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Hurricane Florence Devastated New Bern Three Years Ago. The City Is Prepping For the Next 'Big One'

New Bern Union Point Park
Celeste Gracia
The Neuse and Trent rivers meet in front of Union Point Park in the city of New Bern. The town was hit especially hard by Hurricane Florence in September 2018. The storm caused New Bern $100 million in damages.

Barbara Taylor lives in a humble home in the historic city of New Bern. Her house in the Duffyfield neighborhood is painted white and aqua blue on the outside, and clothes hang drying in her backyard.

The TV in her small living room is turned to news coverage of Hurricane Nicholas. On her couch lies a pile of unpacked boxes. She still has items in storage from when Hurricane Florence flooded her home three years ago.

The water was just like a river [in the street]. I looked down here around my house and the water was … oh God. I just stood on the back porch and cried.
Barbara Taylor

"I lost a lot of things in my home,” Taylor said. “Things that belonged to my mother. All my furniture, my appliances, some clothes. We had to leave our homes and go stay somewhere else.”

Taylor lived with a neighbor down the street for several months. She remembers making her way to her neighbor’s house days after Florence first hit the town.

“The water was just like a river [in the street],” Taylor said. “I looked down here around my house and the water was … oh God. I just stood on the back porch and cried.”

Estella Dawson, Taylor's next door neighbor, went through a similar experience.

"I couldn't live in my house because all my floors were messed up," Dawson said. "Every last one of them. It cost a whole lot [to fix]."

It took seven months before Taylor and Dawson could finally move back into their homes. They both received help from FEMA and Samaritan’s Purse, a religious non-profit organization based in Boone, although Dawson had to dip into her savings account to make ends meet.

"I hope and pray that don't come again,” Taylor said. “It was [devastating].”

Experts and climate scientists urge that global warming will cause more severe and more frequent hurricanes, making it highly likely that New Bern will experience Florence-like events again.

Florence caused the city $100 million in residential and commercial damages.

Across North Carolina, 40 people died. The historic storm broke 18 flood records. Thousands were without power for days, and hundreds of roads were flooded, causing Wilmington to be temporarily cut off from aid.

In preparation for the next storm, New Bern is getting ready to release a 5-year resilience and hazard mitigation plan.

"Following Hurricane Florence, there was really a strong cry from our citizens, to look to the city of New Bern to ask how we would be better prepared in the future, and so that's really where this resiliency planning process came from,” said Amanda Ohlensehlen, New Bern's economic development manager and lead organizer of the plan.

It's funded by $90,000 dollars in public and private grants, and has included significant public input, from citizen surveys to virtual town hall meetings.

SmallBiz-Get Started
Chris Seward
In this Sept. 15, 2018, file photo Jay Manning, left, and Shannon Corr clean up the damaged storefront of the Surf, Wind and Fire store caused by the tropical storm Florence in New Bern, N.C.

As part of the plan, the city completed a flood vulnerability and risk assessment. It showed New Bern faces several risks, including tidal flooding, storm surge inundation, and sea level rise. Different areas of the city face different risk levels, depending on factors like ground elevation and socioeconomic status.

"Our planning process not only looked at the environmental threat... but also looked at the socio economic consequences," Ohlensehlen said. "Some of our older neighborhoods were developed before storm water controls existed. Those often correlate to our most distressed census tracts as well, where a large majority of the population lives below the poverty line."

Duffyfield - the neighborhood where Barbara Taylor lives – was identified as one of the most vulnerable areas in the city.

The plan outlines dozens of recommendations, falling under six different "resiliency pillars," or categories: health & safety, housing, economy, infrastructure, natural resources, and cultural heritage.

Solutions include educating the public about flood insurance, converting areas into open spaces, and building grocery stores in food deserts.

The city is currently in the process of evaluating which action steps to tackle first.

"We're also cross referencing all of the [citizen] surveys, looking at what the community itself values as most important," she said. "[We're] looking at the cost benefit of certain actions... and just the feasibility of it, how quickly we could implement certain projects over others. It's multifaceted and there's a lot of information to consider."

The city's final resilience plan will be released later this fall. The local Board of Aldermen is expected to adopt it, and then officials will seek more grant funding to start on some of the projects.

The plan is meant to act as a guiding document for the city over the next five years, influencing most, if not all, of their actions moving forward. After five years, the city will come back to the drawing board and re-evaluate the efficacy of the plan.

In the meantime, people across the city are still recovering from Florence. In downtown New Bern, nearly all the small businesses were impacted.

Lindsey Simms co-owns Mitchell Hardware, a business that’s been in her family for over 30 years. The community store sells everything from plywood to vegetable seeds.

"We got three inches of water in, and that's putting sandbags, putting roofing, flashing in front of our doors, taping - We put probably five layers of protection and still got three inches throughout our store," Simms said. "But we were grateful that's all we got."

Simms thinks it's great that the city is starting to implement more resiliency measures. But alongside those efforts, she said if or when another storm hits, she has faith in the people of New Bern.

"I will reiterate this over and over again: People in our community went over and beyond for people," Simms said. "It could bring us to tears. We all needed each other. And that bonded us in a way that we hadn't been bonded before. So we're ready, if it happens. I think."

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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