Tiny towns hoped river would bring tourists. It brought a flood instead

The Trent River rose to record flood levels during Hurricane Florence. More than a week after the storm, Jones County residents returned to rebuild their homes, businesses and places of worship. (Robert Willett, The News & Observer)

By Colin Campbell, NCInsider.com

TRENTON — The Trent River is supposed to be an asset for the tiny Jones County towns of Trenton and Pollocksville.

Seeking a share of the tourism that boosts nearby New Bern and beach communities, town leaders have promoted outdoor recreation along the picturesque river that winds slowly through the rural county. Trenton’s website features photos of kayakers, while Pollocksville built boat ramps and docks for fishing.

That asset turned into a huge liability when Hurricane Florence swelled the Trent River to a record level – nearly a foot higher than Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The majority of homes and businesses in both towns were underwater for days; a Facebook video showed emergency crews from New York City patrolling U.S. 17 by motorboat through downtown Pollocksville.

Residents and business owners say they had little advance warning that Florence would bring a flood. While everyone closely watched the forecast, most thought that because the center of the storm would hit Wilmington – 80 miles south – damage in Jones County would be limited to roof damage from the wind and rain.

For some, the first warning of major river flooding came when the U.S. Coast Guard banged on their doors in the middle of the night, urging them to evacuate immediately.

“We did not expect this,” Hillary Zang said Saturday as she began clearing out her antiques shop on Trenton’s main street. “We were told it wasn’t in a flood zone.”

As Trenton and Pollocksville recover from the storm, a lack of flood insurance could be the biggest stumbling block for property owners.

While the towns saw flooding during Floyd, flood maps only show a high risk for properties closest to the river – meaning flood insurance isn’t required for most. For much of downtown Trenton, the state’s flood maps list the annual risk of flooding at 0.2 percent.

Luke McKinney is among those without flood insurance. He and his wife Aileen have run a folk art and collectibles shop called The Rag Bag in downtown Trenton for the past decade. Trenton’s population is only 285, so the McKinneys are among several shop owners who cater to tourists passing through on the way to New Bern or Emerald Isle.

The Rag Bag’s “all out-of-towners welcome” sign was still standing on Saturday, but all the merchandise inside was ruined. “$25,000, easy,” Luke McKinney said, tallying up his losses from a rocking chair out front. “I probably won’t reopen. I think people will be scared to death to open up here.”

Homeowners down the river in Pollocksville are also worried: With two floods in 20 years, how long before the Trent rises again?

“Twice in 20 years, you’d be a fool to build in the same spot again,” said Chris Butters, whose historic home on Main Street had seven feet of water. “This ain’t New Orleans.”

The river that’s usually only a few feet deep gained enough power to overturn Butters’ refrigerator, turn his living room into a soggy mess, and tear off his back deck.

He said his wife purchased flood insurance after Floyd, after taking on a FEMA loan that put her “upside down on the mortgage.” Butters wants to sell the place and move, but for now the couple has moved in with his parents in nearby River Bend.

Others, however, are determined to stay put. Paige Hamilton owns the only two pharmacies in Jones County, and while her Pollocksville location stayed dry, the Trenton store took on three feet of water.

She’s hoping to reopen quickly so patients don’t run low on prescription medications. “They’re like family,” she said. “They’d do anything in the world for you.”

Over the weekend, friends and neighbors helped Hamilton clean up the flooded Trenton pharmacy. A similar scene unfolded a few doors down at the Mission Hope food pantry, where the entire inventory had to be thrown out, and floodwaters left a pungent odor in the tiny storefront.

Rick Steven, who runs the organization with his wife Debbie, said there was huge demand for the pantry even before the storm hit in Jones County, where about 22 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 22 percent is over age 65.

People in the community, Steven said, “do pull together, there’s just not enough to pull together to do a lot.”

He’s hoping to get the food pantry up and running as soon as possible to meet what he expects will be an even greater need.

By Saturday, some in Trenton had gripes about the speed of relief efforts. An official food and supply distribution point was finally taking shape in front of a grocery; the day before, Danielle Briggs and some friends had to organize an operation themselves in front of one of the few homes that didn’t flood.

“There was nobody doing anything for Trenton,” she said, adding that some kids were so eager for their first hot meal in days that they “were shoveling hot green beans in their mouths.”

FEMA and truckloads of supplies ultimately arrived, but Briggs and others worry that Jones County will get left out as attention focuses on wealthier New Bern and other areas affected by the storm.

The county’s government already faced challenges before the storm. Unable to finance the replacement of deteriorating school buildings, the county got the state legislature to kick in millions for a new school that’s now under construction – on high ground unaffected by the flood.

After flooding affected the historic courthouse and adjacent office buildings, the county is looking for temporary spaces to reopen government services this week. The town hall in Trenton also flooded, and over the weekend water still surrounded Pollocksville’s town hall, which is housed in an 1893 train depot next to the river.

Many homeowners in Jones County aren’t waiting for assistance, instead putting on face masks and piling up sodden furniture and debris by the curb. Bertha Adams, a retired teacher who’s lived in Trenton for decades, had nearly a dozen friends and family members helping to tear out wet drywall and clean her home before mold sets in.

“I love it here,” she said. “People care about each other. We’ve had a lot of happy years.”

Adams’ home got four feet of water during Floyd and six feet during Florence, but she’s one of the few in town to have flood insurance.

“Unfortunately we’ve done this before so we’ve got a system,” her granddaughter, Emily Walton, said.