Knocked Sideways by Florence, New Bern Rushes to Get Back On its Feet

Paul Canady, the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in New Bern, N.C., checks messages from his congregation as he inspects the building for the first time since Hurricane Florence hit. (Chris Megerian / Los Angeles Times)
Paul Canady, the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in New Bern, N.C., checks messages from his congregation as he inspects the building for the first time since Hurricane Florence hit. (Chris Megerian / Los Angeles Times)

All through the night as Hurricane Florence began hammering this city near the North Carolina coast, Paul Canady’s phone buzzed and beeped with messages from members of Christ Episcopal Church, where he serves as rector.

A collapsed tree leaned against a nearby house where a husband and wife live. A family huddled in their attic to escape the rising floodwaters. There was no electricity anywhere.

But by Saturday morning, the water was receding, the rain had abated and Canady’s flock appeared safe. So he drove downtown to see how the church itself had weathered the storm.

Besides the daylight shining through the stained-glass windows, the building was pitch black. Canady walked to the base of the bell tower, the highest point in New Bern, and climbed two metal ladders with a small flashlight. The wooden floorboards were damp, but everything appeared intact.

“We’re always grateful when the church can come through unscathed,” Canady said.

Across New Bern on Saturday, storm-weary residents were beginning to assess the damage from the worst hurricane in recent memory. Florence may have made landfall nearly 100 miles south, but this city of 30,000 was among the hardest hit in North Carolina.

Downtown businesses flooded, and hundreds of people needed to be rescued from their homes. Some neighborhoods remained underwater.

“I’ve seen a lot of hurricanes,” said Dana Outlaw, the city’s 64-year-old mayor. “And this is the big one.”

Founded in 1710, New Bern was once North Carolina’s largest city, prized for its location at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. Because the state lacked natural deepwater ports like its neighbors Virginia and South Carolina, ships from Europe would unload at nearby Portsmouth Island and transfer their goods to barges that would pass through New Bern on their journey inland.

But the location has also proved to be a vulnerability. During hurricanes, ocean water surges up the rivers and spills over the banks, inundating businesses and homes.

A pole on the site of the former colonial governor’s mansion, near where the two rivers meet, displays the high-water marks from previous storms. Florence will probably be one of the worst after delivering more than 10 feet of water, placing it nearly on par with Hurricane Ione from 1955.

“New Bern needs the prayers of all Americans,” Outlaw said. “It will take a team effort to restore our city.”

Although the storm has barely passed, that work has already begun.

Near the river, people were clearing out a seafood market and restaurant that had flooded. Wooden chairs, bags of hamburger buns, ketchup packets and scrap metal were piled on the sidewalk.

The owner, Ed McGovern, 61, had to swim through 6 feet of water to reach the store the previous day. Now he predicted it would reopen by Tuesday, maybe even Monday.

“I’ve got no choice,” he said. “I’ve got to stay busy. I’ve got to make money.”

There was a similar determination around the city as people seemed eager for some semblance of normalcy after being hunkered down the previous two nights.

Gas stations were reopening for business. A line of cars at the Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q drive-through snaked around the restaurant, out of the parking lot, down the street and up the highway offramp, causing a culinary traffic jam.

Al Sibley, 85, had waited for an hour in his vehicle, along with his wife and their small yapping dog, for a pound of barbecue, a pound of coleslaw and an order of hush puppies.

“This is the first time we’ve been out of the house,” he said.

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SOURCE: CHRIS MEGERIAN
The Los Angeles Times