Belhaven, N.C. is a town surrounded by water: the Pungo River, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean. The town has been devastated by hurricanes and floods many times in recent years and floods frequently during heavy rains. Most areas within the town limits are in a flood zone, at 5 feet base elevation, with some parts even lower than that.
Lynn Davis is the town manager of Belhaven, and came to the job in 2018, just before Hurricane Florence devastated eastern North Carolina.
Southerly Community Reporting Fellow Lavikina Grimes interviewed Davis about the town’s response to and plan for flooding. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Lavikina Grimes, Southerly: Are you a native of Belle Haven? Share with me a story about your experience with flooding.
LD: I moved to Belhaven five years ago and prior to that I lived in Beaufort County so I was very familiar with the Belhaven situation. I moved and started this job three weeks before Hurricane Florence hit our town. That was my very first “wow” moment of having to experience a hurricane but personally I was able to get in a kayak off my back steps and kayak a mile from my house, because the water was that high. I didn’t know why my husband was frantically trying to pick things up and lose things. It was just hard to fathom that we would have that much water at our house and I just couldn’t even believe that.
And then of course when I walked out the door that day I realized why he had been—because he’s been a lifelong resident. We were fortunate we didn’t lose anything. But again, being prepared for it, and knowing what to expect, helped us out in that situation.
Southerly: What is the biggest concern when it comes to flooding and extreme weather?
LD: The biggest concern I have with flooding and extreme weather is how quickly the path of the storm can change and how even a small change can have a tremendous impact on what we experience in our community. And then how we prepare for the worst of a storm without being the little boy who cried wolf. We want people to take it seriously.
Southerly: What are the town’s preparedness procedures?
LD: We have a number of hurricane preparedness procedures. Some of those activities are things that we have [during] hurricane season. Like we ensure that our contractors are lined up to come and remove storm debris and open up our streets. And those types of things. There are other procedures that we put into place as we see that a storm is approaching. Whether it’s a week out and they’re saying it could come this way or then we get down to 72 hours. We have internal policies that we follow, and they include notifications to our residents and making sure that we update the public.
Southerly: Does the town have an evacuation plan?
LD: No, we do not have one for the town. However Beaufort County leads the charge with that. Our emergency management office with the country is very engaged with the local community and they share enough information. They are the ones that set up shelters. So they’re taking the message from the state level and then sharing that with individual communities so we know what to expect. They are the ones that would put an evacuation plan into place.
Southerly: Why are there no shelters in the town?
LD: Because Belhaven is so low, our entire town has the potential for flooding, so the shelters our residents would need to go to are out of town to be safe from flooding.
Southerly: Evacuation seems to be an issue, based on conversations with some of the residents. I’m wondering what the plan has been in the past for the city and how you think the city can make it easier for people to take shelter or evacuate.
LD: Communication is the key here. Now with social media, so many people have social media and so many people have cell phones that are on them all the time. I think communicating with people and letting them know what resources are available as early as possible. I think that’s key I think there’s also an opportunity maybe to partner with some of the local churches and maybe even the school systems to see if we can get sponsors or anything of that nature to get people out of Belhaven.
It’s a very helpful community, and I think we find that during storm situations, people are very, very apt to help their neighbors and help make sure that they’re cared for and provided for—especially if it’s an elderly or disabled person living near them.
After Florence, we put an all-call system into place where we now can alert all of our residents. We are the utility provider for all of the residents of Belhaven so we had their contact information already in a computer system and we were able to pull that contact information so we have telephone numbers and email addresses. We also do a campaign during hurricane season, letting people know they need to update their information with us so we have their current phone numbers and there’s an app that people can register to get text messages.
When we see that there is a storm headed our way we start sending out messages letting people know what to do if there are any changes, and emergency updates about having to evacuate. We use our system to share that information with our citizens. The best thing we can do is plan and pray.
Southerly: What should the people in Belhaven do to prepare for hurricanes and flooding?
LD: One of the biggest things that people can do, because we know this area is low-lying and we’re going to have some impact of a storm likely every year, is to prepare ahead of time and make sure that they have the supplies that are needed like flashlights and radios that don’t need power. Making sure they have all of their medications and things, if they do need to get away or evacuate quickly. They have a box or a bag that they can just take with them and know that they have what they need as far as other preparations.
Most of our citizens have been here for a while and they know what to expect when it comes to flooding and a hurricane and they know that the water comes in pretty quickly and it goes back out just as quickly. Making sure that they have the provisions to be without power for a couple of days: food that’s non perishable, bottled water, those types of supplies, are things that that people should be prepared with.
Southerly: Is there a long-term plan to help with flooding in the area?
LD: Without picking up Belhaven and moving it there’s no long term plan to eliminate flooding. We sit at about two feet above sea level. The best thing we can do is to put policies into place that require people to protect their property. If they’re building a new home, it has to be elevated to a certain level that they can withstand flooding. The big thing would be the policies and then also education will do during the year. We share information in our utility bills and on our social media sites. And there are several workshops throughout the year geared and aimed at our citizens to help them better understand what to expect and how to prepare. So, mitigation and preparation and educating citizens so that they know what they need to be prepared for.