NCDA&CS aid after Bertie County tornado aims to prevent flooding

by | Mar 25, 2021

As Hurricane Isaias brushed the Carolina coast in early August, a tornado spun off in the outer bands, touching down in Bertie County in the middle of the night. At about 1:15 a.m. on August 4, the tornado started spinning on the ground, traveling northwest for ten miles and widening as much as six football fields along the path. When the tornado dissipated about eleven minutes later, destruction was left behind.

Two people were killed. More than a dozen others were hurt. The worst of the damage was found along Morning Road, near Woodard Road, southeast of Windsor. The National Weather Service (NWS) estimated the tornado’s wind reached 140 to 145 miles per hour – an EF-3 on the five-category scale. According to the preliminary report from NWS, “the tornado completely destroyed several mobile homes and stick built houses in this area. It flattened seven single-wide and double-wide mobile homes, leaving unrecognizable bits of debris. The fatalities and injuries occurred in the vicinity of morning road.”

This NWS image shows the tornado’s general path.

“It did so much damage. It blew my mind,” said Vic Thompson, the director of Bertie Soil and Water Conservation District. “Even for people who go there today, they can see [remnants of damage] and imagine just how bad it was.”

In all, the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management deemed 26 family homes were destroyed, according to the Bertie Ledger-Advance. In addition, ten homes had major damage. Another 25 had less extensive damage.

Fallen trees blocked the flow of ditches and other waterways.

The destruction wasn’t limited to only homes though. The tornado damaged farmland and blew storm debris – mostly trees and woody vegetation – into nearby creeks, streams and drainage ditches. Thompson said at least one was so filled with storm debris it was hard to tell the small waterway even existed. For Thompson, the clogged ditches raised a red flag of concern because it put the area at bigger risk of flooding in the future. Given that hurricanes or other large rain events have a history of flooding the Carolinas, it wasn’t a farfetched concern for Bertie County, which sits just west of the Albemarle Sound, wedged between the Roanoke River and the Chowan River. The Cashie River also runs through the county, not far from the tornado’s path.

“We knew if we didn’t get the storm debris cleaned out of those waterways, the homes in the area were in danger of flooding,” Thompson said. “After previous natural disasters, I thought other counties had gotten assistance for similar work through a USDA program and NCDA’s Soil and Water Conservation Division. So I started to look into whether we would qualify.”

In the meantime, donations and federal and state money were directed to help the families affected. Government funds, along with friends, family, neighbors and strangers continued helping the people who lost their homes. Thompson soon learned USDA could help with the part of the clean-up affecting the drainage waterways. The assistance for storm debris removal would come through the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program, which is run through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

This image is one of several scanned into the field data report for the project.

Paying for cleanup
However, there was a catch. EWP program and financial assistance would be available for the work, but as with all EWP funding, the “local sponsor” (usually a county, city, drainage district, etc.) still needed to come up with money to cover some of the cost. Usually, EWP provides up to 75 percent of the construction costs, leaving the local sponsor to contribute a 25-percent or more “local match” for the project (as mentioned in previous coverage of projects in Sampson, Pamlico, Scotland and Craven counties). Because of Bertie County’s economic challenges, the state conservationist Tim Beard and the North Carolina NRCS EWP program staff sought a waiver to have the the county designated as a “limited resource” county. That meant USDA would cover up to 90 percent of the cost, but the ten percent match was still a concern. The original estimated federal assistance came in at around $143,000, meaning the county would need to contribute around $14,000.

“The county didn’t think they’d be able to cover even that ten percent,” explained David Williams, deputy director of the Soil and Water Conservation Division in the N.C. Department of Agriculture. “So after they reached out to NRCS and learned they could likely get the 90 percent funding, they reached out to us to see if we could make it happen by matching the rest.”

Thompson was happy to get a relatively quick “yes” from Williams. Leaders in the Soil and Water Conservation Division knew they could tap into some disaster recovery money the N.C. General Assembly had already approved. So Bertie County was able to move forward with the debris removal project. It came in way under budget at a total cost of $30,000. Thompson said the county tax office estimated the value of homes protected from future flooding was about $10 million.

“We knew the county couldn’t find the money for the ten-percent match of the original estimate, and there’s no way the homeowners were going to be able to cover that cost either,” Thompson said. “So the money from the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Division made all the difference in getting this project done and protecting homes in the area from future flooding.”

Past funding pays off
Williams explained the money was a bit more quickly available because of a disaster recovery package for other hurricanes in the recent past. In 2019, when state lawmakers approved an additional funding bill for Dorian, Michael and Florence recovery, they allowed any unused money to go toward any future disasters. Hurricane Isaias turned out to be the next disaster.

“Since it was an authorization that allowed us to use money for future events, we took advantage of that,” Williams said.

He explained that leaders in the N.C. Department of Agriculture, including the Soil and Water Conservation Division, had pushed lawmakers for the additional funding bill because there was still unmet need in the disaster recovery. They also pointed out that there’s been a pattern of more frequent hurricanes, so it made sense to allow any unused funds to go toward the next natural disaster recovery. Williams said local counties and soil and water conservation districts also added their voices to that call for forward-looking funding options.

“Fortunately, it recognized we seem to be having a lot of these events, so it allowed for there to be some money already available when the needs arise,” Williams said.

Cleanup complete
Thompson said the locally-led EWP agreement was officially approved in November. The county solicited bids for the work and chose a contractor in December. Work began in February and wrapped up at the end of the month.

Workers did almost all of the debris removal by hand, using chainsaws to cut up large limbs and trees. Large equipment was used only once or twice. That kept the impact to the land and water to a minimum, Thompson said.

Now the county is wrapping up the project’s logistics. That involves submitting all eligible costs for reimbursements through the EWP and NCDA&CS disaster recovery programs and completing the EWP agreement conditions.