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NC hopes for less damage

Officials in North Carolina said mitigation efforts over the last seven years will help prevent the kinds of devastation brought about by previous storms.

BY PJ HELLER | BALTIMORE | September 17, 2003

"Part of what we have done with the federal money we received as a result of Floyd was to buy-out houses in the flood plain."

—Renee Hoffman

Officials in North Carolina said mitigation efforts over the last seven years will help prevent the kinds of devastation brought about by previous storms.

"We think we're in really good shape," said Renee Hoffman, a spokesman for the North Carolina Emergency Response Team. "We'll obviously see what happens."

Since Hurricane Fran in 1996 and Dennis and Floyd in 1999, Hoffman said mitigation efforts including one of the largest buy-out programs in the nation have attempted to move people out of harms way.

"The whole point of the mitigation program is to move people out of the areas where they could be hit by another disaster," she said. "In our case with Floyd, it was inland flooding more than it was typical coastal damage. That's why our mitigation projects with Floyd are all flood related as opposed to not building back on the beachfront."

Most of those affected by previous storms had their homes in flood plains. New codes and ordinances prevent building in those areas today, she noted.

"Part of what we have done with the federal money we received as a result of Floyd was to buy out houses in the flood plain," Hoffman explained. "We literally bought the houses at fair market value, gave the money to the homeowners so they could buy a home somewhere else outside the flood plain, and then that property was turned into state parks, fields, open space . . . That way the land can be used but if it floods, it's not going to throw people out of their homes.

"Certainly if we have flood situations again in those areas, those people won't be impacted," she added. "We feel like we're a lot better prepared and those people who flooded in Floyd are certainly not going to be in the situation of having that happen to them again."

More than 3,000 homes in flood plains were involved in the buy-outs statewide.

Hoffman also noted the differences between Floyd in '99, which caused an estimated $6 billion in damages, and the approaching Hurricane Isabel.

"We're not expecting this to be anything like Hurricane Floyd in terms of water," she said.

When Floyd unleashed 16 to 24 inches of rain on the region, the ground was already saturated from Hurricane Dennis which swept through only days earlier. Now, with no significant rain in days, the ground isn't saturated and should be able to handle the expected downpour from Isabel.

Also, the Tar River, which was flooding at 20 feet from Dennis in 1999, was at little over 3 feet earlier this week.

"Certainly the rivers and the watersheds are in much better shape than they were then," Hoffman said.

Isabel was expected to hit the area with about 8 inches of rain, "which is a lot but is certainly not a situation that is going to result in the rivers coming out of their banks and flooding towns 30 feet deep," Hoffman said.

She also pointed to mitigation efforts that occurred after Hurricane Fran which prevented flooding when Floyd struck the area.

"We know it (mitigation) worked between Fran and Floyd so we anticipate it will work between Floyd and Isabel," she said.

One of those projects was in the town of Belhaven, which entailed raising much of the community that was situated in a flood plain.

"Belhaven was a mitigation project and during Floyd those homes that were raised didn't flood," Hoffman reported. "It's been a real successful program."

Not every community has been enamored with the buy-out program, however.

Residents in the community of Princeville, the first town in the nation chartered by African-Americans, had no intention of leaving despite the massive flooding that occurred when the Tar River poured over a dike protecting the town during Hurricane Floyd.

"Those folks were so emotionally and traditionally tied to that land that they did not want to leave," Hoffman recalled.

To prevent further damage to the town, Hoffman said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raised the dike.

"We think they're pretty well protected now," she said, adding it would probably take another "Floyd-type" event to impact the town.

"We feel we are better prepared to take any kind of hit," agreed Sam Knight, the interim town manager. "But this is a nature thing. And dikes and other preventive measures are only as good as nature allows them to be."

Hoffman readily concurred.

"We're building disaster-resistant communities and using (more stringent) building codes, particularly out in the coastal areas," she said. "But there are some things that if Mother Nature is going to do, she's just going to do no matter what you do."

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