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The impact following a hurricane can last for years, sometimes even decades. In September 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina causing significant damage to infrastructure, disrupted power supply and water systems, and displaced thousands of people. The total cost of damage was estimated at $22 billion.

Mason Farm Biological Reserve boardwalk after Hurricane Florence.
Mason Farm Biological Reserve boardwalk after Hurricane Florence in 2018.

While the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was spared extensive damage from Florence’s wrath, high winds and rain took down trees and damaged areas of main campus and the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

“Following Hurricane Florence, the University’s prompt evaluation of damage was crucial, guiding us to strategically allocate resources for response and ultimately long-term recovery,” says Emergency Management and Planning Director Darrell Jeter. “Key to our recovery was funding support through FEMA’s Public Assistance program which enabled the University to pool resources.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was established to tackle the challenges posed by natural disasters. Its primary objective is to support immediate disaster response efforts and provide financial assistance to individuals and communities for costs associated with a federally-declared disaster.

“When Hurricane Florence came through, it did quite a bit of damage to the Mason Farm Biological Reserve,” says Director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden Damon Waitt. “In general, Florence washed out roadways, culverts, fencing and a 450-foot-long boardwalk that was over a section called Siler’s Bog.”

Mason Farm Biological Reserve

The North Carolina Botanical Garden is UNC-Chapel Hill’s primary unit dedicated to the study and conservation of native plants in North Carolina. Within this framework, the Mason Farm Biological Reserve serves as an extension of the garden, focusing on research, education and fostering an appreciation of the natural world. Spanning 367 acres, this wildlife preserve hosts a diverse ecosystem, housing hundreds of native plants and animals.

Mason Farm Biological Reserve boardwalk under construction.
The new boardwalk design is built on pillars driven into the ground to anchor the boardwalk in place.

Regrettably, the Reserve faced a setback when Hurricane Florence struck in the fall of 2018, causing the destruction of the 450-foot wooden boardwalk through Siler’s Bog, a swamp forest within the preserve. The boardwalk was a vital component of the 1.8-mile Old Farm Trail, a scenic loop guiding visitors through various habitats on the property.

Originally constructed in 2015 by volunteers, the boardwalk was funded through a $15,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its purpose was to address ecological concerns related to water flow and wetland preservation. Hurricane Matthew posed a threat in October 2016, nearly destroying the boardwalk, but it was once again put back together by volunteers in 2017.

“A lot of Mason Farm Biological Preserve is in a floodplain,” says Waitt. “The effects of Hurricane Florence emphasized the need for proactive measures to address the aftermath and find an alternative to mitigate the destruction of the boardwalk in future events.”

The Project

Before FEMA funding is available in any disastrous situation, a series of procedural steps must unfold. It begins with the formal declaration of a state of disaster by both federal and state authorities. Hurricane Florence, for instance, attained disaster status on Sept. 14, 2018, thereby rendering FEMA resources accessible to all North Carolina agencies.

Crystal Donaldson, Emergency Management and Planning continuity and resiliency planner, manages the details for all University FEMA-funded projects. “The FEMA application process requires involvement with several community partners, including the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County and other University offices.”

Prior to 2021, universities within the UNC System submitted FEMA applications in partnership with local municipalities and county agencies. The North Carolina Division of Emergency Management has since created the UNC System Hazard Mitigation Plan, which was in development prior to the occurrence of Hurricane Florence.

These new plans are geographically delineated between the eastern and western regions of the state, designed to identify, evaluate and mitigate natural and human-caused risks at each campus. “The new plan secures grant eligibility, affording campuses the autonomy to independently seek state and federal funding, with or without intermediary agencies,” explains Donaldson.

New Mason Farm Biological Reserve boardwalk.
The new boardwalk was completed on Nov. 29, 2023 and is open to visitors.

FEMA funds for the boardwalk project were awarded on Nov. 21, 2019 in the amount of $111,776.45. Approximately, $83,824.84 was from federal funding and $27,951.61 from the state.

“The timeline for FEMA projects can be lengthy,” says Donaldson. “Our office is responsible for ensuring all required documentation and updates on the project are provided to the state and FEMA, as well as ensuring progress with the project remains on schedule to meet established deadlines.”

Unfortunately, by the time the project was ready to get started, FEMA funds no longer covered the amount needed for the new boardwalk construction. The North Carolina Botanical Garden worked to secure an additional $150,000 through fundraising and private donations to cover those increased expenses.

“Working closely with the University’s Emergency Management and Planning office has been instrumental in navigating the complexities of FEMA funding and disaster recovery,” says Waitt. “Their expertise and support have played a crucial role in ensuring the successful restoration of the boardwalk.”

The project was completed and reopened to visitors on Nov. 29, 2023. The new boardwalk is anchored to the ground using pier and beam construction and was designed to better withstand flooding to help ensure that this resource will be accessible to Garden visitors for years to come.

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