NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Many people in Southeastern North Carolina feel like they dodged a bullet with Hurricane Dorian. Still traumatized from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Florence, they were afraid this was going to be a repeat.
Luckily, that did not happen, but the water in one part of New Hanover County still got much too close for comfort. The videos viewers sent to our newsroom show just how bad the flooding was for residents along Brookbend Drive, Torchwood, and Courtney Pines, among other places in the Ogden area that flooded last week. WECT found out Hurricane Florence caused significant damage to the drainage system for that area and has still not been fixed. The county is waiting for an influx of cash from the federal government, and residents are left hoping it gets here before it’s too late.
Torchwood Drive resident Mary Butler had to gut her home last year because of flooding from Florence, and half-jokingly said she felt like she has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the ordeal. She said she started having panic attacks as she watched the forecast track for Dorian.
“I said if it happens again, I’m just going to have to move because I cannot live through that again. It was just too devastating. That was over six months of my life,” Butler said. Butler is grateful her Torchwood home did not flood in Dorian, but is upset it got this close again. The water was halfway up her driveway, and when people would drive on the road through the floodwaters it pushed the water even closer to homes, prompting someone to put up a “no wake” sign.
Butler’s daughter, Beth Adams, lives a short way away in Bayshore, and says drainage was notably better there.
“We had flooding all across our street during that big rain band, and it was gone within an hour or two and the street was dry,” Adams explained. “Whereas for [my mom the water] was still up her driveway. Something is wrong.”
She’s right. Though many residents were not aware, the drainage system for the Smith Creek Watershed stopped working properly during Hurricane Florence. That watershed covers much of Ogden and other large portions northern New Hanover County, and eventually drains to the Cape Fear River. County engineers said the drainage culverts that service that watershed are full of sand and vegetative debris.
“[They] just kind of clogged up and reduced the capacity. So you’ve not been able to fit as much water through where you used to be able to," County Engineer Jim Iannucci told WECT.
The estimated cost to unclog the Smith Creek Watershed and get it flowing again? $900,000. Some of the clogged culverts are in neighborhoods, while others are underneath roads like College and I-40. Until they can be cleared, water is unable to properly flow to Smith Creek, and heavy rainfall that is manageable in other parts of the county is not manageable in the Ogden area.
Many Ogden residents blamed out-of-control residential development for the drainage issues.
"There had been no flooding here [before Hurricane Florence]. They've done something in the area to create the flooding issue. There's been new property down from us that was not developed before, so you've got new houses, foundations, driveways, patios, and there's nowhere for this water to go, other than on the people that are here," Butler said.
While Iannucci acknowledged that increased development may play a role, further decreasing the amount of pervious land where water can drain and tapping more neighborhoods into the already struggling watershed system, he said it’s not the biggest factor in the drainage problem. He said builders developing neighborhoods after the year 2000 were required to meet newly adopted storm water code, which required that a neighborhood could handle eight inches of rain in a 24-hour period.
Furthermore, Iannucci said the county couldn’t stop people from building on the land they owned just because it was better for existing residents if they did not.
The county has heard that federal money to fix the drainage problem is on the way from the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, but they are still waiting on official approval and specific details on how much money is coming. In addition to the $900,000 the county has requested to rehabilitate the Smith Creek Watershed, they are hoping an additional $2 million from the federal government to help improve other watersheds in the county that are not functioning properly.
Once the money is made available, the county would like to begin repairs by November and have the watersheds flowing properly again by the end of June.
Some residents, anxiously waiting for a fix in the height of hurricanes season, say that’s not soon enough. But county officials say they are moving as quickly as they can through a multi-step federal process. Iannucci said if they want federal financial assistance, they are prohibited from beginning repairs until formal approval has come through, and they cannot simply start now and apply to be reimbursed. While they may seem tedious to residents, Iannucci said the checks and balances are meant to ensure the money is spent wisely on projects that have been vetted.
The county has already been working to secure the necessary CAMA permits for these repairs so that the projects will be shovel ready when federal money arrives.
In addition to rehabilitating watersheds, the county is also considering establishing a stormwater utility in unincorporated areas to make infrastructure improvements. If commissioners sign off on the proposal in December, the utility could eventually install larger culverts and expand ditches to funnel more water away from homes after a major rain event.
Residents looking to stay in the loop on the latest stormwater repair developments can sign up for updates from the county here.