By Sarah Nagem
LAURINBURG, N.C. – Three years after Hurricane Florence flooded this Scotland County town, the North Fire Station is a mess.
Mud from the water that spilled out of nearby Leith Creek in September 2018 still coats Dell computer towers in the station’s training room. Walls are cracked, and water lines are visible. Somehow, the 8-foot fence behind the station is still standing after flood waters rose nearly to the top.
Laurinburg now wants to build a new fire station away from the flood zone, but the rising cost of building materials is yet another barrier to a project that has already faced delays.
Initially, a new five-bay facility with a training room and living quarters was expected to cost $1.55 million, according to Town Manager Charles Nichols. The price has since ballooned to $2.4 million.
“Construction costs just went crazy in 2020 with COVID,” Mayor Jim Willis said. “Now all of a sudden we don’t have enough money.”
The town, home to about 15,000 people, was awarded a $1.25 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation in 2019 for the project.
Town leaders asked the state for up to $920,000 to make up the shortfall, but the Republican-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have not yet reached a state budget compromise.
The town also requested more disaster relief funds from Golden LEAF, a nonprofit that doles out money for economic development initiatives across the state, but the request has not been approved.
Laurinburg’s struggle to rebuild its fire station – one of only two in town – represents the frustrations often associated with getting government disaster relief funds. It also highlights how the coronavirus pandemic has further complicated ongoing recovery efforts in southeastern North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence two year later.
The town “just received our final payment from Hurricane Matthew projects” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Nichols said in an email.
Willis said he blames FEMA for the fire station delays, although the town was set to get only a fraction of the project’s cost from the agency.
FEMA gave the town just shy of $101,000 for the station, or 75% of the promised amount, according to Nichols.
“Them dangling $130,000 has kept us from having a $1.5 million fire station,” Willis said.
An environmental study on the proposed new site for the station on U.S. 501 didn’t meet FEMA’s requirements, so another months-long study had to be completed, according to the mayor.
“Unfortunately, this process was much more lengthy and cumbersome than expected,” Nichols wrote in a letter to state Sen. Tom McInnis, who represents Scotland County.
A FEMA spokesperson said the project “is currently in the Environmental and Historic Preservation study phase.”
‘Adding insult to injury’
In Laurinburg, the North Fire Station sits on “literally the other side of the tracks,” Willis said.
A rail line runs across Main Street, separating the quaint downtown area of shops and restaurants from the economically distressed north side of town.
Some residents, many of them Black, say the neighborhood has not seen improvements and amenities that other parts of the county have enjoyed. They are pushing for the former elementary school building named for African American educator I. Ellis Johnson to become a community resource center.
“This side of town has always been neglected,” resident Willie Hill said over the summer, the Border Belt Independent previously reported. “It’s disheartening.”
The closure of the fire station is “adding insult to injury,” Willis said.
Until a new station is built, the department’s five firefighters and roughly 30 volunteers are working out of the station in south Laurinburg two miles away.
In his letter to McInnis, Nichols said the fire department’s response time to the northern part of town “has almost doubled” since Hurricane Florence.
“(But) most importantly there is an increased threat to the safety of the public and property as a result,” he wrote. “Another negative impact is the loss of administration and training spaces that were housed at the North Fire Station that are no longer available.”
Town leaders had hoped to build a new station near the existing facility, Willis said, but nothing worked out.
The proposed site of the new station is on a piece of land owned by the Scotland County Economic Development Corporation. Willis said the town likely won’t have to pay for the property, which is next to what he hopes will become an industrial park.
The Laurinburg Fire Department responded to about 300 calls in a 24-hour period when the water rose during Hurricane Florence, said Lt. Richard Bobbitt.
It wasn’t until things settled down a bit that firefighters realized the extent of the damage to the North station.
Floodwaters pushed large logs through the door of one of the bays, Bobbitt said. A child carrying a leaf blower asked if it belonged to the station. It did, and it had floated down the street.
Inside, orange chairs were floating through the building.
“We came in with a garden hose and just washed everything,” Bobbitt said.
The future is unclear for the North Fire Station, which opened in 1980. But what is clear is the town’s need for a new station, the mayor said.
“It’s one of the very basic things that municipalities do – protect and serve,” Willis said.
With $2.3 million, the town says it could build a five-bay station. A smaller option would cost about $1.7 million, but Nichols said it would need to be expanded at some point.
The town’s budget doesn’t have much wiggle room, Willis said, and elected leaders don’t want to raise the property tax rate.
So the wait for a new station continues.