Faced with storms that seem to be getting increasingly more severe, officials and residents struggle for answers

PENDER COUNTY -- Dee and Rory Barror stood Thursday night outside of the RV they're living in with their daughter and two dogs, their faces lit up by headlights of cars turning into the grassy field that's their front yard and a distribution point for Hampstead's devastated Cross Creek community.

The RV, driven from New York by Rory's godfather, has been the family's home since they returned to the area Sept. 22, offering the kind of temporary living situation so many in the region are balancing as they finish ripping Florence's floodwaters from their homes and trying to figure out what's next.

"We just gutted the house," Rory said, "4 feet up on the walls, pulled all the flooring out and all the belongings with it because there was nothing really salvageable, everything was just trashed."

There's the fuel costs associated with running generators at the RV and their house; the daily hot shower at a nearby friend's house; the meals and camaraderie at the donation site set up just past the subdivision's entrance. Jake, their high school-aged son, isn't staying with the family right now because there isn't a place for him to sleep in the RV, but arrangements could change once the Topsail High junior starts school again.

They also face the same questions so many flooded families throughout eastern North Carolina do: Will they rebuild? Should they? And if they should, how can they protect their homes?

It's a question being pondered at the highest levels of state government, with Federal Emergency Management Agency crews on the ground in North Carolina and some local officials openly advocating for buyouts in some heavily hit areas.

More resilient

As N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper has toured Eastern North Carolina in the weeks since Hurricane Florence made landfall Sept. 14 at Wrightsville Beach, he's repeatedly said the state must rebuild in a way that is more protective of people and property.

Cooper was elected in 2016 less than a month after Hurricane Matthew caused rivers and streams to swell, shoving their way into people's homes and businesses. That storm was supposed to be as historic as Hurricanes Fran and Floyd -- the destructive hurricanes of the 1990s.

Nearly two years later, Hurricane Florence crawled down the coast, drenching large swaths of Eastern North Carolina with seemingly endless rains and causing power outages that often lasted for days. According to the National Weather Service's Wilmington office, Florence dropped 29.52 inches of rain on Hampstead, 27.44 inches near Southport and 26.58 inches in Wilmington.

"I'm not sure that a so-called '500-year flood' is a 500-year flood anymore," Cooper said Thursday. "We know that particularly with this storm, the combination of storm surge, flash floods and rising rivers all combing to be a devastating event in North Carolina. So what we're going to have to do is to make ourselves more resilient."

One example for a path forward could be Nashville, Tennessee, where city leaders have required a 4-foot freeboard as part of every construction since 1979. Janey Camp, an engineering professor at Vanderbilt University, said the requirement saved more than $2 billion when the city saw major flooding in 2010.

"We can stop and utilize recovery funds to build things a little bit better given what we now know about how storms are changing and becoming more intense," Camp said. "It's sad that it has to happen, often, post-disaster, but I think disasters are wake up calls for us to reevaluate."

According to a post-Matthew report from FEMA, the buyout or elevation of 2,249 properties in North Carolina prevented between $206.65 and $231.4 million in damages to property and displacement costs.

Acknowledging FEMA's report, Cooper noted the buyouts had prevented damage during Hurricane Matthew, then said, "I want to encourage the federal authorities working with us to concentrate more on mitigation efforts, and that means not only buyouts, but elevations."

As of August 23, 622 properties had been awarded a total of $81.99 million in hazard grant mitigation awards as part of the recovery from Hurricane Matthew, according to the N.C. Department of Emergency Management. That total includes 4366 buyouts, 122 elevations and 84 rebuilds.

Pender was the only county in the state's southeastern corner to receive funds, with 14 elevations, 11 buyouts and 4 reconstructions.

'It was crazy'

Dee and Rory Barror returned to their home at the back of Knollwood Drive in Pender County's Cross Creek neighborhood late September 22,

Floating around flooded homes and navigating around mailboxes in the dark, the Barror family returned to their home of 12 years on September 22. The house is at the end of Knollwood Drive, in the back of the Cross Creek neighborhood.

The Barrors and their children had waited out Hurricane Florence's winds and rains in Asheville, but grew anxious to return as they turned on the TV every night to new reports of a worsening situation in the region even as friends sent them photos of flood waters rising in the neighborhood. By the time the family arrived home, a friend had the John boat waiting for them.

"We wanted to see our house, you know?" Dee said.

With the boat parked on the front porch, near the doorway, the family unlocked the front door. Rory was joined by Jake, their son, in entering their home. Inside they found standing water, along with catfish, eels, leaches and other creatures more often associated with rivers than living rooms.

"It was crazy," Rory said, "to look down and see fish floating around and your belongings floating around with them."

Buyouts?

Among the solutions Cooper has advocated are buyouts of homes in some of the state's most vulnerable communities and the use of mitigation funds to raise homes in other areas.

Following Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1999, buyouts were implemented in many communities that had flooded. One of the largest efforts coming in Kinston's Lincoln City, a vibrant black community where FEMA bought nearly 800 homes after the neighborhood flooded for the second time in a half-decade.

"We have to consider buyouts and elevations in a more precise way," Cooper said Thursday, "particularly now that we have the advantage of significant flood mapping that shows us the areas that are more likely to flood. A lot of response has dealt with the 100-year flood plain. Clearly we need to be talking about a wider area than that."

Just as Floyd flooded many of the same communities as Fran, Florence has flooded many of the same communities as Matthew.

In Pender County, for instance, the Black River climbed higher in September than it had during Matthew, damaging homes where people had just started to rebuild.

Mike Forte, a Brunswick County commissioner, has called for buyouts in Stoney Creek Plantation, a Leland neighborhood that saw water reach the second level of some homes. Like Cross Creek, Stoney Creek has no prior history of significant flooding, leaving homeowners confused and struggling to decide what they they should do next.

Among the hurdles to buyouts is the willingness of local government to participate in a program that could see it lose a part of its tax base and simultaneously pick up the burden of caring for empty land. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill professors David Salvesen and Todd BenDor recently published a study investigating local governments' decisions.

When a government decides to participate in a buyout and is left with homeowners in a floodplain who decide to stay in place, they reported, there is a checkerboard pattern that can severely limit the uses on the land.

"If they buy a larger chunk of houses," Salvesen said, "then they can create a community amenity out of that land and it's an asset, not a liability."

State and local governments can help encourage buyouts and try to encourage people to stay in their original municipality, Salvesen suggested, by using funds from the N.C. State Acquisition and Relocation Fund.

"Homeowners aren't stupid," Salvesen said. "They're not going to participate in a buyout and be left homeless or live in a home that's smaller than the one they live in now."

'You can't trade that'

Every member of the Barror family has broken down at some point during the clean-up effort.

"Twenty six years of life on the curb," said Dee, who waited on the boat as her husband and son waded through their flooded home Sept. 22.

Dee's breakdown came when she first stepped foot in the demolished home. All of the family's belongings were gone, flooring had been removed and four feet of drywall had been cut away.

"The floodgates had opened," Dee said. She has insisted on saving and trying to restore an ornate German server from the late 1800s and the rocking chair Rory's mother rocked him to sleep in as a baby.

Rory managed to stay numb as he worked inside the house, trying to complete one task after another. Then he reached the family's garage, where he keeps his dirt bikes and tools.

About 7 feet of water reached the structure. Everything was ruined.

"I just got real quiet," Rory said, "not in a good place."

Still, the family has proven resilient. Every day, they work with neighbors and community members to put their lives back together, sharing meals and running errands that help everyone out. Thursday evening, for instance, Dee had just returned from the electrical shop, where she'd picked up supplies for her own house and two others.

Throughout the first few weeks of a long recovery, the Barrors have built stronger bonds with their neighbors -- the ones who are offering up daily showers and helping sort foods at the community's donation site, the ones who are lending a helping hand even while undertaking their own recoveries.

"It makes me see that there are still good people out there," Dee said, "that there are still people that care because (in) day-to-day life you think nobody cares anymore and it's just a terrible place. But then something like this happens and it's like, wow, there are still wonderful people out there."

Those bonds are part of the reason the Barrors barely have to be asked if they're going to rebuild before they have the response ready. Dee and Rory are insistent: They're staying in place.

"You can't trade that," Dee said, "those memories of people just crying together, laughing together, just coming together. You don't see that very often."

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.