Nearly one year after Hurricane Matthew devastated the small town of Windsor, the area has made significant repairs — but it still has a long way to go.
After flooding from Tropical Storm Julia, Hurricane Matthew hit Windsor 13 days later in October 2016. The Cashie River overflowed, which led to severe flooding that left many homes and some businesses beyond repair.
“It’s been a nightmare trying to separate what damage was done in each event,” Windsor Mayor James Hoggard said. “You couldn’t always do it really. We pretty much weathered the storm, and we’ve had a number of things happen really in the last couple months.”
Eleven months later, all but two businesses have returned, but many residents are still left without suitable housing.
Sandrika Freeman, a UNC first-year from Windsor, said she was without power for three days when the storm first hit — although some people lacked power for much longer.
“A couple businesses have moved around Windsor and have left Windsor due to flooding,” she said. “Most of the damage happened in downtown, and my hairdresser there got flooded out. She hasn’t returned.”
Billy Smithwick, Windsor fire chief during Hurricane Matthew, said the storm forced the town to use money it reserved for emergencies.
“We try to allocate a certain amount of money each year for disaster because we seem to go through these pretty regularly — particularly flooding,” he said.
Smithwick said the town no longer has that reserve of money, which would be problematic if another storm were to hit this year.
“You just wonder what you are going to do,” he said. “Where are you going to get that money from?”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency instituted a buyout program for houses in downtown Windsor that are prone to flooding. Hoggard said FEMA will buy the house and pay the owner the market rate before it was damaged by the storm. The town of Windsor took over these lots and is now responsible for them.
Hoggard said FEMA has also reimbursed the town for things like police working overtime and washed out sewer pipes but that the town has not yet received the full reimbursement.
Groups like NC Baptist Men and Samaritan's Purse are helping provide labor and materials for the cleanup and rebuilding, Smithwick said.
“I don’t know how we would get the work done without them because basically that’s free labor,” he said. “If we had to pay construction people to come in here and do all this work, I don’t know where we would be.”
Hoggard said numerous university groups are studying the area and its hurricane damages. UNC is currently working on a project involving waterproofing town buildings.
ECU geologists are planning a 50 to 100 year hydrolysis study along with long-term solutions to protect the town from future water damage. N.C. State hydrologists are studying the river to determine the causes of the flooding and offering solutions.
Gavin Smith, a city and regional planning professor at UNC and director of the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative, said UNC, as part of the initiative, is helping the town of Windsor in ways that traditional post-disaster programs do not.
“We have developed a set of conceptual plans tied to what the town might do with the open space it will be creating following the acquisition and demolition of flood-prone homes,” he said.
Smith said they are also working to find strategies to flood-proof downtown Windsor.
Barbara Doll, a professor of engineering at N.C. State University and water protection and restoration specialist at North Carolina Sea Grant, said her group is working on engineering ideas to temporarily store water to prevent flooding in Windsor.
“We’re kind of taking a holistic look at — right there in the town — evaluating different scenarios, how things could be managed differently that might have a potential benefit to them in bigger storms,” she said.
Hoggard said the town is doing much better than anyone would have expected.
“At least two new businesses have opened since the hurricane and the flooding, so the bottom line is Windsor is absolutely resilient,” said LuAnn Joyner, spokesperson for the Vidant Bertie Hospital. “Hardworking, dedicated folks have made this town come back and be better than ever.”
She said Windsor has recovered so well partially due to the attitudes of people in the town.
“It’s love for your town, love for your county,” Joyner said. “You want to see your town prosper.”
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