A highway runs through Main Street in Fair Bluff, just south of Interstate 95 near the South Carolina border. It’s a classic small downtown: storefronts line both sides, a couple dozen American flags flap in the wind as decorations, and semi-trucks whistle through on their way to feed commerce somewhere else.
The flags seem festive – until you look closer.
“To make the downtown look viable and what have you, is just the reason we got them out,” said Mayor Billy Hammond. “To keep you from looking like a deserted ghost town.”
Hammond stands on the sidewalk and points at one storefront after another.
“This is our senior citizen’s building; was our senior citizen’s building,” he said. “We had two hardware stores and a clothing store, and a drug store, and a medical center … none of these had flood insurance.”
In Texas and Florida, cities and towns are just beginning their recoveries from recent hurricanes. In North Carolina, a couple of the state’s smallest towns can offer their municipal cousins to the south advice about at least one thing they’re going to need: Patience. Lots of it.
A year after it flooded during Hurricane Matthew, almost nothing has reopened in Fair Bluff. Many residents have also relocated.
“It’s very heartbreaking to come to town and see nothing happening,” Hammond said.
But behind the scenes, things are happening.
Making Flood-Ravaged Towns More Resilient
Fair Bluff is one of six communities hit hard by the flooding. All six are getting special attention from the state and a federally-funded center that helps communities become more resilient. The others are Seven Springs, Lumberton, Princeville, Windsor and Kinston.
UNC - Chapel Hill Professor Gavin Smith leads the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence and the state’s recovery and resilience initiative. The center is working to help towns develop what it calls a “relocation strategy.”
“We are looking at and will be interviewing the people participating in that program trying to understand the household family size, their economic standing, so forth and use that information plus what we’re calling a land suitability analysis – looking at properties outside the floodplain that might be suitable within their extraterritorial jurisdiction – that might be suitable for new housing,” Smith said.
In other words, moving part of the town to save it.
Smith’s team is also helping the six communities deal with the bureaucracy of state and federal aid programs, and develop recovery plans that aren’t just about bouncing back. They’re about trying to retool the communities in ways that make them robust enough to adapt to whatever comes their way.
That includes things like rebuilding local economies, protecting businesses and homes from future disasters, and finding creative ways to use open space where damaged homes were removed. Things the communities didn’t have the resources to handle on their own, even before the flood.
These are communities where losing even one or two homes in the federal flood-damage buyout program is a sharp blow to the tax base that pays for those things that larger communities take for granted.
Getting Downtown Up And Running Is Key
Back in town, Mayor Hammond flags down a pickup truck. Behind the wheel is Randy Britt, who owns a small business that sells power equipment like chainsaws. Britt’s trying to run the business from the back of the still-damaged shop.
Like many small towns across much of rural America, Fair Bluff has struggled to attract new employers. Young people have been leaving for jobs somewhere else, leaving mainly older residents on fixed incomes behind.
“We've been trying to transition to figure out how exactly we can continue to exist, and then this hits,” said Britt, 70. “And nothing like this has ever happened before.”
Britt said it’s crucial to get the downtown businesses open again. But the barrier to starting a small business is often the capital it takes to set it up. Raising that money a second time can be impossible.
For many small businesses, there weren’t even enough customers before the flood. That’s why the town is hungrily eyeing that stream of highway traffic that runs through it, to and from Myrtle Beach.
“We've got to come up with some way to attract people, Britt said. “To stop people passing through, so that we can have enough of a business district here to supply the simple things people need on a daily basis.”
He added: “Am I going to go in there and spend $150, or $200,000 to put everything back? Not likely. Now, the front end of the store I’m in now, I might go back in their clean it up and I might add some hardware items when we find out what direction we might want to move in but that's probably not going to happen until the first of next year.”
Surely, Britt said, with all the thought that the experts are putting into helping the town, some plan, some way forward, will emerge.
“I don't know what's going to happen,” he said. “I think we’ll exist, and I think we’ll slowly come back but it’s going to be awhile.”
Just raising the possibility that Fair Bluff might not survive is sobering for some residents, even if the chances of that are small. For another one of North Carolina’s flood-ravaged communities, the possibility is quite real.
Seven Springs Wrestles With Possibility of Disincorporating
At Mae’s Restaurant in Seven Springs, business is bustling on a recent morning. But it’s the only thing in town that is.
Adam Walters and a group of men gathered at a back table inside the restaurant. Walters is a graduate student at the N.C. State University’s College of Design and part of the state recovery and resilience initiative.
“If we were to have a meeting… to start talking about some of the major future vision of Seven Springs, do you see some sensitive issues that would be difficult to talk about?”
Mayor Stephen Potter chimed in with one issue in particular.
“I think if people hear us talking about dissolving, that is, in a way, telling them we’re giving up,” Potter said. “If I’m going to giving up on that, I might as well just resign and go home, because I’m wasting, wasting time. And I’m not willing to do that.”
This isn’t first time Seven Springs has had to fight for its life. Its long history includes a Civil War battle that almost destroyed it, a fire in the 1920s that almost destroyed it. And Hurricane Floyd flooded nearly every house in town.
Despite that extraordinary record of bouncing back, and despite Potter’s defiance, this time Seven Springs might not be able to continue as a town.
The fire department was flooded out, the post office is still operating out of a van, and fewer than half of the 115 or so residents before the flood remain.
The possibility of disincorporating is so real that an expert from UNC’s School of Government came to a town meeting earlier this year to explain the legal process.
The town’s entire budget is about $50,000 a year, Potter said. If enough owners of damaged homes take federal buyouts and don’t return, the missing property taxes could make it hard to keep going.
The group meeting in the restaurant talks about some of the ideas that are being batted around town. Maybe a farmer’s market, greenways to connect the town with the nearby Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, antique shops.
Much of what seems possible, like turning vacant lots into space for visiting RVs and campers, is tied to recreation on the very river that keeps tearing into the town. But, there are, at least, ideas for turning things around.
“This town's been here too long,” Potter said. “You know, this was the first settlement in Wayne County and if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down swinging.”
Swinging with help – from the state, the federal government and the experts from UNC and N.C. State.