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After record floods, eastern N.C. leaders say they need help. Before the next big storm.
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After record floods, eastern N.C. leaders say they need help. Before the next big storm.

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Hurricane Florence

File — In this Sept. 12, 2018 photo provided by NASA, Hurricane Florence churns over the Atlantic Ocean heading for the U.S. east coast as seen from the International Space Station. Astronaut Alexander Gerst, who shot the photo, tweeted: “Ever stared down the gaping eye of a category 4 hurricane? It’s chilling, even from space.”

WHITEVILLE — Even though his city is applying for a federal resilience grant, Mayor Terry Mann is worried that it won’t be competitive when matched up against proposals from larger cities and counties with specialists on staff.

“None of us have engineers on staff and we just can’t afford to get these projects designed and not know that we’re going to get this grant funding,” he said.

The Eastern N.C. Recovery and Resiliency Alliance, a newly formalized coalition of governments that has been working with advocacy groups, is advancing a series of proposals that it says will help the region better prepare for future storms like Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

The group has called for a series of legislative measures that would fund a statewide flood blueprint. The alliance began meeting informally in the months after Hurricane Florence caused more than $22 billion in damage.

“I and several other leaders found value in sharing advice and concerns amongst each other, as we all were impacted,” said Bill Saffo, Wilmington’s mayor. He added that more than 60 mayors and county officials from the region have participated in the group’s meetings.

Since then, the group has met with state and federal lawmakers to advance ideas and to urge them to consider flood mitigation when making spending decisions. Saffo and others expressed optimism late last week that at least some of their ideas could be included in coming legislation from the General Assembly.

Climate change is likely to cause more frequent, wetter hurricanes to North Carolina in the future, according to the state’s Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, which was released last summer. Those storms will damage vulnerable communities, according to the report, and will make it more difficult to recover because they are likely to happen in relatively quick succession.

Wallace Mayor Charley Farrior thought he’d seen the worst flood of his life after 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, which he called a “biblical, 1,000-year event.”

Then Hurricane Florence happened.

“It made Floyd look like almost a non-event,” Farrior said late last week, noting that the Northeast Cape Fear River flooded over its banks quickly after the storm finally passed.

Many of the houses flooded during those storms remain vacant. Those who have repaired their homes are pledging that this will be the last time before they move elsewhere.

“We’ve got counties involved here. We’ve got large cities involved. We’ve got smaller towns like mine,” Farrior said, “and I can tell you that none of us have the money needed to try to address these issues on our own, so we’re going to need help.”

Melissa Roberts, the executive director of the American Flood Coalition, said increased funding to help smaller governments build capacity is “incredibly important” to help those places prevent the worst impacts of flooding.

“We have a system where you need to have money or technical expertise in place already if you’re going to jump over all of the hurdles in your way to get more funding and more expertise,” Roberts said.

Saffo and other mayors also expressed concerns about road construction, calling for the General Assembly to pursue more studies like the state Department of Transportation’s 2019 look at how it could protect Interstate 40 and Interstate 95 against floodwaters. That work was spurred after Florence’s flooding effectively cut Wilmington off for days after the storm, making it impossible for supplies to reach many eastern North Carolina areas in the aftermath.

“This is probably the only issue that I’ve ever seen,” Saffo said, “where it’s kind of brought the urban areas and the rural communities together.”

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