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'Threat becomes reality': Florence begins days of rain, wind

WILMINGTON, N.C.

The big slosh has begun, and the consequences could be disastrous.

Hurricane Florence’s leading edge battered the Carolina coast Thursday, bending trees and shooting frothy sea water over streets on the Outer Banks as the hulking storm closed in with 90 mph winds for a drenching siege that could last all weekend. Tens of thousands were without power.

Winds and rain were arriving later in South Carolina, and a few people were still walking on the sand at Myrtle Beach while North Carolina was getting pounded. Heavy rainfall began after dark.

Forecasters said conditions will only get more lethal as the storm smashes ashore early today near the North Carolina-South Carolina border and crawls slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast with as much as 11 feet of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.

Florence’s winds weakened as it drew closer to land, dropping from a peak of 140 mph earlier in the week, and the hurricane was downgraded from a terrifying Category 4 to a 1.

But North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned: “Don’t relax, don’t get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality.”

More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm approached, and more than 12,000 were in shelters. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.

Forecasters said that given the storm’s size and sluggish track, it could cause widespread damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.

“It truly is really about the whole size of this storm,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. “The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact—and we have that.”

The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as sluggish and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.

As Florence drew near, President Donald Trump tweeted that FEMA and first responders are “supplied and ready.”

Schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia, airlines canceled more than 1,500 flights, and coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely emptied out.

Around midday, Spanish moss blew sideways in the trees as the winds increased in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City. Some of the few people still left in Nags Head on the Outer Banks took photos of angry waves topped with white froth.

Wilmington resident Julie Terrell was plenty concerned after walking to breakfast past a row of shops fortified with boards, sandbags and hurricane shutters.

”On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m probably a 7” in terms of worry, she said. “Because it’s Mother Nature. You can’t predict.”

Forecasters’ European climate model is predicting 2 trillion to 11 trillion gallons of rain will fall on North Carolina over the next week, according to meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com. That’s enough water to fill the Empire State Building nearly 40,000 times.

More than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate over the past few days, and the homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.

Homeless after losing her job at Walmart three months ago, Brittany Jones, 25, went to a storm shelter at a high school near Raleigh. She said a hurricane has a way of bringing everyone to the same level.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how many generators you have if you can’t get gas,” she said. “Whether you have a house or not, when the storm comes it will bring everyone together. A storm can come and wipe your house out overnight.”

Duke Energy Co. said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks. Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm’s aftermath, it said.

As of 11 p.m., Florence was centered about 85 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, its forward movement slowed to 5 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles.

A buoy off the North Carolina coast recorded waves nearly 30 feet high as Florence churned toward shore.

Scientists said it is too soon to say what role, if any, climate change played in the storm. But previous research has shown that the strongest hurricanes are getting wetter, more intense and intensifying faster because of human-caused climate change.

Florence’s weakening as it neared the coast created tension between some who left home and authorities who worried that the storm could still be deadly.

Frustrated after evacuating his beach home for a storm that was later downgraded, retired nurse Frederick Fisher grumbled in the lobby of a Wilmington hotel several miles inland.

“Against my better judgment, due to emotionalism, I evacuated,” said Fisher, 74. “I’ve got four cats inside the house. If I can’t get back in a week, after a while they might turn on each other or trash the place.”

Authorities pushed back against any suggestion the storm’s threat was exaggerated.

The police chief of a barrier island in Florence’s bulls’-eye said he was asking for next-of-kin contact information from the few residents who refused to leave.

“I’m not going to put our personnel in harm’s way, especially for people that we’ve already told to evacuate,” Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said.


Government
top story
Janesville's economic opportunity zones spark excitement, questions

JANESVILLE

The term “economic opportunity zone” might not be part of local lingo, but it’s one reason why developers have plans to build an apartment complex in downtown Janesville.

Officials say it’s a tool that encourages long-term investment in distressed neighborhoods that could use the help.

But the exact benefits to investors and developers—and some of the specific ways the program works—are still unclear to many.

The economic opportunity zone program was created via the massive tax reform bill passed in December 2017. Governors could nominate economically distressed census tracts for zone designations before getting approval from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Rock County received five such designations. Janesville has a downtown zone and two adjacent zones covering most of the south side. Portions extend into the towns of Rock and La Prairie.

Beloit’s downtown and an industrial area northwest of it are the county’s two remaining zones.

The Corner Block on Parker housing development, which was announced last month but has yet to be officially proposed, is the first—and so far only—new project to come to any of the county’s five zones, Beloit and Janesville officials say.

Janesville Economic Development Director Gale Price said the city is still trying to learn more about the program and how to apply it. But the overall idea involves promoting long-term investment where it’s needed by allowing developers to defer taxes on invested money.

The key qualifier for being “long term” is 10 years. Investors get more return the longer they hold on to properties because the growth is not subject to federal taxes, Price said.

As an example, an investment valued at $1 million after 10 years would subsequently pay taxes on that $1 million—even if the property value later doubled, Price said.

It’s good for people who are anticipating capital gains taxes because they can avoid those taxes by reinvesting, he said.

Slingshot Architecture Principal Dan Drendel, who is involved in the Corner Block on Parker project, said being in an economic opportunity zone also shows Janesville cares about revitalization. That makes it an attractive long-term option for investment, he said.

Another member of the project’s development team, Joy Hannemann of Lancaster Investments, wrote in an email to The Gazette that some program regulations have not yet been released. But she pointed to the tax deferral for developers as the main benefit.

Investing in a zone could spark “urban vibrancy,” which can help recruit and retain young, talented employees, Hannemann wrote.

Dan Cunningham, vice president of Forward Janesville, said the program could help the city “play with the big boys.” It also could lead to more outside investment.

“It feels real. There’s really things happening now as opposed to, ‘We should maybe do this thing,’” Cunningham said. “We’re starting to roll downhill.”

But Cunningham was still hazy on the final details, as were several other people contacted by The Gazette at the local and state levels. Five months after Rock County received its five zone designations, it’s still too early to determine their impact.

Price said figuring that out will be essential to promoting investment and job creation opportunities within the zones.

“I think everyone’s still trying to figure out what it’s really going to mean in the end. That’s been one of the struggles we’ve all had here,” Price said.

“When we’re talking to people, we got to be able to talk to them about how this can benefit them and what this means for them in the long term as we’re trying to promote development in the community.”


Angela Major 

Craig’s Lily Stockheimer (13), left, reaches to block a spike from Verona’s Megan Touchett (11), right, on Thursday, September 13, 2018, at Craig High School in Janesville.


Obituaries and death notices for Sept. 14, 2018

Donald W. Branz

Franklin J. Calkins

George H. Frank Jr.

Carole J. Johnson

Jon K. Schleisner

Harvey L. Schlieske

June E. Schulz


Education
Delavan-Darien preliminary enrollment down but 'better than expected'

DELAVAN

Preliminary enrollment for the 2018-19 school year in the Delavan-Darien School District is down but “better than expected,” officials say.

The district won’t submit the year’s exact enrollment to the state until Sept. 21. On Thursday, interim Superintendent Jill Sorbie said preliminary enrollment is about 1,962, a 6.9 percent drop from the district’s 2017-18 year-end enrollment.

A total of 154 students applied to enroll out of the district in the spring, which officials said could amount to more than $900,000 in losses. Based on the preliminary numbers, Sorbie said it is likely that fewer students enrolled out of the district than anticipated, though it’s too early to know the exact numbers.

Last year, the district reported an enrollment of 2,107 students. Officials are predicting the incoming 4K class to have about 59 fewer students than the Class of 2018 that graduated in the spring.

All told, preliminary numbers show the district is down about 80 students this year. Sorbie said that means some students who applied to enroll out of the district decided to stay.

“We appreciate the parents that are sticking it out and realizing we’re working to turn it around,” Sorbie said.

Business Administrator Anthony Klein said the district is hopeful given the preliminary numbers but said the decrease is “still pretty rough” and continues to affect the district’s finances.

And despite the reduction in students, Sorbie said class sizes have increased as anticipated.

About half the classes in first through fourth grades are expected to have between 26 and 28 students, and she said others are hovering in the low 20s. In the middle school and high school, classes will have around 30 students, with some growing to 36.

The district is seeking a four-year, $2.8 million nonrecurring referendum in November. Sorbie said curtailing surging class sizes is the main reason why.

“There’s lots of struggles on our teacher’s parts with the class sizes being larger,” Sorbie said.

Since a previous $3.5 million operational referendum failed in April, the district has faced mounting financial struggles. School board members voted to close Darien Elementary School, lay off 39 teachers and appoint new administrators in the vote’s aftermath.

Sorbie and Klein have attempted to steer the district in a new direction. Both have held more community meetings and retooled the board’s monthly meeting schedule in hopes of fostering community support and reducing the number of open enrollment applications.


Jill Sorbie


Anthony Klein