BURGAW, N.C. (WECT) - From the outside, the Pender County Courthouse looks much like it did on September 11, 2018, the day before Hurricane Florence began sending more than three days of wind-driven rain onto downtown Burgaw. People passing by cannot see the damage the storm left behind inside the historic three-story building, which forced staff, court clerks, judges and other workers to move into temporary spaces in town.
“It’s the damage you can’t see where water permeated the wall, all the way to the interior wall during the storm,” Assistant Pender County Manager Chad McEwen said while taking me on a tour of the now eerily quiet building.
The east-facing wall of the courthouse, which runs parallel with South Walker Street, took the brunt of the storm’s driving rain. McEwen said the rain permeated the entire side of the building, working its way into the interior walls. As we entered a first-floor office, you see several spots where paint has peeled from both the wall and the thick wooden trim around the windows. According to McEwen, readings taken several months after the storm showed water still present between the brick and the interior wall.
“We’ve got to get the led paint off, get down to that bare plaster, dry it out or completely tear it out,” he says about the possible renovation options. “What it came down to is, nobody can guarantee us that if we got this lead (paint) off and got down to the bare plaster, we can get it dry. We said ‘okay, then tear it all out, go to the bare brick, and build it out’.”
The courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While that is a draw from a tourism standpoint, it has complicated the process of renovating the 83-year-old centerpiece of downtown Burgaw. Repairing these damaged walls, floors and ceilings is not as easy as it would be in a private home or office. McEwen says the State Historic Preservation Office was involved in the post-storm planning, sharing guidance on how the repairs must not compromise historic features found throughout the building.
"People say, ‘Why does that matter?’”, McEwen said. “Well, the reason that matters is, if we’re not SHPO compliant, if we can’t get that concurrence from SHPO for the work that we do, we run the risk of not being able to get FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) reimbursement for the work the insurance company does not cover. So, it’s all an effort to make sure that the money that’s spent to renovate the building and repair it is not coming from the taxpayers but coming through reimbursement from insurance or FEMA.”
Walking into the second-floor courtroom you see a barrier put up as part of the remediation efforts soon after the hurricane hit. Workers built the containment wall to seal off about one-third of the room, an effort to speed up the drying process. Holes near eye-level expose plaster covered by at least three different colors of lead paint. Pieces of trim are missing from around windows. There are vacant spaces near the ceiling, where crews have removed damaged wooden valances that accent this chamber where judges and juries dispensed justice for decades. The challenge for county leaders will be finding a firm with the expertise to handle the extensive, intricate repairs.
“It has to be a specialized contractor that is familiar with historical guidelines and works in historical preservation,” McEwen said. “We also have to have a specialized contractor related to lead and asbestos remediation.”
Workers have already overhauled much of the equipment in the basement of the courthouse. Allan Vann, the county’s Director of Facilities and Fleet Services, says between six and eight feet of water flooded the mechanical room during the hurricane. Vann says part of the remediation would be to move those resources to higher ground, to avoid similar damage from future storms.
Standing on the sidewalk after our tour, McEwen says within the next 30 days the county should have the necessary information out to potential bidders. It will likely be another 60 days before the contract is awarded for the repair and restoration work. It could be September, barring any unforeseen circumstances, before crews get started.
“We have an ambitious goal of six months for renovation,” McEwen said. “It could very well extend longer than that, depending on what we find when we tear the walls out. 2020 is our goal, early parts of 2020. But again, we really won’t know a firm timeline until we get it bid and awarded and have a contractor on site to give us their take on it.”