By Christopher Flavelle
© The New York Times Co.
FAIR BLUFF, N.C. » It has been almost five years since Hurricane Matthew flooded the small town of Fair Bluff, on the coastal plain of North Carolina. But somehow, the damage keeps getting worse.
The storm submerged Main Street in 4 feet of water, destroyed the town hall and the police and fire departments, and flooded almost one-quarter of Fair Bluff’s homes. After two weeks underwater, the roads buckled. The school and grocery store shut. They did not reopen. When Hurricane Florence submerged the same ground two years later, in 2018, there was little left to destroy.
What started as a physical crisis become an existential one. The town’s only factory, which made vinyl products, closed a few months after Matthew. The population of around 1,000 fell by about half. The federal government tried to help, buying the homes of people who wanted to leave, but those buyouts meant even less property tax, tightening the fiscal noose.
Al Leonard, the town planner, who is responsible for its recovery, said his own job may have to be eliminated, and maybe the police department, too.
Climate shocks are pushing small rural communities such as Fair Bluff, many of which already were struggling economically, to the brink of insolvency. Rather than bouncing back, places hit repeatedly by hurricanes, floods and wildfires are unraveling; residents and employers leave, the tax base shrinks, and it becomes even harder to fund basic services.
That downward spiral now threatens low-income communities in the path this week of Hurricane Ida and those hit by the recent flooding in Tennessee — hamlets regularly pummeled by storms that are growing more frequent and destructive because of climate change.
Their gradual collapse means more than just the loss of identity, history and community. The damage can haunt those who leave, because they often cannot sell their old homes at a price that allows them to buy something comparable in a safer place. And it threatens to disrupt neighboring towns and cities as the new arrivals push up demand for housing.
The federal government has struggled to respond, often taking years to provide disaster funds. And those programs sometimes work at cross purposes, paying some people to rebuild while paying their neighbors to leave.
After the storm
Fair Bluff is small-town idyllic, nestled among fields of corn and tobacco near the South Carolina border, shielded from the Lumber River by a narrow bank of tupelo gum, river birch and bald cypress trees. But its main road offers a sobering glimpse of what climate change could mean for communities that cannot defend themselves.
On a recent afternoon, the sidewalks were empty and the storefronts abandoned, their interiors smashed and littered with trash, doors ajar. The roof of one building had collapsed, a battered American flag stuck in the debris; inside other buildings were ransacked shelves, plastic containers full of Christmas decorations, an upsidedown tricycle. Speakers on a Methodist church played recorded hymns for no one.
Some stores were strewn with cleaning supplies and half-full garbage bags, as if shopkeepers had first tried to fix the flood damage before giving up.
“If you look at what the folks here called downtown, really the only business that came back was the U.S. post office,” said Leonard, who splits his time between Fair Bluff and four other towns, none of which can afford a full-time employee on their own.
It is no coincidence that small towns in eastern North Carolina are among the first in the country to face an existential threat from climate change.
Many were struggling from the decline of the tobacco and textile industries, and the area’s flat terrain makes it especially vulnerable to flooding from powerful hurricanes that are coming more often.
Between 1954 and 2016, North Carolina was hit by 19 hurricanes severe enough to produce a federal disaster declaration, about one every three years. By contrast, four hurricanes have cleared that bar since 2018.
Leonard described Fair Bluff’s hopeful plan: Buy the ruined stores downtown, tear them down, clean up the land and turn it into a park that can flood safely. Build a new downtown a few blocks east on land is less likely to flood. Rebuild, revive and regain what has been lost.
But the town cannot afford any of it.
Build back or pay people to leave?
Adapting to climate change in the United States arguably comes down to a decision: when to build back and when to help move people from threats that are getting worse.
The first option is becoming more expensive and less effective as disasters mount. The second option is usually too painful to consider.
In 2016 the Obama administration set up a working group among agencies that handle disaster policy and recovery, including FEMA, HUD and the Army Corps of Engineers, asking them to devise a coordinated approach for what experts call managed retreat: relocating entire communities from areas that cannot be protected.
But that work stopped under former President Donald Trump and has not resumed.
Instead, agencies continue to pursue their own programs, even if they conflict with each other.
Halfway between Raleigh, N.C., and the Atlantic coast is Princeville, the first town in America chartered by freed slaves. Princeville was built at a spot where the Tar River veers through a 90-degree bend, creating a natural choke point when hurricanes flush the river with rain.
In 1967, the Army Corps of Engineers built a levee in Princeville; three decades later, flooding from Hurricane Floyd overwhelmed that levee, damaging or destroying the town’s 1,000 homes.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew flooded Princeville again.
As residents left and tax revenue shrank, so did the town’s role in daily life. The county took over policing as well as water and sewer services and tax collection. A contractor handles trash pickup.
Bobbie Jones, the mayor of Princeville, said he wanted to bring residents and businesses back so the town could provide those services again.
“When we are doing things for ourselves, we take more pride in it,” Jones said. “The oldest town chartered by Blacks in America — we want to make sure that everything that all other towns have, that we have the same services for ourselves.”
After Floyd, FEMA offered to buy every home; town officials refused. After Matthew, Congress tried a new approach, directing the Corps to build a $40 million system of levees and other flood protections.
But as the Corps plans the new levee, FEMA and HUD have begun providing people with money to leave. Since Matthew, FEMA is paying for the state to buy and tear down 22 homes. HUD is paying to buy an additional 27, and more could follow.
Laura Hogshead leads the state Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which manages disaster money the state gets from HUD. She said buying out homes in Princeville, at the same time as another agency builds a new levee to protect those homes, may require reconsideration.
“If another flood happens, it’s definitely gone”
Fifty miles south of Princeville is a warning about what happens when people leave and do not rehas turn.
All that is left of the town of Seven Springs is a few dozen buildings on the south bank of the Neuse River, land that rises gently to a highway a few hundred feet away. The effect is like a bathtub — which is what the town became when Hurricane Floyd sent the Neuse over its banks in 1999. Hurricane Matthew flooded the town again in 2016. Hurricane Florence repeated the damage in 2018.
Floyd cut the population of Seven Springs by about half; Matthew cut it again. Of the 30 or so houses left between the river and the highway, maybe a dozen are still occupied, said Stephen Potter, the mayor. The population, which peaked at 207 in 1960, had dwindled to 55 by last year.
The main street consists largely of abandoned businesses: the old Southern Bank branch, a general store, a restaurant. The town cannot condemn partially collapsed buildings because it cannot afford to tear them down and clear the debris, Potter said.
The town budget has fallen to $50,000 a year; to make ends meet, it has been dipping into reserves. Potter’s strategy is to turn one of the town’s empty lots into a campsite big enough for two recreational vehicles, which visitors to a nearby state park could use when that park’s main RV site fills up.
“Now what happens when we have another catastrophic flood? I don’t know,” Potter said. “I really don’t want to be the mayor that presides over the death of Seven Springs.”
Still, the town keeps shrinking. Hogshead approached Seven Springs with a map showing which houses could not be protected and so were eligible for buyouts. It included almost all the land between the river and the highway. So far, 12 homeowners have signed up.
“I remember the town when it was thriving,” said Alan Cash, a 46-year-old electrician who works in Raleigh, 90 minutes away. “It’s very sad to see what it’s become.”
Cash said he had declined a buyout because it would not be enough money for a similar house elsewhere, adding that most of his neighbors who did accept them wound up in mobile home parks along the highway. “It is really a step down,” he said.
“I don’t know that it’s really going to take the next flood to kill it,” Cash said of Seven Springs. “But if another flood happens, it’s definitely gone.”