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By Erin Smith

Residents of the Kelly community gathered at Centerville Baptist Church on Tuesday night for a public hearing regarding the White Oak Dike. The dike was breached during Hurricane Florence and led to the flooding of the community. 

Bladen County Commissioner Chairman Charles Ray Peterson opened the meeting and told the audience that the information gathered at the meeting will be documented and utilized to develop a plan to repair the dike. 

Michael Hall, with the US Army Corps of Engineers, addressed the audience and gave an overview of the history of the Corps of Engineers’ involvement with the dike. He stated the upper section of White Oak Dike was constructed in 1911 and extended across the Frenches Creek Dam. A second section of the White Oak Dike was constructed in 1934 by the Works Progress Administration and a flood then occurred along the Cape Fear River in 1945 causing 11 breaches in the White Oak Dike at that time. Those breaches were repaired by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1946 under Section 5 of the Flood Control Act. 

According to the Corps of Engineers records, in 1960 the White Oak Dike was improved and repairs were made and completed by 1962. Hall said the job of the Corps of Engineers is to construct the project and to perform periodic inspections. He noted that in 2001, the Lyon Swamp Drainage and Levee District, who was responsible for the actual maintenance of the dike, was notified there were significant deficiencies found and it was being removed from the Rehabilitation and Inspection Program.

Hall listed the deficiencies as including trees and vegetation growing on the dike, erosion issues, holes being made in the dike for logging access and vehicles being driven over the dike.

Numerous residents stated they were never told the White Oak Dike was deficient nor that it was being removed from the Corps of Engineers’ inspection program in 2001. 

Another inspection was conducted in April 2010 as part of a nationwide effort to document active and inactive levees. Hall said again “significant deficiencies” were found with the White Oak Dike. 

He also noted that Hurricane Florence led to new record flooding in the Kelly area with flood waters reaching 30.68 feet. The 1945 flood which prompted strengthening the dike measured 29.80 feet and flooding created by Hurricane Matthew measured 28.58 feet. 

Anne Gaddis addressed those present and stated her father helped the Corps of Engineers to construct the White Oak Dike.

“If we don’t get the dike fixed, Kelly will be a ghost town,” said Gaddis. 

Kelly resident Sylvia Davis recounted her harrowing experience. Davis explained that she along with her family had to be airlifted out of Kelly. 

“I never expected to flood. I didn’t think I ever would. I did in Florence,” said Davis.

She said she and her family stayed in emergency shelters for about a week before they were able to return to Kelly. Davis said she saw how deep the flood waters had gotten and saw the devastation to not only her own home but the community as well. 

Davis recounted repairing her home and how all of the family’s belongings were either damaged or destroyed in the flooding. 

“When I think of the FEMA money that has been spent in this community, that could have gone a long way towards fixing that dike,” said Davis. 

Greg Williams, with the US Army Corps of Engineers, attempted to answer audience questions regarding the White Oak Dike and its condition. He explained the flooding in Hurricane Florence reached the highest levels of any flood on record. 

“The dike was over-topped. That doesn’t have anything to do with the condition of the dike,” said Williams. 

 Sherry Burke inquired of Williams how the Corps of Engineers arrived at the prediction of the depth the flood waters would potentially reach in Kelly. Williams stated the Corps of Engineers did not issue that information during the storm. 

Kelly Fire Chief Brandon Norris stated that information was given to the fire department. Norris explained the information was being related from an engineer from New Jersey who developed a computer program to model the flooding. Norris stated according to the engineer, Hurricane Florence was the first time the software had been utilized. 

“He showed up with a map and said, ‘The dike will breach here, here and here and the water will go to this level. He missed (the breach) by 80 feet and the water level was within 6 inches (of his prediction),’” said Norris. 

There were also questions regarding why the river is staying high now. According to Williams, the Jordan Lake Reservoir is dumping into the Cape Fear River due to high water in Jordan Lake.  

Williams also addressed rumors that the Cape Fear River was flooding during Hurricane Florence due to the Corps of Engineers releasing water at Jordan Lake Dam during the storm. 

“All of our Corps projects were shut down (during Hurricane Florence),” said Williams. 

John Russ also spoke and explained the Corps of Engineers is attempting to turn the maintenance of the Lock and Dam system over to another entity. He also stated that the Corps of Engineers is spending millions of dollars “dumping rock” in the river to create fish ladders for Shad to swim upriver to spawn. 

Commissioner Ophelia Munn-Goins addressed the residents as well.

“I understand,” said Munn-Goins. 

She explained she had received damages to her own home during the storm so she could relate to the plight of the residents of Kelly. Munn-Goins strongly encouraged the residents to contact their legislators, call the county commissioners and to speak to their federal representatives about making funding available to repair the dike. 

Munn-Goins explained that following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans the Governor of Louisiana lobbied US Congress for funding to repair the levee system in New Orleans that was damaged. As a result, several million dollars were earmarked strictly for New Orleans to make necessary repairs to the levee system. 

Commissioner Ray Britt also spoke and stated the White Oak Dike is an identity to the Kelly community.  

“The biggest thing I have found thus far is that somebody didn’t do a lot of homework in doing preparation on who owns what, who is supposed to do this, who is supposed to do that, I don’t care how far you dig, it is not clear,” said Britt. 

In response to questions about who serves on the advisory board for the White Oak Dike, he stated that the Commissioners select the individuals that serve on the Lyon Swamp Drain District and Levee board. Britt added that a request has been made for $30 million  to assist with repairs and the county is waiting to hear if they will receive the funds. 

There were also questions regarding the tax that was once collected for the dike and if it will be reinstated. Britt said he is, of the opinion, that the citizens shouldn’t have to pay a tax just for the dike.  Britt said instead the funds should come from other avenues.

He also pointed out that once the dike is repaired, there are not enough citizens to pay the special tax to generate enough funds to maintain the dike properly.