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20 months after Matthew, Fair Bluff ‘like a ghost town’

June 8, 2018

FAIR BLUFF, N.C. (AP) — Before the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew, the population of this Columbus County town along the banks of the Lumber River was estimated at 900 to 950 people.

After the flood, the number plummeted dramatically, and the town now counts about 600 residents.

The flooding, which devastated much of Fair Bluff on the heels of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, significantly altered the landscape. As of late May, the rebuilding efforts had barely begun.

“Fair Bluff got destroyed in a couple of days. Its reemergence is going to take years,” town planner Al Leonard said last week. “As we’ve seen over the last 18 months, it’s going to take four or five years. As long as we’re working at it every day, we’ll get there.”

A block of vacant water-damaged and mold-stained buildings largely make up the deserted downtown district. Before the storm, approximately 20 small businesses operated in the town limits. Half of them have not reopened.

“The U.S. Coast Guard was going through downtown in a boat. I never thought I’d see that,” Leonard said, reflecting on the high water that crippled the Main Street business district for nearly two weeks before subsiding. Floodwaters reached as high as 5 feet on the block, and the smears of watermarks can still be seen along the storefront windows and empty buildings.

Leonard said 111 residences were flooded out. Though he notes that “a lot” of federal and state grant money has been awarded, most of the property owners have not received the financial assistance to date.

The town’s water and sewer system was substantially impacted by the extensive flooding, Leonard said. One of the town’s two wells remains out of commission.

“We believe we were ground zero. We believe no municipality was hit harder than us,” he said from Town Hall. “We think we were the most impacted community in the state.”

Meanwhile, another hurricane season has rolled around. The Atlantic hurricane season started June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. Tropical Storm Alberto, the first tropical cyclone of the season, flooded a large swath of the western part of the state, bringing to mind the dire situations created by Matthew in eastern North Carolina on Oct. 8, 2016.

Including, how it transformed the town of Fair Bluff.

“If we get another one,” town resident Barbara Vereen surmised, “we’re going to be in trouble. We’ll be off the map.”

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It is going on 20 months since Hurricane Matthew swept through the state, leaving pockets of extreme flooding and widespread destruction in its wake.

Thirty-one people died from the storm, including 12 in the Cape Fear region. Five were reported in Cumberland County.

In North Carolina, about 90,000 homes and nearly 20,000 businesses were damaged, abandoned or ruined, according to the state. Excluding private farm roads, the state counted more than 600 roads that were cut or washed away.

Losses were estimated at $4.8 billion statewide.

So far, more than $630 million has been spent to help individuals, families, businesses and communities recover, said Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman with the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

“Hundreds of millions more is designated (and in process) to help people with housing needs through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds,” Jarema said in an email. “In both programs, money already is starting to be awarded with many more projects expected in the next two months.”

Among the hardest hit counties were Robeson and Cumberland. Fair Bluff hugs the county line between Columbus and Robeson counties.

Randy Beeman, the emergency services director with Cumberland County Emergency Management, said Thursday that the county is still in recovery mode as some residents continue to be displaced from their homes.

The total number of those who are still displaced in Cumberland is unavailable, Beeman said.

“They are trying to acquire the funds to rebuild. We’re working diligently to see them through the funding routine,” he said. “We’ve been participating with the (N.C.) Department of Emergency Management. We’re working together to try to resolve and assist as many as we can — in how we are allowed to respond — with the funds that are available either to repair or elevate. There is also a buyout situation.”

In Fayetteville and Cumberland County, 5,066 individuals registered for relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. To date, nearly $16.3 million has been provided, according to the agency and the state.

Those numbers are unavailable for Columbus County, based on a Hurricane Matthew recovery synopsis provided by the federal agency and the state Department of Public Safety.

In Lumberton and Robeson County, FEMA and the state reported, a combined 18,496 people applied for FEMA assistance. Thus far, $26 million has been provided.

On Friday, Mattie Caulder, assistant manager for Robeson County Emergency Management, said a few people are still living in temporary FEMA trailers. The N.C. Baptist Men/Baptists on Mission, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the Mennonite Disaster Service continue to assist victims with home repairs.

Emily Jones, a spokeswoman for Robeson County and a member of the Robeson County Disaster Recovery Committee, said individual funding should be forthcoming “very soon” from the Hazard Mitigation Grant and Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery programs.

“We’ve never had a disaster like this before,” Jones said. “We’ve all come together collectively and gotten great resources. We still have people out of homes that can’t go back, and we lost a public school and administration building. We are still displaced in a way, but we’re blessed to have the resources. A lot of people say it’s not fast enough, but what is fast? What is slow?”

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Hurricane Matthew changed life in Fair Bluff, ruining homes, businesses and some of the fundamental systems of its infrastructure.

“On the whole, it was in the millions,” Mayor Billy Hammond said, when asked for a figure on total losses. “It was devastating, and it’s hard to put a price figure on it. It was well into the millions.”

The N.C. Baptist Men/Baptists on Mission and other missionary groups came in and assisted residents through the initial cleanup and recovery. But relief remains elusive for most of the townspeople directly impacted by the storm.

“FEMA has not done anything, as far as building,” said Hammond, 66, and a Fair Bluff resident since 1959.

Residents are becoming frustrated and angry over the slow recovery process, he said.

“We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us,” Leonard said. “The citizens, by and large, are very doubtful of relief for their relief situations.”

Of the 111 homes in Fair Bluff that were flooded, Leonard said, “federal grant money has been found for 86 of them.” Seventy-one of the homes are expected to be addressed through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

“We’ve got 71 homes waiting,” he said.

Gilbert McMillon, a 35-year-old mechanic from Fair Bluff, said “about everybody who got flooded left out. A lot of them are waiting on FEMA. A lot of them are selling out or not paying their taxes on them, and they’ll just lose their home.”

He was fortunate. The floodwaters reached his yard, but his house went unscathed.

As for the town’s damaged commercial properties, Leonard said, the federal government only gives business owners a loan. They are ineligible for grant assistance. The low-interest loans are available through the Small Business Administration to repair or replace damaged property not covered by insurance, and to provide working capital.

Since the hurricane, the town has lost roughly 320 of its 485 water and sewer customers, according to the mayor.

A new census will be conducted in two years. Leonard said, “If the population has dropped to 600 people by April 2020, there will not be enough revenue to operate this town as currently configured. We’d have to reconfigure what this government could do with reduced revenues.”

The total general fund for Fair Bluff in 2017 was $836,490, according to Leonard. The Town Council approved that revenue budget in July 2016, three months before the flood. This coming year, Fair Bluff is projected to operate on a general fund of $766,829. The proposed overall decrease in the general fund from a year ago indicates reductions in property tax collection and garbage disposal fees.

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On this early afternoon in late May, a couple of big rigs rumbled down Main Street, the sound reverberating between the rows of stores in the deserted business district. U.S. flags line each side of the two lanes, along with the flower pots and decorative purple street signs that read, “Welcome Fair Bluff Rotary Club.”

Portions of the store fronts are boarded up. Someone scrawled “Be Strong” on one section of plywood covering the entrance to a shuttered business.

“We will be closed Saturday Oct. 8 due to the storm We pray everyone will be safe,” reads a sign that remains attached to the front of Ellis Meares & Son True Value Hardware.

(Hurricane Matthew: Then and now)

In less than a day on Oct. 8, 2016, Hurricane Matthew dumped as much as 19 inches of rain into the rivers and creeks in eastern North Carolina. The Lumber River crept up to 12 feet above flood stage, setting a record.

“Short term, it devastated the town,” Hammond said. “I was here downtown at the old town hall on that Oct. 8, and it quit raining. I figured we were good to go. It didn’t damage anything. The next morning, I got a call from a police officer around 5 a.m. He told me the water was rising. And that it was not rising slow at all. By the end of the day, it was over 5 feet deep.”

The Lumber River runs about 300 yards from the Fair Bluff Town Hall and Police Department. It’s closer to the business district.

“The only good thing in that flood — nobody died,” the 60-year-old Barbara Vereen said from the porch of her daughter’s home on Steele Street.

Vereen has lived in Fair Bluff for about 40 years. She said, from her experience, this has been the longest stretch of time before rebuilding efforts have ever gotten underway following storm damage in the community.

Nearly all the houses and mobile homes in her neighborhood — an area in the western side of town that includes Steele, Powell and Bardin streets — remain empty. Those homes were under water in the flood and have not been repaired. Vereen figured that about 25 of the homeowners have never returned.

“Now you’ve got all these people here ain’t in their homes. Most of them are frustrated because they’re living with somebody else and not living at home,” she said. “They (town officials) keep saying the money is frozen.

“It’s a ghost town.”

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Sixty-one-year-old Billy Johnson has called Fair Bluff home all his life. He does maintenance work for the town, one of the oldest in Columbus County and once a center of timber production.

“This is my home place. I didn’t get flooded out,” he said. “I like it. It’s like a retirement town.”

He doesn’t see much going on, in terms of the town moving forward, trying to rebuild a return to the life before the flood.

“It was booming at one time. It was doing good before the flood,” Johnson said. “I don’t see stores reopening. After the flood, nobody come back. Just a few come back.”

Yokos is among the five businesses that have reopened.

In March 2017, the Japanese restaurant reopened at one end of the downtown block. Owner George Roy continues to commute daily from his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It’s an hour drive for him each way.

Yokos and Johnny’s Sandwich Shop are the only restaurants in town.

Roy said he and his wife invested their own money and time into bringing the restaurant back up to code. Fifteen months after reopening, he sounds like a restaurateur who regrets the decision. Roy said he expected other downtown businesses to reopen as well.

So far, his hunch has been proven wrong.

“We’re still losing money here,” he said from behind the counter. Just shy of 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, the place was empty of customers.

“We’re here, around these nice people, and hope other business come here,” Roy said. “This is supposed to be a business area, but we’re now like a ghost town. Right now, we’re not doing good.”

He said he doesn’t expect to see the town make a full recovery. Roy has discussed the situation with others who ran businesses before the flood, and they’ve told him it would be hard to return. Some, he said, have moved to other places.

Hills, the town’s only grocery store, offers a semblance of hope.

On April 11, the Whiteville-based Hills Food Stores chain opened a store in a building that was home to a Piggly Wiggly supermarket until earlier this year. Hills’ grand opening is planned for Wednesday.

“They said people over here deserved a grocery store,” assistant manager Rusty Ward said from the back of the business.

Vivien Nobles, who is 70, works as a cashier in the store. She lives about three miles from Fair Bluff, which has been home for much of her life.

“There is a big difference now than before the storm,” she said. “We don’t have the people we had before the storm, and we don’t have any kind of businesses. I think some of the stuff will come back, but not like it used to be.”

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Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com

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