This time last year folks in Beaufort County, North Carolina were packed up and ready to heed an evacuation warning when Hurricane Irene was forecast to come ashore as a Category 2 storm. When the storm was downgraded, people decided to stay home.
The reaction was, “Aw, shucks, we’ve lived through a Category 1 before. We’re not going anywhere,” said John Pack, the county emergency management director. “Then Irene proved to be the exception to all Category 1 storms.”
Irene then sat over North Carolina for 12 to 14 hours, bringing in a storm surge that exceeded previous hurricanes, Pack said. The storm surge was 9.3 feet in Aurora, for example, up to 9 feet at Pamlico Beach and 8.2 feet in Belhaven, he said. More than a third of North Carolina’s 100 counties suffered damage, with federal emergency declarations for individual and/or public assistance issued in 38 counties.
Beaufort, Pamlico and Hyde counties suffered the worst damage, state officials say. Statewide, the storm caused more than $1.2 billion in damage and killed seven people after it made landfall Aug. 27, 2011, near Cape Lookout. At the storm’s peak, 660,000 utility customers were without power. Utilities restored power to the last customers more than a week later.
“It was so vast,” said Chris Murray, emergency management director in Pamlico. “We saw water in places we’ve never seen water before. … What got us with Irene was the size and how long it stayed here. It idled on top of us for about a 24-hour period. It just would not leave. And the longer it sat here, the more water it brought in with it.”
All the temporary housing units left the state — they were pulled out of Pamlico and Beaufort counties at the end of June _ but that doesn’t mean everyone is back in their homes. At least 350 families have received all the government aid available but still aren’t in their homes. They’re in rental housing or living with family members.
That number doesn’t include people living in homes that still need repairs.
“For the most part, most of the people we addressed were able to get back on their feet and get going,” said Doug Hoell, director of the N.C. Division of Emergency Management. Some rural places “didn’t have much to start with, and the storm just took everything. So they’re having a more difficult time.”
Individuals and local governments received $81 million in federal or state money, Hoell said. Most of that was grant money that doesn’t have to be repaid, but some was loaned, he said.
Murray estimates that the recovery in Pamlico County will take three to five years, while Pack estimates a year and a half to two years for his county.
Faith-based groups, such as those associated with the Baptist and Methodist churches, continue to work in some counties. In May, Eight Days of Hope sent volunteers to Pamlico County, where the nonprofit’s founder said he was shocked to find so many homes in the same condition as the day after Irene struck.
After Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, the state bought more than 7,000 properties in flood-prone areas, Hoell said. Less money is available for the hazard mitigation program, and after Irene, the state had funds to buy 16 properties, all in Pamlico County. The Division of Emergency Management is analyzing another 900 properties to see if the state should buy any of those and is pursuing grants to pay for them, said DEM spokeswoman Julia Jarema.
“Please don’t underestimate the storm by thinking, `It’s a Category 1, I don’t have to do anything,”’ Hoell said. “You do have to do something. Now is the time to be as ready as you can be.”