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City manager addresses flooding

By Darren Currie

Whiteville City Manager

I want to address some of the concerns that have been expressed to City Council as well as myself and other city staff.
The mayor and City Council are committed to making the city a better place to live, work and raise a family. This is evident by the projects that have been taken on by the city over the last several years. I want to take a moment and highlight some of those items, in particular, storm water issues.

The city has experienced two 500-year floods in two years and three  500-year storms in the last 19 years. This is extraordinary for the City of Whiteville. Because of Hurricane Matthew, the city applied for and received $150,000 in grant funding to conduct a downtown storm water study. 

The major issue identified from the study was inadequate sizing of storm drains to collect storm water. This situation did not develop overnight. Over the years as the city began to grow, drains were designed and placed in what was thought to be strategic locations. The city continued to add impervious surfaces (streets, concrete parking, etc.) without addressing the undersized drains. Now, we are seeing the lack of foresight, with the result being flooding and less swamp area for water runoff. 

These issues will need to be addressed through the development of revenue streams to rebuild or rehabilitate the infrastructure. The storm water problems elevate the need for sound planning and good developmental ordinances to ensure that if growth occurs in flood-prone areas, that growth meets strict code requirements to mitigate damages.

One major recommendation from the storm water study is the establishment of a storm water utility fund. The establishment of a storm water utility fund and program is a major change for our citizens. 

The storm water fund will be established as an enterprise fund within the city’s budget, meaning a fee will be associated with the final product to support the work. The city has solicited the help of the Cape Fear Council of Governments to research and provide data to the city to aid in the establishment of this program. 

To further aid in this work, in the current budget, $150,000 from the general fund has been allocated to pay for this work and to begin surveying major drainage ditches within the city and establish drainage easements. The city cannot spend public dollars on private land without an easement, right of way or some type of site control. Without the site control, state agencies will not reimburse the City with state or federal funds for drainage projects. The city needs to ensure site control to apply for any grants.

Out of the early stages of the study, the city applied for $1.4 million to complete three priority projects after Hurricane Matthew. The city was funded $400,000 for the two smallest projects. Those projects are currently in the preliminary design stages now. The city also applied for the remaining $2.1 million to address the remaining projects identified within the study. Golden LEAF did not fund those projects. The city will re-apply for these funds when funds become available again. 

At the Oct. 9 council meeting, city council instructed staff to bring to them at the Oct. 23 meeting a recommendation for the next most logical project identified in the study. City council is interested in appropriating general fund money to begin work on projects the city can afford. 

Also, I want to speak to how the city obtains resources (sandbags, personnel, etc.) for disasters. The State of North Carolina instructs that all resource requests come from the county. For example, to obtain sandbags, the city places a request with the county. The county forwards this to the Eastern Branch of North Carolina Office of Emergency Management (NCOEM). The request is forwarded to the State Emergency Operations Center. At that point, the request may be denied or approved. If approved, then it becomes a waiting game to get the resources. During Florence, the city requested sandbags five days ahead of the storm. The City took possession of the sandbags 24 hours prior to the storm hitting. Unfortunately, the city must follow this process.

The city council is working hard to ensure that the city is viable, most importantly the downtown area. The city was recently chosen to be included in the North Carolina Associate Downtown Main Street Program. To foster this designation, the city approved the hiring of an economic development planner. 

Sean Martin has recently accepted this position and will begin working with businesses in the downtown area as well as other parts of the city to promote economic development. This is the first time the City of Whiteville has embarked on a mission of this nature. 

The mayor and council are very concerned and committed to resolve the issues mentioned above and are making difficult decisions on how to address those issues. These issues along with many others are going to be very expensive. It will take time to develop the funding necessary to complete the projects and balance the budget while maintaining low tax rates or fees. 

Decisions on funding massive projects and balancing the quality of life here in the city are at the forefront of each city council member’s mind. I can assure you that staff is working diligently to find funds to continue to improve these matters in the city, not just downtown, but citywide.

 Drone shot of flooding from Hurricane Florence in downtown Whiteville.

Drone shot of flooding from Hurricane Florence in downtown Whiteville.

Stuart Rogers