Disasters as Opportunity: Hurricanes Fran and Floyd in Kinston, North Carolina
The city of Kinston, like many of the cities and towns in eastern North Carolina, is reliant on agriculture and the distribution of these goods to market. Kinston and much of eastern North Carolina, has been facing a declining economy and a loss of jobs. The growth rate in the city has been relatively flat for the last 40 years. Many of those who chose to stay represent low and moderate-income individuals and families with fewer opportunities to find work elsewhere. This has caused a downward spiraling effect: a declining central business district, an increased difficulty in providing necessary public services, and therefore, a reduced quality of life.
Hurricane Fran, which struck in 1996, served as a catalyst for positive change. The widespread flooding that followed, triggered substantial sums of recovery funding to assist the city rebuild. The city aggressively pursued recovery aid while developing an array of recovery planning documents to assist the city capitalize on what was viewed as an unprecedented opportunity. The recovery planning process sought to prioritize ongoing, preexisting community actions with new recovery challenges. It became evident that many local pre-disaster strategies were complimentary with the programs available post-disaster. The planning process facilitated the identification of specific needs and innovative approaches that maximized the connection between disaster recovery and economic revitalization, the provision of affordable housing and enhancing local educational opportunities. The creation of a specific plan guiding redevelopment actions, however, was not created in the traditional sense. A collection of documents were written and the principles of adaptive planning were applied. Elected city officials allowed technical experts in the planning department to develop strategic and long-term processes to achieve agreed upon objectives. This approach provided significant autonomy to those tasked with the development of an overall recovery strategy. Planning and grants management expertise among city staff was crucial to the development of meaningful recovery plans and the means to implement them.
Kinston learned important lessons from Hurricane Fran and applied them when Hurricane Floyd struck three years later. Perhaps the most important lesson learned was how to effectively utilize all available recovery funds to achieve multiple community goals, including the effective incorporation of sustainable redevelopment into the recovery process. Following Hurricane Fran, Kinston represented the most significantly impacted municipality and largest buyout effort undertaken in North Carolina. All told over 360 homes, three mobile home parks and 68 vacant lots were slated for acquisition. When Hurricane Fran struck North Carolina, FEMA Region IV, the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management and local governments were inexperienced with large-scale acquisition projects. Over time, FEMA, the state, and local governments gained valuable experience that was applied during the Hurricane Floyd recovery process.
Following Hurricane Floyd, the city sought to acquire over 300 additional homes. Many of these had been flooded during Fran, but homeowners chose to remain in the floodplain. Others sought to be acquired following Fran once they realized that the federal/state program was resulting in the acquisition of friends and neighbors in their community. Many initially expressed skepticism that the government program would be implemented. As neighbors began the relocation process, the program became real to those that chose to stay. As a result of significant public interest, the city developed a project application that would be submitted to the state should additional funds become available. This proactive approach paid off when Hurricane Floyd struck three years later. The pre-developed application, containing over 200 homes, was approved two weeks after the storm passed. When compared with the one-year approval process following Fran, the rapid turnaround time was indicative of significant process improvements and the pre-storm identification of eligible participants.
A stated objective of the Kinston Recovery Plan was to clear the floodplain of development, a very progressive notion in North Carolina given the reluctance of many local governments to aggressively limit growth in the floodplain. When complete, it is estimated that between four to six hundred acres will be acquired. Thus a key question became – what to do with the purchased land? A conservation zone was established in the area, turning the floodplain into a state educational forest, the only one in eastern North Carolina. The project served as part of a larger attempt to turn the area into a tourist destination, particularly in light of the number of people who pass through Kinston on the way to the beaches of coastal North Carolina.
In an attempt to avert a serious loss of tax base, the city took a proactive approach to encourage homeowners slated for buyout to continue to reside within the city. The concerns surrounding the potential loss of residents following Hurricane Fran caused officials to establish the initiative Call Kinston Home. The program, established in 1998, brought together a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, non-profits and business leaders to create a marketing campaign aimed at enticing residents to stay in Kinston as part of a broader effort to revitalize existing neighborhoods through the construction or rehabilitation of new or existing housing stock. A key aspect of the program was to assist tenants become homeowners. The program, which was fully operational when hurricane Floyd struck, enabled the city to expand the current model to address additional redevelopment needs.
Race, the Buyout and Relocation
The City of Kinston can be generally divided into four broad quadrants based on two primary factors; race and income. In Kinston, the flooding associated with hurricane’s Fran and Floyd disproportionately impacted poor black residents. The lack of available housing before the flood was significantly increased, due to the buyout of hundreds of low income homeowners and tenants. Thus, the need for affordable housing increased dramatically. The scale of the buyout was so large relative to the city’s population and existing infrastructure that schools serving areas subject to the buyout eliminated the concept of a neighborhood schools system. The city is attempting to encourage development in the north east part of town where adequate educational facilities exist.
Generally speaking, the southern part of Kinston is comprised of low income black families, while the north houses predominantly middle and upper income residents, that are both black and white. Included in the north east quadrant are a significant proportion of middle income blacks. Following Hurricane Floyd, the city recognized that it would have to build a substantial number of new houses to accommodate victims who were bought out and wished to remain in Kinston. One plan was developed that sought to relocate families from the south east to the north east-side of town. In both cases the neighborhoods were predominantly black. Citizens who lived in the established neighborhood strongly objected to this approach, claiming that the type of housing proposed would lower existing home values. In fact, homes of similar size and vernacular were proposed to be constructed. Local officials suggested that disaster victims had a certain stigma attached to them, and as a result, were not welcomed into existing neighborhoods. The proposed effort was ultimately discontinued. An additional project was constructed that relocated disaster victims from the south west to North West part of town. In this case, it appears that race is playing a factor in community opposition. The North West part of Kinston is comprised of predominantly white middle and upper
The City of Kinston Urban Growth Plan:
Linking Mitigation, Recovery and Sustainable Redevelopment
The City of Kinston has linked issues of growth management, disaster recovery and hazard mitigation. Four primary principles guided this approach:
Mitigation should be incorporated into all aspects of city planning and redevelopment following a disaster;
Economic development should recognize that making the entire community less vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards is good business;
Smart growth practices should be incorporated into the locally adopted “urban growth plan;” and
Disaster recovery funding provides a key means to achieve desired community goals.
The Urban Growth Plan focused on several broad policy objectives, including housing and residential development, economic development, public facilities and utilities, agriculture and rural development, parks and open space, and natural resources and the environment. Perhaps most significant, from a land-use perspective, the Plan linked “primary, secondary and tertiary” uses with areas identified outside of flood hazard areas. Incentives and disincentives were established that guided future development away from flood-prone areas. For example, the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, established differing levels of infrastructural assistance to developers based on the proposed site relative to the city center (which was outside the 100-year floodplain) versus outlying areas, many of which were in the heart of the floodplain.
Following Hurricane Fran the city placed a moratorium on future development in the floodplain. This was due, in part, to a state-imposed moratorium on future sewer connections to the primary waste water treatment plant, which was regularly releasing waste into the Neuse River. This provided an opportunity for the city to address a state-mandated requirement, while implementing an effective growth management tool to limit future flood-related damages. In the aftermath of Fran, some property owners questioned the approach taken by the city, citing the apparent limits placed on future growth. Yet after Floyd, property owners recognized that they too no longer wanted to live, nor support future development in an area that was so vulnerable to flooding.
Housing and Employment Leading People to Success (HELPS), and Call Kinston Home: Implementing Locally-Driven Initiatives
A key part of disaster recovery involves the provision of aid to individual homeowners. Existing federal programs are generally not meant to “make people whole” following a disaster. Rather they are intended to assist people get back on their feet. In North Carolina, additional state programs were created to fill the gaps in federal aid. In Kinston following Hurricane Fran, the city sought to take this approach one step further, capitalizing on existing sources of funding and packaging local assistance to achieve multiple goals. Initially, selected officials questioned why the city was “in the housing business.” Yet it had become clear that the need for low and moderate-income housing was not being addressed by private developers, who asserted that the construction of low income housing was not a profitable venture. As a result, the housing stock needed to relocate displaced disaster victims was not being built. Eventually, local officials were able to convince members of city council that taking advantage of new state recovery programs made sense if the city wanted to retain their population and tax base.9 Two locally-driven programs exemplify this approach: Housing and Employment Leading People to Success and Call Kinston Home.
The Housing and Employment Leading People to Success (HELPS) linked the acquisition program, the provision of job training and the movement of tenants to home ownership as a means to promote self reliance. Training programs focused on building construction, the rehabilitation of existing housing stock, and the “deconstruction” or recycling of useable materials from homes slated for acquisition.10 A common problem following disasters impacting low and moderate-income communities is the ability to find construction firms that are willing to focus on the repair or replacement of this type of housing stock. This problem can be particularly acute in rural areas. Profit margins are typically lower when compared to the construction or repair of more expensive housing. In an attempt to address this concern, Kinston sought to create locally-based expertise that would be willing to fill this niche market, thereby addressing localized recovery needs and creating jobs for those living in the area.
9 The physical relocation of disaster victims to new housing presented several challenges to local officials, victims and elected officials. Local officials were faced with the identification of suitable replacement dwellings and attempts to relocate entire communities, thereby maintaining established neighborhood ties. Individuals were given a range of relocation options in an attempt to meet their social and economic needs. The large-scale relocation effort had political implications as well. The movement of large numbers of people from one voting district to another resulted in some elected officials questioning the motives of redevelopment efforts.
10 The deconstruction process involves salvaging materials that could be used in other construction projects. Materials may include flooring, doors, cabinetry, windows, framing material, molding, bricks and other items. In the case of flood-damaged housing, salvageable materials used in home construction should not include those damaged by floodwaters. As a general rule, the deconstruction of four homes results in the materials necessary for the construction of one home. An additional benefit of this process is the significant reduction of demolition debris sent to the landfill.
Identifying and training the people that can assist in the redevelopment of needed housing stock was an important first step. Call Kinston Home represents the second phase, encouraging economic investment and revitalization in the central business district and adjacent neighborhoods. Creating the economic stimulus for new housing construction involved a broad coalition. Members included the Kinston Housing Authority, Lenoir County Community College, the Chamber of Commerce, local, state and federal officials, Habitat for Humanity, North Carolina Homebuilders Association and private lending companies.
Linking Mitigation and Recovery Goals with Broader Community Objectives
Kinston officials had developed plans prior to Hurricane Fran that would address chronic problems such as a declining population and economy, loss of jobs, lack of safe and sanitary housing, and an overall decline in the quality of life among residents. The primary challenge facing Kinston was the lack of available resources to comprehensively address identified needs. While the city was successful in obtaining grants and loans to tackle a variety of problems, the amount of funding was not sufficient to comprehensively revitalize the city. When Hurricane Fran struck, city officials reviewed and amended their comprehensive plan, emphasizing ways to connect recovery programs to pre-identified goals and objectives. This required analyzing program eligibility constraints and pre-identified community needs. Once completed, the plan provided a roadmap for local officials linking recovery funding with pre-identified community goals. A massive influx of state and federal money followed, bringing major physical, economic and societal change. Several community officials have noted that Hurricanes Fran and Floyd “were the best thing that could have happened to the city.” Following Hurricane Floyd, the city created and adopted a hazard mitigation plan to more clearly delineate risk reduction strategies alluded to in the Urban Growth Plan. Specific objectives included enhancing standards identified in the Local Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance, expanding the use of buyouts to acquire flood-prone properties and increasing the size and number of floodplain conservation areas, creating a Redevelopment Plan to guide the post-Floyd rebuilding process, citing new communities in areas facing lower flood risk, and reassessing the accuracy of current flood maps.
Multiple disasters allowed the city to implement long-standing goals of economic revitalization and development, enhance recreational and tourism opportunities, address serious environmental concerns, and improve the overall quality of life in Kinston. Post-disaster funding enabled the city to acquire over 400 hundred homes,11 develop new communities that focused on replacement housing for disaster victims, relocate a flood-prone waste-water treatment plant, and acquire automobile junkyards located in the floodplain. These actions necessitated developing innovative strategies to assist individual disaster victims and the community as a whole through partnerships with state historic preservation groups, faith-based volunteer groups, the North Carolina Division of
Emergency Management, Division of Water Quality, Division of Community Assistance and the Hurricane Floyd Redevelopment Center.
Summary and Conclusions
In Kinston, the capacity of local government officials extended beyond the administration of post-disaster grant programs. Staff proactively developed innovative strategies to address pre-identified local needs. The complex and often confusing process of recovery and redevelopment were learned over time as a result of Hurricane Fran, and honed during the recovery following Hurricane Floyd. Kinston officials realized how to coordinate funding sources to achieve existing and future goals and objectives delineated in their Comprehensive Plan. The large influx of disaster aid provided heretofore unprecedented opportunities. When Hurricane Floyd struck three years later, the city had developed a strategic vision whose goals included clearing the floodplain of development, guiding development away from known hazard areas, revitalizing downtown, expanding the quantity of affordable housing, and improving the overall quality of life for the citizens of Kinston. In order to achieve these aims, Kinston effectively capitalized on existing technical and political support.