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6 Months After Hurricane Florence: Has NC Recovered?

The Cape Fear river continued to rise due to rainfall Hurricane Florence
Ben McKeown

Six months ago Hurricane Florence battered the Carolinas and doused the region for days with heavy rains. The historic storm broke 18 flood records across North Carolina, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Coastal communities remain in recovery mode, with businesses attempting to finish repairs by the next tourist season and residents still trying to navigate complex housing, insurance and unemployment processes.

“You don't have to drive far to still see blue tarps on rooftops of houses and apartment buildings and businesses,” said WHQR reporter Vince Winkel in Wilmington. He told host Frank Stasio there is still FEMA representation in Wilmington, and a recovery coordination office is still open at one of the New Hanover County public libraries.

Farther offshore, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center is also still regrouping after suffering major damages. The museum’s executive director, Karen Willis Amspacher, talked to Stasio about Florence’s toll on their Harkers Island building.

“We had 10 days of no power, and mold took us. Eighty-five percent of our sheetrock is gone. So that's where we've been since mid-November,” Amspacher said. “We’ll end up with probably three and a half million dollars in damages.”

She talked about the more personal impact of Hurricane Florence and described conversations she and her husband have had about leaving the Down East region.

We're tough people and we know what storms are about. We know how to get ready. - Karen Willis Amspacher

“My crowd’s been there for generations. My crowd moved off of Shackleford Banks to Harkers Island because of storms. And I'm not leaving. And that's hard for other people to understand. But it's home, and when everything you've lived for is invested in that place, it's really hard to just pick it up and go somewhere else. It's just not in my DNA,” Amspacher said.

Mother Nature does not discriminate, but the effects of Hurricane Florence were disproportionately felt by certain populations in the state. Rural communities in eastern North Carolina were hit particularly hard just two years after the devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew.

Loni Crumb is is an assistant professor in the College of Education at East Carolina University. But she is also a resident of Eastern North Carolina, and she noticed how storms like Hurricane Florence have impacted the region. The professional counselor talked to Stasio about the research she started about people’s experiences with the storm two months after it hit.

“What I found was that the vulnerable populations — the children, the elderly — really thought that this storm was very life changing. And there was a high amount of traumatic stress related to it,” Crumb said.

She explained that she has seen communities really band together to support each other in the wake of storms like Hurricane Florence, with churches playing a particularly important role.

“Churches were some of the most valued resources used there because they’re already pillars in the community, and the residents depended on them, like doing these recovery efforts,” she said.

Omisade Burney-Scott, a seventh-generation New Bernian, talked about her on-the-ground recovery work connecting disenfranchised communities in New Bern to services in the wake of the hurricane — and about some of the troubling trends she saw.

“I did find disparity, and I found disparity because we still live in a society that is very much invested in systemic oppression,” she said.

Another population that needs purposeful inclusion during disaster planning and response is people with disabilities. Disability Rights North Carolina released a recent report about how the state did in meeting the needs of people with disabilities during and after Florence, called “The Storm after the Storm: Disaster, Displacement and Disability Following Hurricane Florence.”

“What [we] found is that North Carolina and local communities need to do a better job. There are some things that people have done well. There were pockets of very kind shelter managers and very connected shelter managers … But then we also experienced shelters that were … Inaccessible,” Cas Shearin told Stasio. She is the director of investigations and monitoring for Disability Rights NC.

The organization is leading the Disaster, Displacement and Disability Forum in New Bern on March 16, which is open to the public.

As we examine the structural and societal effects of Hurricane Florence, experts around the state are also evaluating the damages caused to our environment.

Laura Moore, associate professor of coastal geomorphology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reports that the storm caused significant dune and beach erosion as well as sand deposits that have actually changed the shape of several North Carolina capes. She explained to Stasio why the dunes are so important.

A photo of the dunes on North Carolina's barrier islands one month after Hurricane Florence
Credit Courtesy of Laura Moore
'These processes that move the sand from the beach and the dune to the island interior are really essential to allowing the islands to maintain their elevation as sea level rises and to persist in the future.' - Laura Moore

“The foredune — which is the frontal dune, the seaward-most dune on barrier islands, which line our coastline — really provides [a] significant amount of protection. It's the first line of defense for storms. It protects the ecosystems behind the dunes, and also, of course, the critical infrastructure and then the buildings that that we put back there,” she said.

Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette told Stasio about how the Cape Fear River has recovered since Hurricane Florence and about long-term steps North Carolina can take to better prepare for future storms.

Burdette shared that almost every river gauge throughout the Cape Fear basin recorded highest-ever flood level during the historic storm. But there was also a lot of pollution in the floodwaters as well.

“When you're able to find levels of bacteria and pathogens that exceed safe standards — even in these extremely high water levels — then what that tells you is that the amount of bacteria and the amount of pathogens in that water [were] also extremely high to be able to show up with that much water on the landscape. And that's what we found. In multiple locations, we saw levels that were significantly higher than safe levels set by the state, even in the midst of the highest floods the Cape Fear is ever seen,” he said.

Jessica Whitehead is a coastal communities hazards adaptation specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant. She shared with Stasio that recovery is a long-term process.

“When we look at places like New York and New Jersey and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, there are places that are still recovering. We're almost 15 years out from Hurricane Katrina, and we can look back at places that took 10 years to recover — and some places that have never recovered,” she said.

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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