KELLY, N.C. (WECT) - The atmosphere in the sanctuary of Centerville Baptist Church Thursday night was a world away from what it was in March, as Bladen County officials gave residents of Kelly good news: there is a plan to repair the White Oak Dike.
In the days after Hurricane Florence, the earthen dike that stretches 14.5 miles through Bladen and Pender counties failed in 17 places. A WECT investigation into the history of the dike showed it has been in critical disrepair since at least 2001, and there was confusion as to who was even responsible for it.
Nine months later, all of those breaches remain mostly untouched — leaving the community vulnerable to future flooding.
Bladen County Commission Chair Charles Ray Peterson announced both the short-term and long-term plans for the White Oak Dike at a community meeting where, just three months ago, he stood and listened to a barrage of questions and comments from the community.
In the coming weeks, a contractor with Southern Landscaping to repair the breaches to the condition prior to Florence.
The contractor will fill the holes and remove the fallen trees and other issues that caused them, and will cover the patches with sod.
Peterson said the project timeline is officially 45 days, but the contractor estimated it would only take 20 to 25 to complete.
Funding for the repairs will come from the Kelly Water Dike and Drainage District, which has approximately $35,000 in its bank account. Peterson said the County Commission has also set aside $35,000 as a line item, should the project need more.
Committee member Charles Russ said the work will actually improve the dike’s condition compared to what it was a year ago, because there were already a few holes when Florence hit.
“All those will be repaired, and and better than they were before," he said. "We’re going to be much better than we were a year ago.”
The repairs, however, will only be a temporary patch.
The dike’s condition has deteriorated over the last three decades, to the point the Army Corps of Engineers, which originally built it, removed the dike from its list of projects.
Peterson said there is a possible solution through the United States Department of Defense in the form of an Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) project.
The military executes projects around the country as part of its IRT program, and Peterson explained the dike could be rebuilt as an IRT project and paid for by the DOD.
In order to get on the IRT list, Bladen County will need to submit a proposal, complete with an engineering design for the rehabilitated dike. The cost of that engineering won’t be cheap — Peterson said one engineer quoted them $11,000 just to do a basic consultation.
Peterson said funding has been allotted by the General Assembly in the budget on its way to Governor Roy Cooper’s desk in the form of $300,000. That money, if approved, would go toward the design.
Once there is a design, Bladen County can submit its IRT application, which is when Peterson said they will need the most help from the community.
While there wasn’t as much discussion at the community meeting compared to the one in March, attendees did have questions about what they said is the main cause of the dike’s issues: logging.
Several Kelly residents stood and asked if logging companies would be held accountable for damage to the dike after the repairs are made.
According to the easement agreements that allowed for the original construction of the dike, property owners are not allowed to damage the dike by driving on it, building structures or fences on it or allowing trees to grow through it — all things that have regularly occurred over the last several decades, leading to the dike’s deterioration.
Peterson and Russ said they just learned that they can file criminal indictments against anyone who does damage the dike, and District Attorney Jon David, who was in attendance, said his office would prosecute if it came to that.
David added, however, that he thinks the community should focus on moving forward and holding people accountable in the future, rather than trying to place blame for what has already happened.
Russ agreed, saying: “We’re going to have to monitor it. It’s up to the committee and the neighborhood to help do these things, and we’ve got to get the bull by the horns.”
Russ said after months of uncertainty, he hopes Kelly residents might be able to sleep a little easier.
“I hope when this is done, everyone’s going to feel a little sense of security,” he said.
He said the progress on the long-term solutions will likely take longer than people would like, but that the committee is working.
“It’s going to be slow, but we’ll get there,” he said. “Lord willing, people [are] going to come together and it’s going to work for us. We’re going to save our neighborhood.”