Wilmington Bounces Back!
By Carol Timblin
After sending most of the staff home on Sept. 13, 2018, Baggett family members remained at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort waiting for Hurricane Florence to pass over Wrightsville Beach. Labeled a Category 4 storm, Florence was expected to deliver high winds and water to the area, but not the ensuing flood that cut off the city and the beaches for several weeks. To everyone’s surprise, the hurricane had slowed to a Category 1 storm by the time it slammed into Wrightsville Beach shortly after 6 a.m. on Sept. 14, packing sustained winds of around 90 miles per hour.
Though the concrete-and-steel walls of the exterior buildings of the 150-room Blockade Runner withstood the hurricane, the storm ripped off the roof of the balcony building and did extensive damage to the tower building. Water damage ruined the sheet rock and plaster walls inside the buildings, and 75 to 100 percent of the materials had to be replaced. Workers spent months repairing damages (totaling approximately $10 million), and most of the tower rooms were ready for guests on Valentine’s Day weekend. The balcony rooms were completed at the end of May.
Renovations and restorations to the guest rooms featuring different themes on each floor — as well as the lobby, dining room, meeting rooms and public areas (including murals) — are absolutely stunning! Thanks to past nourishment programs, the beach at the Blockade Runner held its own.
“Aside from Hurricane Hazel in 1954, Hurricane Florence is the largest storm Wrightsville Beach has had as far as property destruction is concerned,” says Bill Baggett, co-owner of the Blockade Runner.
The repair and restoration of the resort, which took six months, proved to be the ideal time to give the majority of the 55-year-old, AAA Three Diamond property a brand new look. It’s located on the site of the old Ocean Terrace Hotel, which was hit by Hurricane Hazel and eventually lost to fire. The Blockade Runner opened in 1964, and the Baggett family purchased it in 1971. The resort is a favorite vacation spot for Carolina families, as well as a popular local venue for holidays, reunions, weddings and more. Its oceanfront dining room is a popular place to dine at in Wrightsville Beach, especially for Sunday brunches and holiday buffets. The renovation of the restaurant and bar was also an opportunity for the chef to develop a new menu but keep guest favorites.
“Many repairs will be unnoticeable to our guests,” adds Mary Baggett, co-owner of the resort. “The majority of damages were related to roofing, walls, insulation and utilities inside the walls.”
Shell Island Resort, an oceanfront condominium property at Wrightsville Beach, was closed for a time following the hurricane, but reopened March 1. Units at the AAA Three Diamond inn did not require major repairs. However, the lobby, restaurants and meeting rooms were refurbished.
The iconic Oceanic restaurant experienced heavy water damage from the hurricane and officially reopened on April 22. The restaurant is located at Crystal Pier, next to the long-gone Lumina Pavilion, a popular entertainment center (1905-1940).
“The current 475-foot-long wooden pier survived the storm, but we experienced water damage and flooding from the storm, making it necessary for us to take the building down to the studs,” says Marianne Stokes, marketing manager for LM Restaurants. “Prior to the storm we removed all the historic photos and memorabilia from the walls. Amber Moshakos, president of LM Restaurants (owner), made the decision to take the time during the restoration to bring the landmark restaurant up to date and make the views better so guests would have the best experience possible. We’re happy to be serving guests again.”
The storm also damaged some restaurants at Wrightsville Beach. South Beach Grill was gutted and completely rebuilt because of water damage and black mold. Located in a former bank building, the popular restaurant reopened for business in the early spring. Damage to the interior of the Oceanic Restaurant was extensive, and the iconic seafood landmark reopened in late April after completing repairs.
AAA Four Diamond Inn Impacted
Florence hit Wilmington shortly after ravaging Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14. Chuck Pennington, owner of The Verandas bed and breakfast located in the Historic District, had sought shelter in his basement apartment the night of the storm. The fact that the house had survived every major storm during its 159-year history gave him hope that it would not be severely affected by Florence. Little did he know that a huge elm tree would be uprooted by the storm, causing enormous damage to the house and neighbors, including falling onto a brick chimney that ran from the downstairs dining room through an upstairs bedroom. The impact of the tree caused the chimney to fall apart in both rooms, leaving a huge hole in the roof. For the next 10 days, rain poured into the house. Walls, floors, draperies, carpets and furniture were severely damaged and in many cases ruined.
Pennington wasn’t sure where to begin the clean-up. However, he knew he wanted to continue the business he’d built over the past two decades and serve the faithful guests who’ve stayed at his AAA Four Diamond inn. In addition to working to recover his own business, he helped the community by holding a fundraiser for Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, a local charity, a month after the storm. Donors contributed between $10,000 and $12,000.
“Lots of people weren’t as lucky as I was,” he says. “My heart was warmed by the generosity of the kind folks who attended. Many were out of their homes at that time as well. The fundraiser was something I could do to help them.”
Over the next nine months Pennington worked closely with contractors and designers salvaging or replacing the inn’s floors, walls, windows, doors, furniture, carpets and window treatments. Furniture that could be salvaged was repaired or put into storage. And in spite of all the cost-savings measures he took, repairs and renovations totaled about $500,000.
“The furniture, paint colors, fabrics are unbelievable,” notes Pennington. “All of the tradespeople are masters of their work, and the pride they show when they’re working here is evident in the fine quality of their crafts.”
Pennington welcomed guests for the first time since Hurricane Florence hit in mid-June.
“I’m grateful to everyone who supported me and helped me get through this,” he says. “The Verandas bed and breakfast inn has always been a wonderful, beautiful house. And now that renovations are complete, it’s once again a wonderful, beautiful house.”
Hurricane Florence also took a toll on Wilmington attractions, but most of them made a quick rebound. The Donald Ross-designed Municipal Golf Course opened three weeks after the storm. Airlie Gardens was closed for 41 days for the removal of tree and shrub debris. But thanks to the tireless efforts of staff and volunteers, the annual holiday light show took place on schedule starting the day after Thanksgiving. The USS North Carolina battleship opened for tours two weeks after the storm, but the visitor center housing the ticket office, gift shop, theater and canteen was affected by the storm and did not open until Memorial Day weekend.
The Cotton Exchange, Chandler’s Wharf, Wilmington Railroad Museum and many other downtown attractions recovered quickly enough to welcome visitors, as did the 1.7-mile Riverfront Walk, which occupies space once covered by massive naval stores and railroad lines. Local historians and authors Beverly Tetterton and Dan Camacho not only provide an excellent history of the city through their “Riverfront Then and Now” walking tour, but Hurricane Florence is now an important part of their narrative.
The majority of restaurants and bars in downtown Wilmington were not adversely affected by the storm. Manna Ave. 123, Wilmington’s only AAA Four Diamond restaurant, and Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, owned by celebrity chef Vivian Howard and her husband Ben Knight, escaped damage. Both are key to Wilmington’s vibrant restaurant scene, which also includes Savorez, Fork N Cork, Crust Kitchen and Cocktails, The Basics and others. The city’s growing number of micro-breweries are also popular.
Storm debris along the Cape Fear River and the Intracoastal Waterway had to be cleared after the hurricane, but marinas and businesses, such as Wilmington Water Tours and Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, were fully operational by early April. The fishing pier at Carolina Beach is open for fishing, but area businesses and attractions, including Carolina Beach State Park and Kure Beach, have been open for some time. Advanced preparation for the storm helped the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher recover quickly.
Wilmington is about 30 feet above sea level, and the city and nearby beaches were inundated by two feet of rain after Florence hit. According to the state of North Carolina, estimated storm damages totaled $24 billion; over 700,000 homes lost power; an estimated 74,563 structures were flooded; 5,214 people were rescued from flooding; and 140,000 North Carolinians registered for disaster assistance. In neighboring South Carolina, damages totaled $607 million; 11,386 homes were damaged; 11 dams breached or failed; and 455,000 people were evacuated, according to South Carolina Emergency Management. On the positive side, Hurricane Florence brought out the best in people. Area residents rolled up their sleeves and helped each other, and workmen and volunteers from all over the county also came to the rescue.
“Storms are a fact of life in a coastal town,” says Connie Nelson, communications/public relations director of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Thanks to the Emergency Operations Center’s preparedness, response and mitigation programs, New Hanover County is better prepared for hurricanes. Countywide participation in a FEMA preparedness program in the late 1990s helped the tourism industry to recover from Florence — much quicker than anticipated.”
Indeed, Wilmington and the beaches of Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure have bounced back strong following Hurricane Florence. Hotels, restaurants, shops, attractions and tour operators are welcoming visitors with red carpet treatment.
Plan a Visit
A number of major events attract visitors during the summer and fall seasons — something to consider when planning a trip. Boogie in the Park Concert Series at Kure Beach runs through September. Fireworks light up the skies over Wilmington on July 4 and Carolina Beach on July 3. The East Coast Got Em On King Mackerel Classic also takes place in July.
August brings the Wahine Classic at Wrightsville Beach and the O’Neill Sweetwater Pro-Am/Surf Fest. These are followed by the Dragon Boat Regatta & Festival, Port City Ribfest: BBQ at the Beach, and the Wilmington Fall Wine & Beer Walk in September.
(Go Magazine July/August 2019)