforts.

“The needs immediately following Florence were dramatic and acute and there were a lot of resources that were marshaled to address those, but the needs continue to persist,” Lord said.

He later added, “We’re concerned about the availability of housing for people in these communities, we’re concerned about public infrastructure that was damaged by the storm, we’re concerned about the social fabric as families have moved from one place to another and have left their hometowns, and we’re concerned about business disruptions.”

The N.C. Community Foundation began administering grants for long-term recovery projects in January. Leslie Ann Jackson, the Community Foundation’s vice president of community investment and engagement, said many applications so far have been focused on health concerns, community planning and emergency preparedness.

“They know that they are vulnerable to these disasters,” Jackson said, “and seeing the frequency of them increase, they also know that the importance of being prepared is increasing, as well.”

Jackson stressed that long-term recovery is a lengthy process that should involve significant engagement with a community, as it can often mean physically reshaping or re-purposing an area.

For instance, the Community Foundation provided $90,000 to the N.C. State University Coastal Dynamics Design Lab to create an accurate “floodprint” of Lumberton that could be used to help the Robeson County city better prepare for future storms. The funding comes two years after the Community Foundation awarded the lab a $25,000 grant for the project’s first phase as well as $15,000 for a similar project in Princeville.

“While you’re doing community resiliency work in terms of physically rebuilding spaces to be stronger, engaging the community members in that planning is absolutely critical and becomes part of that social definition of resiliency,” Jackson said.

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Money for rebuilding in Wilmington

In Southeastern North Carolina, the Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry — formed in the aftermath of Hurricanes Bertha and Fran — is working to fix homes that were damaged during Florence.

The organization received a $250,000 grant through Golden LEAF and has used that money along with other funds to complete 78 post-Florence rebuilds with another 16 projects underway, according to JC Lyle, WARM’s executive director.

Prior to Florence, the Wilmington area had been grappling with a longstanding affordable housing shortage. According to a report from the Cape Fear Realtors, more than 56,000 families across Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties are cost-burdened by housing, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs.

“If you’re a homeowner and you have a mortgage and you can’t live in your house, you’re still paying your mortgage, and a lot of the emergency money has run out,” Lyle said.

By repairing homes, WARM is hoping to keep residents from having to enter an already tight housing market. Typically, Lyle said, WARM can keep repairs under $10,000 using volunteer labor to repair a roof and fix interior water damage, but costs can run above $40,000 to repair a flooded home.

Still, WARM’s waiting list for Florence repairs across the three-county region is at 107 people after briefly dipping into double digits last week. In an effort to prevent further damage, WARM used the days before Dorian to put tarps on damaged roofs on houses on their waiting list.

“That helped a lot,” Lyle said, “because those homes didn’t get much damage from Dorian.”

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Funding streams winding down

In the New Bern area, the Genesis 457 Community Development Corporation is also working with a list of about 100 remaining Florence clients even as its disaster relief funding streams are winding down.

Since Florence, the organization has helped 400 families while providing some form of assistance such as food or gift cards to about 6,000 people, according to executive director Dawn Baldwin-Gibson. Part of the funding that allowed it to do that work was a $450,000 grant from Golden LEAF via the state Disaster Relief Fund.

“Whatever is in a community at the time of the storm is really amplified by the storm,” Baldwin-Gibson said. “That’s one of the reasons we do so much work around dealing with the issue of poverty, looking at how do we have affordable housing, looking at what food sources look like in a community.”

Those issues remain exacerbated since Florence, Baldwin-Gibson said.

Within the last month, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina sent a truck to Genesis 457. Within two hours, the truck was empty, its food gone to about 600 people.

In the last week, Baldwin-Gibson said, Genesis 457 has been mucking out houses. And, like WARM, the organization had a conference call before Dorian arrived to discuss tarps.

“The work continues,” Baldwin-Gibson said. “A year later, we’re still doing very foundational work of recovery.”

Baldwin-Gibson recalled one of Genesis 457’s funders telling her its goal was to stabilize communities. Initially, Baldwin-Gibson said, she did not grasp the true meaning behind that.

Since Florence, Baldwin-Gibson said, she has come to understand what he meant, learning through the long process of getting resources into people’s hands, paying security deposits and listening to so many stories of suffering.

In the last week, Baldwin-Gibson said, Genesis 457 paid the security deposit and first month’s rent for a New Bern woman who was flooded out and has been looking for a new home for a year.

Keeping those people in places like New Bern and helping them brace for the next storm is vital, Baldwin-Gibson said, as is giving them the opportunity to rebound economically.

“Eastern North Carolina is home for a lot of people, and if everybody just leaves, there won’t be an Eastern North Carolina,” she said. “There are farmers here, there are commercial fishermen here, there are people like my family, who have been here all of their lives.

“We’ve got to come up with something that revitalizes us in a way where we are not only trying to be stable during disasters, but that we are thriving.”

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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