Sep. 10--BRUNSWICK COUNTY -- Nearly a year after Hurricane Florence slammed ashore at Wrightsville Beach and proceeded to stall over Southeastern North Carolina, the big lake at Boiling Spring Lakes remains a city landmark in name only.
Waist-high weeds are everywhere, while a small ribbon of water carves a path through the middle of the empty lake bed.
Pausing during her jog on a steamy early September day, Donna Thompson looked at the big lake's buckled dam that was overwashed and eventually washed away during last September's hurricane.
"I thought they would have started to fix it by now," she said, pointing to the gashed Alton Lennon Drive that used to lay on top of the dam. "I mean, it's been almost 12 months."
A slow recovery
While the drained lake might be one of the most visible signs of the unfinished Florence recovery effort in the Cape Fear region, it is by no means the only one.
In Wilmington, apartment complexes remain unoccupied as repairs continue. In Hampstead, Leland and Burgaw, residents continue to rebuild their homes and lives after Florence's record-setting rains overwhelmed nearby waterways. And across the region, state and local officials are working on transportation and infrastructure projects to "harden" the Wilmington-area against future storm events.
But many of these recovery efforts aren't fast. Or cheap.
While the number of blue tarps lain across rooftops is dwindling and local beaches have returned to a sense of normalcy, you don't have to travel far to see lingering testaments to the hurricane's wrath.
Florence gone, far from forgotten: Click here for previous StarNews stories, editorials and letters about Hurricane Florence and its impact.
The physical damage is easy to spot. The economic and mental wounds, from a hyper-competitive rental market to grappling with the storm's psychological impacts, are sometimes harder to see.
Jody Wainio, a local Realtor and vice chair of the Cape Fear Housing Coalition, is on the front line of the affordable-housing crisis gripping much of the region.
"Prior to Florence, a person earning minimum wage had to work 97 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment," she said. "To me, that really puts things in perspective.
"And in many respects it's even worse now."
Local governments, meanwhile, are continuing recovery work even as they look ahead to how they could better prepare for hurricanes.
Following Florence, New Hanover County officials conducted employee surveys, held focus groups with partner agencies, and conducted one-on-one interviews with certain partners, county commissioners and senior staff.
The output was a lengthy after-action report that identified ways to improve areas such as communications, supply staging, shelters, infrastructure and managing volunteers.
In Brunswick County, Emergency Management Director Ed Conrow said the county has enhanced its swift-water rescue capabilities and reviewed where it stages supplies and resources to better meet emergency needs -- especially after the county was segmented by Matthew's and Florence's floodwaters.
"We can't just stage all of our eggs in one basket," he said.
Luckily, Hurricane Dorian, which menaced the region for a week before passing just offshore with limited impacts, didn't see many of these new measures and philosophies tested.
But it was a good dry run, and officials stress it's only a matter of time until the region is facing another major challenge from Mother Nature.
"We were mighty blessed," Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin said Saturday.
'Just takes time'
Time and time again, officials -- sometimes behind closed doors and sometimes publicly -- have bemoaned the government bureaucracy surrounding recovery programs.
"How can you streamline that process so people can get help when it's needed?" Wainio asked. "I would say reducing that red tape, simplifying the process is one of the best and easiest ways to help improve the recovery process."
In Pender County, Emergency Management Director Tom Collins said roughly 200 families are still waiting to return to Florence-damaged homes.
"A lot of that (backlog) is not their fault and it is not our fault, it is just how the system is," he said. "A lot of it involves mitigation money, and we are just at the mercy of (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the state in determining who is eligible (for funds)."
Three years after Hurricane Matthew, Collins said, Pender County just received funds to buy properties that have repeatedly flooded. After purchase with federal dollars, those flood-prone properties must be preserved as open space and cannot be built on again.
Twenty-five such properties have been identified from Florence -- some of them the same houses that flooded during Matthew -- but the money to take them out of circulation may still be years away, Collins said.
In Wilmington, the city is working to repair nearly 100 sinkholes that developed at more than 70 locations after Florence.
"The length of the storm, the amount of water that fell, but also the volume of debris on the ground, it created flooding problems where we don't typically have them," said Dave Mayes, Wilmington's director of public services. "We're still cleaning that up in pipes all over town."
But contracts for the work have only recently been awarded or finalized.
Mayes said the delay in getting the repairs going is partly tied to the shortage of contractors in a red-hot property market that's also dealing with a lot of post-hurricane recovery work.
But the bidding process to make sure the work is done in accordance with federal and state rules -- and to make sure the city can get reimbursed for the repair work -- can also be cumbersome and time-consuming.
"Unfortunately, all of that just takes time," Mayes said.
The slow pace of getting funds from Washington, D.C. and Raleigh to the residents and communities that sustained hurricane damage has become popular political fodder.
In May, U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., hosted several recovery town halls across the region. Like most of those who spoke at the meetings, the Wilmington-based congressman expressed frustration with the response effort -- especially with FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The slow pace of the recovery effort has permeated politics in Raleigh, too, with GOP leaders in the N.C. General Assembly pointing the finger at Gov. Roy Cooper, and the Democratic governor in return criticizing the state's Republican leaders in Washington for not doing enough to get federal dollars released for North Carolina's storm victims.
Tuesday, while visiting a new bridge on U.S. 421 at the New Hanover-Pender county line that replaced a section of highway washed out by Florence's floodwaters, Cooper said he shared local officials' frustration.
"Here we are, nearly at the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Florence, and we have yet to see one dime of (Community Development Block Grant program) money for housing recovery," he said, referring to a HUD program that provides funds for home repairs and acquisition.
Cooper added that Monday when he saw President Donald Trump, who visited Eastern North Carolina to see damage from Hurricane Dorian, he told him the importance of streamlining the red tape involved in getting federal funds to those that need it the most. That included the idea of a universal application for all federal programs instead of a separate one for FEMA, SBA or HUD programs, he said.
Back in Boiling Spring Lakes, City Manager Jeff Repp said the recovery effort from Florence is steadily moving along.
Immediately after the storm, officials moved a dump-truck worth of vegetative debris for each of the city's nearly 6,000 residents and repaired utilities and roads that had buckled under the nearly 2 feet of water dumped by Florence.
The four dams that were destroyed by the hurricane, however, are a stark reminder of how far Boiling Spring Lakes still has to go to return to some pre-Florence normalcy.
Repp said work on rebuilding the dams has been slowed as the city has had to engineer new dams that will be constructed to modern safety standards unlike the old earthen dams built in the early 1960s.
The new designs also have to pass muster with federal and state regulators, which takes time.
Repp said contracts for the dams, which will be built with federal and state funds, would hopefully be signed next year. Construction on some of the dams would also start in 2020.
"Everyone understood that it takes time to fix the dams and takes time to get back to where we were," he said. "But the public has seemed to be very, very patient with us, and for that we're grateful."
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