‘Proud of our people:’ Carteret County leaders look back on the devastation of Florence 3 years later

Ray Hopper of Morehead City moves sheets of wood to cover the windows of his office on the Morehead City waterfront prior to the arrival of Hurricane Florence, which made landfall near Wrightsville Beach Sept. 14, 2018, and dealt major damage throughout Carteret County. (News-Times photo)

CARTERET COUNTY — When Hurricane Florence made landfall south of Wrightsville Beach Sept. 14, 2018, as a Category 1 storm, many hoped the powerful system would spare Carteret County. Instead, the churning hurricane lingered over the coastline, making for one of worst storms to ever hit the area.

Florence’s rain battered the Crystal Coast for three days, disconnecting critical power infrastructure, knocking down large trees and leaving a mass of flooding in its wake.

Dennis Barber, then and still mayor of Newport, remembers it all well.

“It was like Newport turned into three islands,” he said, noting as much as 3 feet of water from the Newport River inundating the town. The flooding prompted hundreds of water rescues in the area and cutoff vehicular access to the town for a time.

“I was so worried about all the people in the shelter. The water was across Highway 70 and Chatham Street,” Mr. Barber noted Tuesday in a retrospective interview with the News-Times.

The town’s rescue squad and fire department spent the night helping residents escape their flooded homes. It’s a poignant memory for the mayor, even three years later.

“It was scary. I remember thinking about, ‘what if the shelter floods?’’ he continued.

That shelter, the county’s pet-friendly option for those who could not escape the storm by heading inland, was situated at Newport Middle School, housed hundreds of people — some of them for a stretch following the storm.

Mayor Barber, who is also a captain in the Carteret County Sheriff’s Office, said he remains proud of those who answered the call and responded during Florence.

“I was so proud of our people, out there rescuing people,” he said. “And I was also proud of a lot of other people. The Salvation Army in Morehead City came out to the shelter and took over the galley, feeding everyone. Without that, a lot of people would have gone hungry. And then the (County) Department of Social Services helped so many people.”

It’s not just first responders and emergency officials that deserve accolades, however. Mr. Barber is also proud of the many residents who were deeply affected by the storm.

“Everyone came together and helped each other,” he said. “We helped each other clean up, we all worked with each other.”

Florence is a storm not soon forgotten in Carteret County, where officials’ preliminary estimates in the days after the storm put the damage mark at $1.8 billion. In the months and years since, the bills have continued to come in, and for some, recovery is still down the line.  

“We still have hundreds on our list who have requested support for various levels of needs,” Kay Coole, chairperson of the Carteret Long Term Recovery Alliance told the News-Times recently. The organization formed in the immediate aftermath of Florence to coordinate recovery efforts and match residents with volunteer groups and resources to repair damaged homes and more.

As the storm grew in strength in early September 2018 and headed toward the coast, Carteret County officials issued evacuation orders Sept. 10 for all areas of the county, predicting the storm’s “potential to be catastrophic.”

The National Weather Service office in Newport said rain totals over the three days the hurricane lingered in the area ranged from 34.14 inches in Swansboro, to 25.62 inches in Newport, to 21.37 inches in Morehead City and 23.49 inches in Emerald Isle.

Wind gusts during Florence topped 105 mph at Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach Sept. 13, 2018, and 97 mph at Cape Lookout National Seashore the same night.

Florence also brought significant flooding to New Bern, Wilmington and Carteret County’s rural Down East region. Emergency services reported in excess of 400 water rescues in the county.

Thankfully, there were no deaths caused by the storm in Carteret County.

Today, Mr. Barber said Newport has mostly recovered from the devastating floods, as many people have obtained permits to rebuild damaged and destroyed homes and have resumed their lives. Some, he added, just picked up what they had left and moved elsewhere.

Like Hurricane Hazel, which devastated the county in 1954, it’s going to the hurricane a generation tells stories about to those who weren’t around to see and feel it, he said.

“I really hope we don’t have another one like it,” Mr. Barber said Tuesday.

In Emerald Isle, Mayor Eddie Barber rode out the storm sleeping in town hall, as portions of the Bogue Banks town, particularly along the Coast Guard Road corridor at the western end disappeared under flooding from the days of torrential rain.

“I just remember it just seemed like the heavy rain would never end,” the Emerald Isle mayor noted Tuesday.

But like Mayor Dennis Barber in Newport, Mayor Eddie Barber in Emerald Isle said the town has recovered and is also more prepared for the next storm like Florence, should it come.

“We’ve taken steps,” he said. “We’ve got pumps, and we’ve got more on stand-by, under contract if we need them. (Florence) was a tough time for everyone. But we are more ready now.”

In Beaufort, Mayor Rett Newton said he remembers arriving back in town with Florence four days out as a Category 4.

“Fortunately, it took a left turn 60 miles south of us, so as bad as Florence was, it could have been much worse,” he said.

Still, he recalls the town’s streets being flooded and believes everyone learned hard lessons. For example, Mr. Newton said it’s now clear hurricane forecasts based on categories don’t mean much, as those numbers don’t reflect duration, expected rainfall amounts and storm surge, just wind speeds.

“We need to do a better job of communicating that to our citizens,” Mr. Newton said.

Another revelation was the impact of the flooding and rainfall on housing, as many, including apartment dwellers, had to move out of their homes two weeks after the storm.

“That was sad,” he said.

But the mayor believes Beaufort is more ready for the next serious hurricane as a result of improving stormwater management capabilities and boosting communication to residents and visitors.

He also recalls the cooperation the town and county got from agencies far away immediately after the storm. In particular, he was impressed a swift boat rescue team arrived from Nevada on the second day of the storm, although it worked mostly in Newport.

It is that spirit and willingness to pitch in that has allowed many to rebuild their lives, various officials note.

“Three years after this disaster, I continue to be amazed at the resilience and perseverance of people who have recovered and those who are still trying to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Florence,” Amy Jones, a volunteer case manager with the CLTRA, said. “…We still have a lot of recovery work ahead in our county and CLTRA, an all volunteer group, will be here until the last home is complete.”

 

If you or someone you know is still recovering from Hurricane Florence or would like to share a story of resilience following the storm, the News-Times would like to hear from you. Share your contact information via an email to jackie@thenewstimes.com.

 

Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.

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