The Storm of a Lifetime
Wilmington remains resilient as it recovers from Hurricane Florence
By DEAN BLAINE
Two days before Hurricane Florence roared ashore in Wilmington, the skies along the coast were a beautiful Carolina blue. Temperatures hovered around 85 degrees. The Cape Fear River as it flowed through downtown was smooth as glass. There was not yet even a breeze. The calm before the storm produced the kind of day that reminded locals why they had chosen to call Wilmington home.
But other signs were ominous. Pictures posted to Facebook showed empty shelves at Walmart, devoid of food and water. Gas stations were running out of fuel. Grocery stores were no longer accepting cash, access to banks would soon be limited. Local businesses and restaurants were closing shop—boarding windows. Longtime local residents who swore to ride out the storm, began considering other options. In a press conference, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said, “The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen. Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different.” The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore was spotted on Wrightsville Beach. When Cantore comes to town, locals quipped, that’s when you know it’s time to leave. The Weather Channel dubbed Hurricane Florence, “the storm of a lifetime.”
Florence had slowed to a Category 1 storm with 90 mph winds by the time she made landfall on Wrightsville Beach at 7:15am on September 14th. The winds had tempered, but storm surge was still a threat, and now Florence promised to be a “significant rain event.” Slow moving at 2 to 3 mph (a brisk walking speed) the hurricane would linger over Eastern North Carolina for days, drenching the region in more than 10 trillion gallons of water.
By the time Hurricane Florence finished with Wilmington, billions of dollars in damages had been racked on the Port City. More than 90 percent of residents were without power and would remain so for days. Some inland areas had suffered nearly three feet of rain, rendering Wilmington an island, isolated from rescue and power crews. In the immediate days, Florence claimed more than 30 lives. Thousands of fallen trees damaged homes and made roads impassable. Hurricane Florence would go down as the wettest storm in the history of the state.
But Wilmington is resilient. No sooner had Florence dissipated, then recovery efforts were underway. More than 20,000 utility workers, some from as far away as Texas and Canada, converged on Wilmington and, working around the clock, restored power in a matter of days. Neighbors helped each other dispatch of trees and debris. More than 30 city crews cleared roads. Restaurants, churches and residents all came together to feed thousands of relief workers. Aid groups dispersed food, water and cleaning products.
Residents in Wilmington suffered an estimated $220 million in preliminary property damage. Garbage officials expect to collect 1.2 million cubic yards of debris, at a cost of nearly $20 million.
All told, officials estimate that Florence inflicted more than $13 billion in damages statewide, topping $5 billion from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and $9 billion from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The state of North Carolina has pledged $1.5 billion to help southeastern North Carolina recover from Hurricane Florence. “Florence was an epic storm that brought unprecedented, widespread disasters,” Governor Cooper said, “It was like nothing we have ever seen before. Our efforts in recovery must be just as unique and bold.”
Hurricane Florence was one for the record books. Recovery will take years. But, a month after the storm, the skies over Wilmington have returned to a beautiful Carolina blue. The temperature has cooled, a welcome relief from the hot and humid summer. Jim Cantore is gone. Out on the beach, in the parks, in the fresh seafood and BBQ joints, in the neighborhoods, in the churches, strolling along the Cape Fear River, locals are reminded why they call Wilmington home.