It’s Friday afternoon, and the lunch crowd filing into Mae’s Restaurant in Seven Springs has had to find parking away from the restaurant’s Main Street location where work crews are busy preparing the street for resurfacing.
Inside, owner Jackie Rouse rakes sea mullets through flour and is rewarded with a sizzle when she drops them into a pan of boiling oil.
The recent reopenings of the restaurtant and post office — both for the second time in two years following historic flooding in the wakes of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and then Hurricane Florence in 2018 — are signs of recovery even though the town probably will never return to its pre-flood status.
Residents there and across Wayne County and eastern North Carolina are still struggling to rebuild six months after Hurricane Florence — North Carolina’s wettest storm on record — took days to move slowly across the state, dropping more than 8 trillion gallons of water, according to the National Weather Service.
As much as 35 inches of rain fell in some areas, including Wayne County.
Hurricane Florence claimed 44 lives in the state, which suffered an estimated $17 billion in damages. More than $1.2 billion in state and federal help is already approved for North Carolina.
Storm survivors are getting help to recover, and work is underway to make homes, businesses and infrastructure more resilient. However, much work lies ahead, and North Carolina and its recovery partners are committed to helping people and communities rebuild, Gov. Roy Cooper said.
Cooper has visited Wayne County several times since Florence to inspect damages in Seven Springs and to talk about the county’s $22 million in crop damages.
“Hurricane Florence was a devastating storm that swamped homes, businesses, farms, schools and entire communities,” Cooper said. “But the devastation was quickly followed by amazing acts of bravery and kindness from first responders, volunteers, and neighbors helping neighbors, and impressive cooperation among local, state and federal partners to get help to those in need.
“People hit hard by Florence are determined to recover, and we’re determined to rebuild North Carolina stronger and smarter.”
To lead the state’s efforts to rebuild smarter and stronger, Cooper established the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
The office provides disaster recovery coordination with services that include oversight of recovery funding, processing of program applications, construction and vendor management, and public outreach and education, among many other responsibilities.
N.C. House Majority Leader John Bell of Goldsboro is in the process of having reports pulled ahead of discussions this coming week with Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson and Rep. Brendon Jones, House deputy majority leader.
“Chuck is in the western part of the state, and of course they have had to deal with forest fires and some mudslides with the current rain system we have had come through in the last six months,” Bell said. “We have kind of been on the leadership team for disaster recovery, so we are getting numbers pulled to see where the state dollars have been spent.
“Of course, we did the $240 million package for agriculture, and we are getting really good feedback on that. From what has been reported, the Department of Agriculture is doing a good job getting folks registered, signed up and trying to get those dollars out. We are looking at the other programs that we put money into.”
Bell will be meeting with Golden LEAF Foundation officials this week.
The state has funneled some of the funding through the foundation since it was discovered that while the state could appropriate funds, it did not have an arm to issue checks, he said.
Golden LEAF is an entity that does a good job getting money out the door, Bell said.
Money for the new Seven Springs Fire Station, currently under construction on N.C. 55, came through the foundation, Bell said. It also helped with the Cooperative Extension building in Kinston, he said.
Disaster recovery is just a long process, and there have been some administrative issues in the governor’s office as far as disaster recovery funding, Bell said.
“I know that they are trying to get the Department of Resiliency set up,” he said. “This is a new department that we funded in last year’s budget to just kind of address the long-term recovery issues, which models everything kind of like what South Carolina has. That way we a full-time, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week entity dedicated to long-term recovery. We need that.
“That is in the process of getting up and running and moving forward. We have started a process at the Global TransPark (in Kinston) of working with FEMA trying to get that declared as a FEMA disaster site for the Eastern Seaboard. FEMA is currently there at the TransPark and has been there since Hurricane Florence hit.”
The legislature is looking at long-term resiliency, Bell said.
That includes what needs to be done about the beaver problem, and their dams that cause eastern North Carolina streams to back up, he said.
Also, just this past week, state Sens. Jim Perry (R-District 7) of Kinston, Tom McInnis (R-District 25) and Danny Earl Britt (R-District 13) introduced Senate Bill 254 to appropriate $12 million to be shared equally among Wayne, Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Duplin, Jones, Lenoir, Onslow, Pender, Robeson, Sampson and Scotland counties to assist with drainage ditch cleanup.
It would complement work already underway in the county.
Still more money is need for stream cleanup, Bell said.
Bell said he also has met with state Department of Transportation officials about raising roads in flood-prone areas as far as new construction.
“Trying to redo (existing) roads would be tough, but with flood mapping we know what areas need to be a little higher,” Bell said.
Bell said he thinks the state is doing a better job of responding to and planning for hurricanes.
The problem is that no two storms are the same, he said.
“The other challenge is that we can prepare for a lot of things,” Bell said. “The challenge that we have is how do you prepare for these storms, and we are over 10 million people and growing. Our state is a very fast-growing state, and the more they build upstream, the more we have to deal with downstream.”
One possibility being looked at is adding more flood gauges and having discussion about dredging the Neuse River, he said.
Bell said people had forgotten that before highways, the Neuse River was a major transportation route and was well maintained, dredged and cleaned.
Areas along the river that were once deep are now very shallow, and the floodwater has to go somewhere, he said.
Another possibility is some type of reservoir between Goldsboro and Smithfield that would help control flooding, Bell said.
Those are among the things being talked about as well as how to pay for them, he said.
“But it is one of those issues that you either pay for it on the front end or pay for it on the back end,” Bell said. “Just on the state’s part we have put in between $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion that we have been able to do through general fund dollars. I am glad it is there, but more is always needed.”