Fair Bluff, N.C. >>>

A cross-stitch map of North Carolina hangs in the Fair Bluff Depot Museum, showing the state’s major destinations — and also Fair Bluff, a town of 951 people on the South Carolina border.

A shrinking town along the Lumber River, Fair Bluff was still struggling with the last decade’s loss of textile jobs and tobacco-farming income before Hurricane Matthew flooded its streets last October.


The empty showroom of Fair Bluff Ford stands at the north end of town. The dealership’s stock of cars and trucks was submerged by the rising waters of the Lumber River in the days after Hurricane Matthew hit Fair Bluff. The business carried no flood insurance. A GoFundMe fundraiser for Fair Bluff Ford raised just $450.



Main Street in Fair Bluff is nearly vacant. Elvington’s Drugs, right, has been boarded up since last year’s flooding. The town florist, center, and second hand store, left, went out of business before Hurricane Matthew’s arrival. Main Street doubles as US-76, a two-lane highway connecting northern South Carolina to the North Carolina beaches. This means a steady flow of cars passing through town. The trick, local business owners told me, is giving them a reason to stop.


“I've been here 70 years. I've seen a boat float on Main Street at least three times,” said Randy Britt, owner of B H Small Co. Hardware.
“Climate's not like it used to be around here,” he said, “I don't care what anybody tells you, things have changed.” 

A lifelong resident, and former mayor and city council member, Britt said some light flooding was commonplace in Fair Bluff, but not the multiple feet of water brought on by Matthew. 

“I assumed we were about to get an inch or two on the floor,” he said. “I had no earthly idea that the storm would do what it did.” 


“I'm 70 years old,” said Britt. “I’m not going to spend a whole lot of money. I could clean up the front of this right here and I could open back up. I could put some hardware in, I'd probably have a decent business—I'd have a great business.” 

“But, like I said, I'm 70 years old, I’d like to do some few things before I pass on.“


New gas cans sit in front of empty shelves inside B H Small Co. Hardware. Randy Britt has begun selling chainsaws and small motor parts out of the back room of his flooded shop.


Photographer Jody Johnson stands in what's left of his Main Street home in September. 

Of the 111 Fair Bluff residences damaged by Matthew, 71 were deemed eligible for FEMA assistance.  Johnson and his estranged wife put their house on the list for a FEMA buyout after the storm. Under that arrangement, the government would buy the property from Johnson and his wife for its pre-flood value, then bulldoze the house. The property would then be given to the city of Fair Bluff for use as green space. 

Johnson and his wife are currently trying to change their application to have their house remain intact and be elevated above the flood level.


After eleven months, Johnson's house still sits in disrepair. He stays at a family farm on the outskirts of town.

"We got $72,000 in insurance money," he said. "We owed $92,000 on our mortgage. So we're 20 short. We're one of, like, three people I've talked to in town who even had flood insurance. It wiped a lot of people out."


The flood and its destruction come after the one-two punch of the tobacco and textile industries crumbling in the 1990's.

"Sadly, nothing's happening here," said Johnson. "The town was dying. The hurricane just sped us up by 10 or 15 years."  

Johnson said the town leadership had been old and set in its ways for too long to allow it to thrive.

"You've got town council that's just older people that wouldn't let anybody else in the town do much or have any control," he said. "They're older, they've made money in town, they've got homes in other places, their kids have no interest in town, and they don't want to turn it over to anybody. That's what's gone on for long enough that now it's like you can't go back." 


The Lumber River, serpentine with tea-colored, tannic water, is an ever-present part of Fair Bluff life. Downriver from the town's river walk, canoes and kayaks pull in from launch points upstream in Lumber River State Park.


Last year's Halloween decorations still sit on the door to Fair Bluff's vacant visitor's center. Through the open door, the stench of mold is evident from the street.

The town received a $1.8 million grant to refurbish its municipal buildings in June. 


A FEMA flyer sits on an abandoned display case in the visitors center along with photo albums depicting town life.

The old Umbro sports apparel factory sits on US-76 just north of town. Once part of the region’s rich textile industry, the plant closed in the late 90's after Umbro ceased U.S. manufacturing in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement. 
In the weeks after Hurricane Matthew, the building housed a distribution center for food and cleaning supplies.

Johnny's Drive-in on a Saturday afternoon. The sandwich shop is one of the few businesses on Main Street to reopen since the flood.

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