IN A BOAT ON MAIN STREET IN FAIR BLUFF, NC (WBTV) – Main street in Fair Bluff, NC was still closed the Friday after Hurricane Florence blew through the tiny town in Columbus County.
Although the storm’s rains had stopped nearly a week earlier, water from the Lumber River - which snakes behind the neat row of building that line the town’s Main Street - continued to flow over the river’s banks, through Main Street and into homes further into town.
The water was brown and carried a stench that suggested to those curious enough to cross the police barrier and go see the flooding up close that you didn’t want to wade through it.
If you wanted to see downtown Fair Bluff any closer, you had to board a boat.
The scene was an all-too-recent memory for nearby residents. Main Street was covered by feet of water just two years earlier when flooding from Hurricane Matthew forced water from the Lumber River through the town.
The flooding forced all but one business on Main Street to close. That business, a Japanese steakhouse, had since left town before Florence hit.
Local, state officials frustrated by slow recovery
The swirling brown water came about a third of the way up the door of the now-shuttered Japanese restaurant when North Carolina Representative Brendan Jones (R-Columbus) stepped down into a boat for a floating tour of Main Street.
“We hadn’t repaired from the last one,” Jones said of the recovery efforts in the town since Hurricane Matthew hit two years earlier aboard the boat. “We’re going to do this all over again and we hadn’t been made whole from the first storm.
As Jones talked, the boat he was on carried him past store fronts that had sat abandoned since Hurricane Matthew.
Now, in addition to the smell of mold and mildew coming from the once-thriving businesses - including an appliance store, computer repair shop and pharmacy - residents would be treated to broken windows and a thick brown line marking the high water level from the floodwaters.
Jones has been among a vocal group of state lawmakers critical of the slow pace of the state’s recovery efforts from Hurricane Matthew.
“Look at the town: no one was made whole. We failed the citizens by not helping them,” Jones said.
Jones said he isn’t sure whether Fair Bluff will continue to exist after being hit by two major storms in the span of two years.
Fair Bluff’s mayor, Bill Hammond, said he’s hopeful the small band of residents who care about the town will help keep it going in the wake of not one but two disasters so close together. But even he recognizes the hard path forward.
“Once is tough. But the second go-round, you do it again and hope you don’t get burned a third time,” Hammond said. “And when you do it within a 23-month period, it’s hard to – it hits the pocketbook hard.”
Like Jones, Hammond was critical of the slow pace of recovery from the state’s leadership.
“I would tell them that they need to take another avenue or approach and that the people down here are poor people and they need the help as quick as they can get it,” Hammond said.
Episode 1: Path of the Storm: Two Years Later
‘Nobody seems to care’
Even residents who don’t want Fair Bluff to be washed off the map are uncertain of the tiny town’s future.
We first met Ray Lundy a year ago, in September 2017, when he stopped to talk with us along Main Street.
He was critical of the slow recovery efforts in the first meeting. His opinion hasn’t changed in the year since.
“What does it take? How many hurricanes do we have to have?” Lundy, a retired Baptist minister, asked. “Nobody seems to care.”
We talked with Lundy two weeks after Florence and her torrential floodwaters washed through town.
The ride from Town Hall to Lundy’s home takes you down Main Street - with broken glass adorning the storefronts and think mud caked along the curb - along the Lumber River, which had receded but was still at the top of its banks and through several streets of homes whose yards were still full of standing water from the flood.
Inside Lundy’s home, the air conditioner was still not working because the couple had just gotten power back earlier that day.
Still, being inside was better than dealing with the post-storm soup of heat, stench and mosquitos outside.
“What Matthew did, Florence just – it was the TKO, I’m afraid. We got the left hook from Matthew and the right cross from Florence,” Lundy said.
Lundy said he hopes the town finds a way to rebuild in the wake of Florence but acknowledges it may be tough.
“There are a lot of us who still love Fair Bluff but we don’t know what our future is,” he said. “After a while, you say, ‘Lord, how long? How long?”
Episode 2: Path of the Storm: Two Years Later
‘This is catastrophic’
You could get down Main Street in Lumberton, NC but many residents in and around the city were hit just as hard.
Like Fair Bluff, residents in and around Lumberton, located in Robeson County about 25 miles north of Fair Bluff along the Lumber River, were grappling with their second storm in the span of as many years after Florence’s flood waters inundated the area.
The flooding same so quickly to Carl Cummings’ front door he and his family had to evacuate in about 30 minutes.
“It was more or less like a dam broke loose somewhere. I’ve bene here for years and it doesn’t seem like rain water would rise that fast,” Cummings said.
His house sits about a football field away from the Lumber River. When we went by his house the Thursday after Florence had blown through, the River was still flowing above the road in front of his house and up to his front yard.
Cummings’ wife was standing outside her house in the steadily-flowing flood water as her husband went inside to gather some items the family had left behind in their haste to leave before the water got too high.
Eventually, Cummings came out of the house and swam back through the water with his belongings.
Cummings, shirtless in only swimming trucks and his hair still wet, summed up the damage succinctly.
Episode 3: Path of the Storm: Two Years Later
“It’s like the word they like to use, ‘catastrophic’? Yeah, this is catastrophic,” he said. “They called Matthew the 500-year flood. I reckon’ the Good Lord just showed that people didn’t have to wait 500 years to get another one.”
Unlike Cummings, many people in Robeson County were hitting hit with flood waters for the second time.
State Senator Danny Britt (R-Robeson) worked for weeks before, during and after the storm to help coordinate response and relief efforts.
We rode along with him one after through the flood waters to go check on residents in potentially hazardous areas.
“They got hit by Matthew, most of them have not rebuilt yet,” Britt said. “Most of them have not completed the buyout process yet and here we go again.”
Like Jones, Britt is among lawmakers in the General Assembly who have questioned the slow pace of recovery efforts from Hurricane Matthew.
In late August, in the weeks before Florence hit, the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations voted to form a subcommittee to investigate what has taken the state so long to administer federal relief dollars.
Britt will serve as an advisory member on that subcommittee.
North Carolina was rated a ‘slow spender’ by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development earlier this year for failing to spend any of more than $200 million in federal block grant money.
The state had started repairs on its first house using that HUD block grant money, known as CDBG-DR, in August.
“We’re putting pressure,” Britt said of the investigation into the slow response. “The Governor calls it political theater but, you know, I don’t think there’s anything entertaining about people being out of their homes for over a year, people not being reimbursed for their loss for over a year.”
Both Britt and Jones in Fair Bluff pointed to the fact that South Carolina has repaired hundreds of homes damaged in Matthew. South Carolina received CDBG-DR funds at the same time as North Carolina.
When a reported asked Britt whether one of his constituents who was impacted by both Matthew and Florence should trust that the state will ever help them rebuild, he said no.
“To be honest with you, if I were a victim of Hurricane Matthew, I don’t know that I would think that they would come any faster,” he said.
‘Still so many people hurting’
Britt highlighted the story of one of his constituents in a speech to the Senate earlier this year.
Deborah Maynor’s home was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
She said the impact on her family from Matthew took a heavy toll.
“I lost my home, I lost my work vehicle and I lost my brother’s handicap van,” she said.
She and her bedridden brother had to flee their new home when Hurricane Florence hit, too.
When we talked with her the week after Florence hit, it was too soon to tell how bad the damage from Florence would be at her new house.
But one thing was for sure: she wouldn’t be able to return to her home destroyed by Matthew anytime soon.
Mayor said she applied for a buyout in February 2017, was approved that August but hasn’t seen any progress since.
“There’s lots of people around here who are still in the same situation,” she said.
In fact, Maynor said, it doesn’t appear anyone in her community got help after Matthew.
“It doesn’t seem like it,” she said. “There’s still so many people hurting.”
‘A recovery that’s as aggressive as the response’
To talk with Governor Roy Cooper or North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry, you get the impression both realize the recovery from Hurricane Matthew has taken too long and things must dramatically improve in the wake of Florence.
“We’re looking at ways to compress the timeline and we think that we’re going to betting more flexibility,” Sprayberry said of efforts to use federal funds allocated to the state to help recovery from the storms. “I can tell you, everyone’s working to that end.”
Sprayberry said his agency is in a better position to ramp up long-term recovery efforts following Hurricane Florence than it was after Hurricane Matthew.
Both Sprayberry and Cooper are quick to point out the fact that NCEM had never been responsible for long-term recovery prior to the effort for Matthew.
“We’ve learned lessons from our CDBG-DR implementation from Matthew and, so, we’re already beginning to do environmental reviews for the counties now so we can get a head start,” Sprayberry said.
The biggest hurdle to the state spending CDBG-DR money following Matthew was environmental reviews.
The state attempted to submit a draft environmental review - which must be completed for each county where the federal dollars will be spent - for multiple counties at once in late 2017.
That review was rejected by HUD. The state did not submit another environmental review for roughly seven months after that.
To date, nobody from NCEM or the Cooper administration has been able to explain the delay.
But a spokesman for NCEM provided a list of counties where environmental reviews had been complete to WBTV as of the first week of October and a total of 14 counties had received approval, some as recently as October 3, 2018.
The spokesman said the agency believed it would be able to use the environmental reviews recently completed to distribute Matthew aid for Florence aid, too.
“We think we have a better understanding of how CDBG-DR works because we were new to it and I think that we’re going to be able to really put some speed on it now,” Sprayberry said. “As much speed as can be applied to a program like that.”
Sprayberry said Cooper has been clear about how he expects recovery from Florence to proceed.
“One of the things the Governor told me is he wants us to have a recovery that’s just as aggressive as the response,” Sprayberry said.