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After Florence, half of this town was underwater for days. Now residents wonder if they should rebuild.

It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina and then drenched the state for days, leading to devastating flooding in many inland areas and causing an estimated $17 billion dollars worth of damage. Special correspondent Cat Wise traveled to Jones County recently, where one hard-hit town is still struggling with the storm’s messy aftermath.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow marks two months since Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina.

    The storm drenched the state for days, leading to record-breaking flooding and an estimated $17 billion worth of damage.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise recently traveled to Jones County, near the Atlantic coastline, where one hard-hit town is still struggling with the messy aftermath.

  • Cat Wise:

    At the end of a quiet rural road in Pollocksville, North Carolina, is a catering business normally bustling this time of year with weddings and corporate events.

    But on a recent morning, owners Vel and Mel Chapman headed into work, and instead of putting on aprons, they grabbed brooms to sweep out the kitchen where they have been cooking classic Southern food for nearly 20 years. The Chapmans are among more than 750 families in Pollocksville and Jones County who lost everything when the Trent River flooded during Hurricane Florence.

    Like many here, they didn't have flood insurance.

  • Vel Chapman:

    We think we have lost about $100,000 with merchandise and equipment. And we lost so much food. We lost thousands and thousands of dollars' worth of food.

  • Cat Wise:

    Their home, just yards away, was also flooded. But perhaps the biggest loss they attribute to the storm, Vel's 90-year-old mother passed away the day the family returned after being evacuated.

  • Vel Chapman:

    I think she couldn't stand the idea of seeing us flooded out, because she really loved working back here with us. That Sunday, she had a massive heart attack.

  • Cat Wise:

    This was Pollocksville during the height of the flooding. It's a small working-class community with 325 residents. About half of the town's homes and businesses sat underwater for several days.

    And this is Pollocksville nearly two months after the storm, block after block strewn with household possessions and cherished keepsakes destroyed by the floodwaters, the town post office, motel, restaurant, and historic buildings along Main Street all wiped out.

    Pollocksville is no stranger to flooding. The scenic Trent River has overflown its banks three times in the past 20 years, but Hurricane Florence's deluge shocked everyone.

  • Jay Bender:

    We had a nine-foot storm surge that came in from Hurricane Florence in the first day, and before that surge could retreat, we got somewhere between 25 and 30 inches of rain.

  • Cat Wise:

    Jay Bender has been the mayor of Pollocksville for 36 years. He's now working out of a temporary office, an old pharmacy, surrounded by soggy records and equipment he and his staff tried to salvage from the town hall.

    It's a historic former train depot which sits right next to the Trent River.

    So how much water did you have here?

  • Jay Bender:

    Well, we figure we probably got about 20-plus feet.

    Be careful. These boards have flooded.

  • Cat Wise:

    Inside, Bender showed me his office, where mold is now growing on the walls, and a meeting room filled with damaged city memorabilia.

  • Jay Bender:

    We lost everything. We lost minute books that date back to the '20. We have no ordnance book. We have no copies of contracts. We have no personnel records. So we have really kind of had to create a government in exile with nothing.

  • Cat Wise:

    Among the many issues confronting Mayor Bender and the city now, more than $500,000 in damaged infrastructure costs. A nonprofit in the state gave the city a grant for sewage treatment plant repairs, and the mayor is hoping to get federal and state support for other needed work.

    The recovery process unfolding now in Pollocksville is a familiar one for many small low-income communities hit hard by extreme weather events. Those with few resources before the storms have a harder time getting back on their feet.

    In Pollocksville, a new faith-based nonprofit is helping to meet the biggest needs of the community. The Filling Station is an old propane gas company that was recently turned into a food pantry and resource center with support of local churches and others. Since the hurricane, it's been a one-stop shop where residents in need are loaded up with donated items.

  • Mary Ann LeRay:

    Dear Holy Father, we thank you so much for the privilege to come here and serve in this way.

  • Cat Wise:

    Mary Ann LeRay is the volunteer president of the organization.

  • Mary Ann LeRay:

    Primarily, the newspapers are gone, news crews are gone, and now the hard work begins.

  • Cat Wise:

    What do people need most?

  • Mary Ann LeRay:

    First and foremost, they need hope. But, second of all, they need people helping to rebuild the houses, hanging Sheetrock, putting in floors, even mucking out houses.

  • Cat Wise:

    One of those coming in for supplies while we were there was Michelle Parker. Parker and her husband, Ken, own a 60-acre produce farm on the outskirts of Pollocksville. It's been in Ken's family for three generations.

    Their home was flooded, along with Ken's parents', and their son's home. They also lost $30,000 to $40,000 in fall crops.

  • Ken Parker:

    This is where would be growing strawberries. All this was underwater. Everything you can see out here was probably waist-deep or so.

  • Michelle Parker:

    And we had sweet potatoes we were getting ready to dig.

  • Ken Parker:

    Yes.

  • Michelle Parker:

    And they're gone. That's kind of our fall/winter crop that we live on.

  • Cat Wise:

    The Parkers, who have so far received a $20,000 FEMA rebuilding grant and $6,000 from a GoFundMe page a friend established, are now facing a hard choice many others are confronting as well, whether to continue to live and work along the banks of the Trent River.

  • Ken Parker:

    It's a good possibility that we may not continue. If we do, like I said, it's like going to be kind of starting from scratch almost. The future is still kind of unknown as far as how that's going to go.

  • John Mills:

    When you're seeing flooding happening again and again in the same location, communities need to make smart choices about how they rebuild.

  • Cat Wise:

    John Mills is a FEMA spokesman who has been stationed in North Carolina since the hurricane. Thus far, more than $4.5 million in state and federal grants have been given to some 600 homeowners and renters in Jones County.

    The money is for home repairs and temporary rental assistance not covered by flood insurance.

  • John Mills:

    If you live in an area that is near where flooding has happened before, you need flood insurance. When you get 10, 20, 30 inches of rain in some areas, it's going to flood in that area, no matter what it says on the map.

    FEMA programs are not designed to build back people's homes the way they were before the disaster struck.

  • Cat Wise:

    Mayor Jay Bender says he realizes the town has challenges ahead.

  • Jay Bender:

    I had a colleague ask me one day, am I going to have a town to govern? If we have a good number of folks who decide they're not going to come back, then I have no property tax revenue, I have no water and sewer revenue.

    I'm convinced there's going to be a town. It's just not going to look the way many of us, like me, a native, remember it when we were younger.

  • Cat Wise:

    For their part, Vel and Mel Chapman hope to get cooking again soon with the help of FEMA grants, Small Business Administration loans, and some volunteers who know how to install Sheetrock.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Pollocksville, North Carolina.

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