It’s a summer afternoon in Pollocksville in Jones County, 14 miles southwest of New Bern. A cool breeze stirs the leaves of sycamores along the banks of the Trent River. Near a boat ramp and kayak launch, cars and trucks rumble across a steel-truss bridge, slowing on U.S. 17 Business to cruise the town that’s home to just 275 people. 

A glittering-blue bass boat drifts quietly upstream, powered by a bow-mounted trolling motor. Its lone fisherman slings a topwater lure near the far bank, slipping his line over cypress knobs above the surface. The Trent’s about 50 feet wide here, and 10 feet deep at mid-channel.

Today, this river’s a gentle portrait of slow-moving serenity. But in September 2018, it was anything but calm. When Hurricane Florence arrived early on September 14, the Trent began its rise up and over the boat ramp, the kayak launch, and the bridge—then lumbered 2,000 feet into town. 

“We just got whomped,” Jay Bender, who’ll mark his 41st year as Pollocksville’s mayor in November, told The Assembly.

Florence also flooded New Bern with 3 to 4 feet of water, and backed the Neuse River up into the Trent. On September 15, Pollocksville was pummeled by a 10-foot storm surge from downstream. Three days of rain unleashed torrents of upstream water and submerged much of the town. On September 17, the river crested higher than 20 feet.

Sixty-nine homes and 14 commercial structures were flooded. Town hall, on the banks of the Trent, saw water up to its eaves. The post office stood in 5 feet of water. Miraculously, no one was injured or died.

Hurricane Florence caused flooding up to the eaves at Pollocksville’s town hall. (Photo courtesy of the Town of Pollocksville)
A house damaged during Hurricane Florence sits empty in Pollocksville. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)
Scraps of the iconic blue FEMA tarps still hang in trees.

The town was without power for 11 days. Sixty percent of its citizens were evacuated or departed on their own, including town commissioner Nancy Barbee. She’s a lifelong resident who lives in the home her parents bought during the Depression, in the center of town. 

Water had reached her driveway during hurricanes before, but didn’t venture into her home because floods never reached the level of a 100- or 500-year storm. Florence, however, was a 1,000-year hurricane. 

Barbee’s home may have been elevated 4 feet above ground, but 2 feet of water still sloshed across her first floor. “The New York City police came in a pontoon boat and picked me up,” she said.

Like most other residents, she would leave for six weeks. But she was determined to come back, clean up, repair the damage, and rebuild her town. “Our attitude was: ‘Stay and make the best of it,’” she said. 

A Waterlogged Mess

The mayor’s home, once his grandfather’s, sits on higher ground untouched by floodwaters. When Florence hit, he and his wife took his mother, 95 years old at the time, to their still-intact beach house and came back five days later. There was no gasoline, so most generators couldn’t function, but his was powered by natural gas. It ran his computer and charged his phone.

Bender made a “zillion” calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Department of Emergency Management. His community was a waterlogged mess, exacerbated by the fact that all five town commissioners had left. “My clerk lost her roof, my maintenance man couldn’t get to town, and neither could our water/sewer operator,” he said.

But he did have influential contacts, and he used them. Among the state agencies he reached out to were the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, the Wildlife Resources Commission, and the Golden Leaf Foundation. All responded positively, though there were questions.

A former three-star general friend asked him if he would even still have a town. “But our folks are resilient,” Bender said. “They refused to give up.”

Pollocksville Mayor Jay Bender walks through town hall. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)
Bender holds a book that shows the extent of the flooding caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)
An award recognizing the mayor hangs on the wall in town hall.

The Coastal Dynamics Design Lab in N.C. State’s College of Design became an important resource. It’s a group of six landscape architects who develop resiliency strategies for towns like Pollocksville.

Unlike large municipalities, these small towns aren’t flush with resources or staff to deal with disasters. Working with elected officials, town staff, residents, and business owners, the lab analyzes flooding, land use, and transportation networks. 

They look for nature-based landscape solutions like restoring stream channels and wetlands to better absorb rainfall and floodwaters, especially in areas altered by development in floodplains. They also look to cultural and natural resources, like riverfront recreation, for potential economic development.

The lab’s budget is tiny—about $600,000 annually. It doesn’t take a cent from the communities it serves, but works with them to write, manage, and implement state and federal grants. 

After hearing about Pollocksville’s fate from a friend of the town, lab director Andrew Fox and associate director Travis Klondike traveled to meet its mayor and commissioners. “They came, we told them our vision, and they started working on it,” commissioner Barbee said.

Andrew Fox, director and co-founder of the NC State Coastal Dynamics Design Lab, stands along the banks of the Trent River in Pollocksville. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)
Fox points at a map of Pollocksville as he discusses plans for the town’s continued recovery. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)

The result was a 120-page document called a floodprint that lays out a phased development to make Pollocksville resistant to future storms and hurricanes. 

It reinforces Jones County’s mandate requiring all new and substantially improved structures be elevated 4 feet above base-flood elevation. It offers solutions for rebuilding the riverfront with bioretention areas and native plantings. And it proposes new sidewalks, plants, and rain gardens for the town’s five-block-long downtown.

To date, Pollocksville has received $15 million in grants from state and federal sources. 

Natural Sponges

Among the first tasks after the flooding was to find space where the town government could operate. The mayor and commissioners secured a vacant building owned by Carolina East Medical Center, and used it as town hall for three years.

The town’s main sewer lagoon, pumping station, and three lift stations had flooded and needed immediate repairs. The town’s elevated sewer pumping stations were raised even higher. 

By 2020 the town hall, a former railroad depot built in 1893, was moved 2,000 feet south on U.S. 17 to higher ground. Funding for that move and raising the pumping stations has yet to be secured. The town hopes FEMA will pay what insurance did not cover.

Fox talks with Bender and Commissioner Nancy Barbee at town hall. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)
Writing from the early 1900s lines the wall of the historic building.

Where the town hall once stood on the riverfront, a mix of bioretention and native wetland plantings now flourish on an acre of land. When the river overruns its banks, water is held there, with roots from trees and plants acting like sponges. Those plants also bring in more animal life—pollinators, butterflies, birds, bats, flies, and beetles. 

“That support is really important to the biodiversity of the region and enhancing native ecosystems,” said Leslie Bartlebaugh, a lab extension specialist. 

The new riverfront area is now laid out with a boardwalk, sidewalk, and seat wall. Funds for the project totaled $240,000, with $114,00 from an environmental enhancement grant from the North Carolina Department of Justice, and the balance from a North Carolina Emergency Management grant. Restoration of the boat ramp was covered by a grant from the state Wildlife Resources Commission. 

The refurbished town hall has been relocated to higher ground after being flooded to its roof during Hurricane Florence. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)
A rendering of the historic train depot hangs inside what is now town hall. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)

Hurricanes are moving slower across North Carolina than they once did, according to the North Carolina Sea Grant program, a research and education group affiliated with N.C. State. Sluggish tropical storms increase the likelihood of extreme rainfall and raise the risk of rivers flooding.

The amount of precipitation that falls during heavy storms has increased 27 percent over the last 60 years in the southeastern United States, and that trend is expected to continue in a warming climate. Higher intensity storms are projected to increase inland flooding by up to 40 percent by 2050 in North Carolina.

The lessons learned from Pollocksville’s continuing recovery can be applied to other communities across the state, said Fox, the lab’s director. 

It’s important to find trusted partners, because small towns can’t go it alone.

Also, small recovery projects—and lots of them—add up to big change. One priority is to recognize what’s special about a community, and use that when thinking about adapting to the new climate reality. 

“Why a place matters—its history, culture, riverfront or historic structures—can be used as a springboard to recovery, as opposed to giving it all up,” Fox said. 

‘A Big Success Story’

Slowly but surely, structures in Pollocksville are being raised off the ground. Private funding elevated the Barrus House, built circa 1825, to 4 feet on brick piers. It’s architecturally significant, with a two-tiered front porch enclosed on one end and a front bay containing exterior stairs, a style common in Charleston, S.C., but not often found in eastern North Carolina. 

In a floodplain about a block south of the river on what the mayor calls “Disaster Street” (actually Barrus Street), one home has been raised high on cinderblock walls. But five others nearby, all rental properties, will probably be bought by the state. 

These five rental houses along Barrus Street will probably be bought by the state and demolished. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)

Should the owner accept, the houses will be demolished, the town will own the property and leave it undeveloped. They’ll replace the houses with publicly accessible park space, including bioretention areas—more depressed spaces where water can collect. “When a hurricane comes through, they’ll be underwater and then dry out,” said Fox, the NCSU lab director.

Last year, the lab won an award from the American Society of Landscape Architects for its work in Pollocksville. 

“It’s a big success story,” Fox said. “Given how small a town it is shows what can be done.”

The work in Pollocksville isn’t done. Bids opened on July 13 for a Main Street enhancement project adding new sidewalks, plantings, and bioretention areas. The town has a $1 million grant from FEMA to elevate six downtown buildings. The hope is that the revitalized area will lure commerce back. 

Barbee and Fox stand near the original site of the train depot. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)
Bioretention ponds sit along the banks of the Trent River with the goal of mitigating the impact of future flooding. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)

Entrepreneur Eddie Jenkins, a 60-year-old resident who lives in his great-grandmother’s house, had two businesses upended by Florence. He established his Grilling Buddies restaurant on Main Street eight years ago as the go-to place for breakfast and lunch. Years before that, he created a lawn service business, Mowing Buddies.

During the hurricane and subsequent flooding, his lawn service was inundated with 5 feet of water, and his restaurant with 6. But he was determined to get his restaurant back up and running. 

(Left to right) Sam Davis, Ted Lewis, Emily Lewis, and Judy Cullipher eat lunch at Grilling Buddies in Pollocksville. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)

A recent grant from the local electric company helped with a patio, tables, and umbrellas out front. Inside, another grant from The Sunday Supper in Raleigh, established in 2016 to help families and businesses affected by Hurricane Matthew, helped pay for a freezer and grill cover. 

“We were blowed away,” Jenkins said. “It was somewhere around $25,000.”

When commissioner Barbee was growing up in Pollocksville in the 1950s and ‘60s, downtown was bustling with a bank, a grocery store, and furniture store. Most of the businesses were run by locals. When their children left town and didn’t return, all that commerce declined. 

Barbee sits along the banks of the Trent River in Pollocksville. (Maddy Gray for The Assembly)

Immediately after Florence, about 50 people didn’t come back to town, reducing its population to 268. But the 275 people there now are determined to rebuild Pollocksville.

That includes Barbee. She may have lived in a FEMA trailer in her backyard for 18 months while restoring her home, but she stuck it out and found help from others. The Eight Days of Hope Church, a nationwide group with a rebuilding ministry in New Bern, sent volunteers to town and cleaned out her house.

Now that her home’s rebuilt, she’s got an optimistic eye on the future. She’d like to see a farmers market and a downtown coffee shop. Two years ago, a campground for the RV community opened on a manmade lake on the outskirts of town. “People come from all over—they’re full all the time,” she said.

And downtown, the once-popular Trent Restaurant, closed in the 2000s, has been bought. Barbee hopes to see it reopen and serve dinner to the out-of-town campers, its apartment above occupied. 

“We have a bright future, but we’re still in recovery mode,” she said. “We’re small, but we’ve got heart—big hearts.”

J. Michael Welton is the author of Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge, 2015). His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Metropolis, Dwell, and The News & Observer in Raleigh. He is editor and publisher of the digital design magazine