The North Carolina town, whose population is down by one-third after being flooded twice in three years, can’t recover on its own, Leonard says.
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue
Disasters can break a small town. The deserted businesses and abandoned homes in Fair Bluff, about an hour’s drive west of Wilmington, North Carolina, are a painful illustration of that.
For Fair Bluff, it was not one disaster but two. Businesses on Main Street were flooded with four feet of water during Hurricane Matthew, in October 2016. Some 71 homes and an apartment complex were significantly damaged. Less than two years later, Fair Bluff was still reeling when Hurricane Florence walloped the town and flooded the same properties again. The U.S. Post Office is the only business in the flooded section to have reopened. One-third of the town’s residents have not returned.
Al Leonard is the contract town manager for Fair Bluff, one of five towns in Columbus County he assists with financial management and planning. His main post is in Tabor City, but Leonard spends one day each week in Fair Bluff. He has been instrumental in guiding the town’s applications for disaster aid.
Circle of Blue’s Brett Walton discussed with Leonard the challenges that Fair Bluff and other small towns have in recovering from disasters. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
What does it take for Fair Bluff to recover? What is the path forward?
Well, I think there were four, and I can’t think of the right word. I’m going to say four “umbrellas” of work that we tried to put all of these issues into. The first one was humanitarian. You know, immediately after the storm people have to have food, water, clothing, shelter. That went on for a month or so. And although there were some hiccups in humanitarian delivery, I think by and large it went very well. Local fire and rescue, state emergency management, the military, faith-based groups, they all came in and I thought fairly quickly did a good job of getting people humanitarian aid. So that first umbrella was over with after about a month.
The second umbrella that I saw was infrastructure: water, sewer, streets, public buildings. Obviously much of that local infrastructure was destroyed. And that’s where I can’t say enough good things about the state government of North Carolina. I’ve been in this business for 34 years and during much of that 34 years, I’ve been a critic of North Carolina state government, sometimes a harsh critic of North Carolina state government. But they — really I say they: the funding agencies, the legislators — I mean, they have done a tremendous job of helping with the infrastructure.
Overall, and this is not just infrastructure, but all the categories. There was about $28.5 million dollars that has been awarded to be spent in Fair Bluff.
The state gave, gave, the town a little over a million dollars to replace all the sewer pumps at the pump stations that run the water. They gave them right at $900,000 to develop a new drinking water well for the public water supply system.
I’ve said in every meeting I’ve been in, and I’ve said to every citizen, maybe to my peril, the recovery in Fair Bluff will go as far as someone else’s money will take us.”
They gave them $2 million to replace sewer lines in the ground that cracked, broke, and were allowing inflow and infiltration to come in. They gave $1.7 million for a new town hall and new public works facility. Separately they gave money to the private fire and rescue squad to build a new facility that you probably saw. So the state has done a tremendous job putting money into infrastructure in Fair Bluff.
The third umbrella that we saw was housing. And there’s basically been two efforts there. We talked about [FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program]. There will be 71 houses either demolished, elevated, or reconstructed. There’s about four or five houses in town that will be fixed up under a county [Community Development Block Grant]. And the state gave $5 million to the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency to build a new apartment complex on higher land in Fair Bluff. One of the reasons that it is important is as we go forward, Fair Bluff’s got a big dilemma.
Much of our revenue that we use to pay for the police department, pay for the public works department, pay for the street lights, much of that revenue is based on population. Again, prior to the storms Fair Bluff’s population had been declining. Since the 1980s it had dropped from 1,200 to 900. We believe it’s around 600 now, after Matthew and Florence. If a third of our population leaves, potentially a third of our revenue is going to leave. So the question is how do you run a water system with a third less customers? How do you run a sewer system? How do you pay for a police department with a third less revenue? So the state said, ‘Okay, we’ll build a brand new apartment complex there.’ Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be fast enough because the federal census is going to be next year and I don’t think this new apartment complex will be finished by next April.
The last umbrella is the one that’s probably the most discussed and the most visible and that is downtown. What do you do with downtown? There is no buyout program for commercial buildings. None of those business owners had flood insurance. Again, it had been ninety years since they needed it. I guess they didn’t have a flood insurance program back in the late twenties, but nobody had flood insurance and the downtown commercial buildings are destroyed.
So we’ve got to figure out how to get these buildings demolished, what to do with the land after it’s demolished, and if there is to be any commercial activity in Fair Bluff on higher ground, where does it take place? How does it take place in an impoverished community that was struggling anyway? And so if you look at the four umbrellas: the humanitarian, the infrastructure, the housing, I think things have gone okay. Although probably a citizen that’s still displaced wouldn’t say the housing part has been okay, but help’s on the way. Right now there’s no help on the way for downtown Fair Bluff.
I talked to a couple Chamber of Commerce people who said, ‘Tourism, the river, we’ve got to find a way to use it.’ You’ve got the river walk, which is a little lure, but not a big enough one. It seems like it’s something, it’s a start. So I guess in all of this, there has to be some outside catalyst to help Fair Bluff. I mean, can they do it on their own?
No. There’s no way. A town of 600 people that had a negligent town treasury before disaster, they cannot bring about recovery on their own. And I’ve said in every meeting I’ve been in and I’ve said to every citizen, maybe to my peril, the recovery in Fair Bluff will go as far as someone else’s money will take us. Okay. So we’ve spent a lot of time lobbying for money, applying for money and when we get money we spend it. But if it’s left up to the town treasury of Fair Bluff, there will be no recovery because we will struggle to keep the street lights on. We will struggle to keep a policeman and a police cruiser driving around at night. There’s probably not enough tax base left to do those things. And so to go out and say the local treasury’s going to build a park or the local treasury is going to build a new commercial center somewhere that’s, never going to happen.
For existing flood maps, was it known that these are flood-prone properties?
What I believe happened is, Fair Bluff fell asleep at the wheel. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but what we’ve been told by the old-timers is there was nothing like this magnitude since the late 1920s. Houses were built during those 90 years. Commercial buildings were built during those 90 years. And the river would get out, it would get in the street, but it would not get four feet in the buildings.
And so that’s what the people thought: This is as bad as it can get. Most of the businesses, including the town government, did not have flood insurance. I went to Fair Bluff the day before Hurricane Matthew and it had been raining heavily on and off for a couple of weeks, and the river was full, and I remember telling the town clerk, ‘You know, if this thing doesn’t turn out to sea like they say it will, we may be in trouble.’ And by trouble I meant we may have to replace the carpet again. Well, the next time I was in town hall, I had chest waders on and I was with the fire department and the furniture was floating around in the building and just nobody, nobody really remembered it being that bad.
We’re the poster child right now for destruction and maybe we’ll get you back in three or four years and show you a park where there used to be a downtown.”
Now the other thing I would say is this: in the late 1970s Fair Bluff by all evidence joined the National Flood Insurance Program, and they started requiring anybody that develops in the areas that are mapped as a flood zone to have an elevation certificate. Fortunately, Fair Bluff had a surveyor there in town. Although he worked in a larger city, he lived in Fair Bluff. He did a pretty good job for a very small town in making sure if somebody came in and set up a double wide, it was two and a half feet above flood level. And in driving through the town during the hurricane or later during the flooding, the homes that were set up post late-1970s, there was water under the house, but there was not water in the house. All this stuff prior to the 1970s, they had two or three feet of water, four feet of water.
I’m interested in this for several reasons, but one of which is that declining population, aging population in rural places is something that is an issue in Iowa and Kansas and Texas, everywhere. It was an issue here, and the two storms accelerated a process that was already in motion. Here you have a fast-forwarding of the future, if you will. So one, what does resilience mean for a small town with a declining, aging population? And two, can that be reversed? Does resilience have any meaning for a town like Fair Bluff? Or is it a one-way path?
Well, you’re exactly right. And you know, the five towns that I’ve worked for are very small. They’re in rural areas and they have tremendous challenges. I’ve read a lot about the Nebraskas and the Kansasas, and Maine and evidently this is a phenomenon, the small towns de-populating, that’s been going on in Europe for some time. There’s a lot of information on the internet about Italy. Small towns are almost ghost towns. So I’ve given that a lot of thought. I think probably the difference for Fair Bluff, if they’ve got a future, is: there’s a major U.S. highway that goes right through the middle of town, U.S. 76. And given the swamps that are around there, it’d be very difficult to bypass that town. So there’s going to be vehicular traffic. And there is some infrastructure there. There’s some areas that didn’t flood, have good streets, good water, good sewer, good street lights, all those things. And as those people move or pass away, those areas would probably be attractive enough for somebody to say, ‘I’d like to purchase that home and move to Fair Bluff.’
I think the dilemma for all rural towns is this, and we’ve talked about this a lot in Tabor City. Let’s say you’ve got an empty storefront in a commercial district in a small rural town. What can you put in there that will get the owner of that building a return on investment? And what we’re hearing is, it’s probably not going to be retail. Because the folks that live outside of a small town like Tabor City, there’s a new Dollar General about four or five miles out of town. Those people are never or rarely going to come to Tabor City anymore when they need a light bulb or when they need a quart of motor oil. So I think the dollar stores have impacted small downtowns. The other thing quite frankly is you’ve got to think about what can go in that building that you can’t get on your phone. You can bank on your phone, you can renew an insurance policy on your phone, you can order something from Amazon, have it delivered to your front door on your phone. They haven’t figured out how to do a haircut over the phone. And so you could probably have a beauty salon downtown.
And the other thing is that there is a return on investment for residential. You know, we still have people coming in to the small towns I work for and saying, ‘I need a place to rent around here. Where can I rent?’ And it may be to save these storefronts from just falling in due to neglect, you got to convert them to residential and let people live in them. Maybe 30 or 40 years from now, the pendulum will swing and it will come back for something else. But unless the owner of that building can get a return on his investment, there is no hope for that building. And I think about that dilemma a lot.
Why Fair Bluff? I mean there’s a lot of need in the state, I assume, especially after both hurricanes. Is there any reason for the interest in this particular community?
I don’t know the answer to that. I mean I could give you three or four reasons and all of those could be wrong, but I’ll give you three or four reasons. I think number one, Fair Bluff was probably the poster child for hurricane destruction. You know, there was always New Bern, there was always Wilmington, Fayetteville, but the worst was always Fair Bluff with Matthew and Florence. So if the state’s looking at it from a worst first, I think Fair Bluff is probably the worst. Some may say Princeville and that would be a valid argument. But I think one argument would be we were in bad shape.
I think the second argument would be we have a veteran town council, we have a veteran administration and the minute the hurricane hit, we didn’t have to put a lot of thought into what to do. We knew what to do. And so we beat a lot of people to the punch. We asked first. I think it would be one answer. And quite frankly, we’ve got some power and prestige in the General Assembly on the House and Senate side that maybe some of the other jurisdictions don’t have. And we’ve been able to make our case to those legislators and they have done, my gosh, they have done a tremendous job of advocating for Fair Bluff. I mean, just a phenomenal job of advocating for Fair Bluff.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the rural dilemma. You try, but that return on investment in a rural area, it’s just hard to get now.”
Now, those would be my three reasons, but I may be wrong, you know, and if I were managing some of the other smaller towns in North Carolina that have not had $28.5 million awarded to them, I’m sure I’d be disappointed. But, you know, my job is to do what I can for the citizens of Fair Bluff. So we’ve been out there doing it as hard as we can and as often as we can.
I can tell you one of my nightmares is this: What if this had happened in 2009 during the depth of the recession, and the state government had no money to set up an Office of Recovery and Resiliency, and give Kim Colson [the state water infrastructure director] money for wells and pump stations and waterlines to new apartments and all that? It happened when our state treasury, by all accounts, was in good shape.
North Carolina’s gone through some tough recessions. Again, I can’t say enough good things about the state they have saved Fair Bluff from disaster. I know we’re in a disaster, but we would have had nowhere to go, no plans to do anything. I don’t know what we would have done without the state. But getting back to your point, I’ve only worked in small towns in my career. I’ve worked in two rural counties. I work for five small towns now and I call it the rural dilemma. I spend a lot of time thinking about the rural dilemma. You try, but that return on investment in a rural area, it’s just hard to get now. It really is.
Does anyone talk about climate change in the recovery for Fair Bluff and some of these towns?
Yes. I think at least one of our council members in Fair Bluff believes that the severity of the storms — two 500-year events back to back — is directly attributable to climate change. And the state Office of Budget and Management gave us a grant to do a new land use plan, new zoning ordinance, all of that. And the Council of Governments, those land use planners, they certainly believe that climate change will bring these type of events more frequently, and our land use planning, they believe, has got to reflect a new reality. I’m not so sure that I believe that. I’m not a skeptic. I try to look at it from a scientific standpoint, but I was also here during the Nineties we had like four pretty good hurricanes within a five year period. They weren’t as severe. You know, we had Fran, Bonnie, Floyd, all those storms hit us pretty hard within a short period of time. If you look at the history of North Carolina back in the 1950s there were a lot of severe hurricanes in the 1950s, kind of boom, boom, boom. So whether we can say Matthew and Florence were attributable to climate change, I can’t say that. But like I said, we’ve got a council member and our land-use planners who are saying that they believe that to be the case.
Florence was an interesting storm. You know, it kind of started on Friday, and there was a lot of rain on Saturday. Sunday, me and my wife got out and picked up limbs in the yard and pulled them out to the curb side. The sun came out, and we thought, ‘You know, this was bad, but we made it. We’re okay.’ And then Sunday night, man, that last band that came through, it just settled over us, and our house here in Tabor City flooded. We were just so close to surviving Florence. And then boom, here it came again. It was really something.
We’re the poster child right now for destruction and maybe we’ll get you back in three or four years and show you a park where there used to be a downtown.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton