Elizabethtown needs to prevent flooding. But with little cash, options are limited

By Ben Rappaport


Stephen Duffy feels like he is constantly playing a game of Whac-A-Mole.

The Elizabethtown public services director is stuck in a stormwater doom loop: filling potholes and sealing broken pipes as needed but never attacking the root cause of the damage caused by stormwater. That’s because the Bladen County town, like most municipalities across rural southeastern North Carolina, lacks any budget to prevent flooding and erosion caused by heavy rainfall.

“All we can do for now is respond to catastrophic failure,” Duffy said. “The government, from the top down, just doesn’t make stormwater a priority.”

In the three years since Duffy took over as public services director, he says Elizabethtown has made little progress on stormwater mitigation, largely due to insufficient funding. 

Solutions to stormwater issues often involve directing water toward the soil so it can be absorbed into the ground instead of running quickly through impervious surfaces, filling homes and businesses. If the water goes into the soil, it can be filtered and flow into streams and rivers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Federal and state governments don’t frequently fund stormwater solutions in small towns; infrastructure money is used instead to build and maintain local water and sewer lines.

Standing next to a storm drain in downtown Elizabethtown, Public Services Director Stephen Duffy explains how runoff can lead to flooding of many local businesses. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

The 3,200 residents of Elizabethtown know the harm stormwater can cause, particularly during hurricanes. In 2018, Hurricane Florence dumped  36 inches of rain on the town — the storm’s highest rainfall total in the state  — and closed multiple roads and destroyed homes. The town of Kelly, less than 25 miles from Elizabethtown, was evacuated when a 30-foot-wide breach opened in a dike along the Cape Fear River. The storm surge from Florence resulted in at least 42 deaths and more than $16 billion in damage across the state. 

Small towns left out

North Carolina needs more than $2.76 billion over the next 15 years to address stormwater issues, according to a study by the UNC School of Government’s Environmental Finance Center. The study identified nearly $10 billion spent on sewer and water projects, but less than $430 million spent on stormwater. 

Grant funding for stormwater often goes to larger cities like Charlotte or Raleigh. The study found that about 60% of estimated needs are in the state’s seven largest cities with populations greater than 100,000 people, representing about $1.67 billion in needs. Municipalities of 10,000 people or less account for $432 million in stormwater needs across the state. 

Duffy said Elizabethtown needs “tens of millions of dollars” to fix its existing stormwater issues. The town has consistently applied for state funding for stormwater projects but has rarely gotten help because the state often prioritizes funding for projects based on the number of affected residents. So small towns get left out.

Under the Clean Water Act, state environmental agencies are required to implement stormwater management plans for urbanized areas, which are designated by the U.S. Census. An urbanized area is defined as a “continuously built-up area with a population of 50,000 or more.” 

Among other measures, these plans force municipalities to undertake public education, outreach and pollution monitoring of stormwater. Some of these plans have been implemented in smaller cities with populations of at least 10,000. 

In the Border Belt region of Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties, only two cities — Lumberton in Robeson and Laurinburg in Scotland — exceed the 10,000 population threshold. Neither has a stormwater management plan.

Only three municipalities in the region have implemented stormwater fees to generate revenue for projects. The Columbus County towns of Whiteville and Chadbourn charge residents monthly fees of $6 and $3, respectively. Lumberton charges $4.25 per month. 

The town of Pembroke is in the process of establishing a stormwater management program in after receiving two $140,000 grants last year — one environmental enhancement grant through the state attorney general’s office and another from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. 

The utility is being established to “address drainage, runoff and other challenges” in the town, Pembroke Town Manager Tyler Thomas said in a statement on Friday. The town will charge residents $3 per month to help make necessary improvements and hire staff. 

Thomas said the town’s current approach has looked similar to that in Elizabethtown: Tackle issues problems as they arise without fixing larger problems. 

“We know we are never going to win grants to fix every stormwater issue,” Thomas told the Border Belt Independent. “But stormwater is a complaint we get all the time and we needed to do something to address it.”

‘People don’t like to pay more taxes’

Duffy said he has encouraged Elizabethtown’s leaders to consider establishing a stormwater utility several times, including at a budget retreat in March, to no avail. Money generated from a stormwater fee would help the town make progress on its priority projects, which would be aimed at minimizing flood impacts and increasing stormwater capacity. It would also allow the town to take on low-interest loans for larger projects, Duffy said. 

Stephen Duffy shows off Elizabethtown’s sweeper truck, which is used to collect debris and leaves after major rain events. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

“Yes, it’s a fee that would benefit everyone,” he said. “But it’s still viewed as a tax and people don’t like to pay more taxes.”

While small towns are limited in stormwater funding, some money is available at the county level. Bladen County recently commissioned a stormwater study from LKC Engineering and the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency in six municipalities — Bladenboro, Clarkton, Dublin, Elizabethtown, Tarheel, and White Lake. The study found many communities sit on flatland in low-lying areas susceptible to flooding. LKC recommended stormwater mitigation projects for each municipality and avenues for funding the changes. Making the improvements outlined in the study, however, is now the burden of the towns.

“It’s time to stop looking and evaluating,” Duffy said. “It’s time to start acting and fixing. Let’s give the money to the physical infrastructure and make things happen.”

The study said Elizabethtown needs to upgrade storm drainage, build larger culverts and stabilize erosion control. Duffy identified several projects he hopes the town will undertake, chief among them flooding issues on King Street.

“Whenever we get more than an inch of rain, people’s crawl spaces and backyards in that part of town are destined to flood,” he said. 

The solution would be increasing the neighborhood’s inlet capacity, which allows more water to flow into pipes after a storm. An inlet is a grate or cutout in the sidewalk that allows stormwater to flow into storm drains. Elizabethtown has applied for funding for the King Street project through the North Carolina Division of Water Infrastructure. 

“Until there is a funding mechanism from the federal and state government that is accessible to rural communities,” Duffy said, “there really is no other good answer because right now there are zero dollars.”

Elizabethtown recently replaced stormwater pipes on King Street, an area prone to flooding. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)