Kevin Cagle never thought it would happen to him. The third-generation co-owner of Greenthumb Nursery—located in central North Carolina, about halfway between Raleigh and Charlotte—didn’t expect hurricane damage to seep 200 miles beyond the coast, flooding an entire field of trees and shrubs at his family’s wholesale nursery.
But when Hurricane Florence pummeled the state in September 2018, dumping record rainfalls that closed hundreds of roads and left hundreds of thousands without power, Cagle barely had a chance to assess the damage at his nursery before Tropical Storm Michael struck in October. The one-two-punch created a “perfect storm” that Greenthumb was simply not prepared for.
“We’re in the center of the state, so generally by the time a storm gets to us, it’s a tropical storm and the winds have already died down,” says Cagle, who co-owns the 150-acre family nursery with his brother, Robby. “We generally don’t have to deal with it here, so it really caught us off-guard. Never once did I imagine that we would have a storm like that.”
Here’s how Greenthumb responded when the unexpected happened, and how the nursery continues to recover from the damage.
Before the storm
Anytime a serious storm develops during hurricane season, the team at Greenthumb takes a few basic precautions to prepare for potentially extreme weather conditions.
The first step is laying down tall container-grown trees and shrubs. “If we don’t, and the trees get blown down, then the trunks can get crisscrossed or rub against each other and either break or cause damage,” Cagle says. “By laying them down, we can dictate where the trees fall, so we don’t get broken limbs or scar the trunks.”
The nursery team also secures any loose objects around the farm, like empty containers, by tying down fabric over items to prevent them from blowing away. Vehicles and larger equipment are moved out from underneath sheds into the open, away from trees and other structures that could fall on them.
The few open cold frames around the farm only get plastic covering in the winter, so during hurricane season, the metal bows remain exposed, allowing wind to blow through them freely.
On the field-grown side of the operation, though, Cagle says, “there’s really nothing we can do preventatively,” except hope that the root systems are strong enough to withstand the gale, while keeping a close eye on the weather forecast.
“Once they start calling for a chance of storms, we naturally start watching for them,” he says. “But none of us were ready for what we got. I guess we were being a little bit naïve.”
On the morning of Sept. 14, Hurricane Florence made landfall on the East Coast of North Carolina, about 200 miles from Greenthumb. Although it weakened into a tropical storm by the end of the day, Florence poured record-breaking rain across the state, with some areas reporting as much as 34 inches by Sept. 16.
Kevin’s brother Robby watched the floodwaters rising at Greenthumb Nursery from his house, which is located on the property, just outside the flood line. The family started notifying Greenthumb’s 20 employees not to bother coming in for a couple days, as more than 1,600 roads across the state closed down due to excessive flooding.
“We were shocked. We’d never seen that amount of water,” Cagle says. “The floodwaters were coming in from a side creek into a main river right beside us, and it built a natural dam and backed up the water to where it flooded an entire field. It was like 30 acres of field, gone.”
The field contained hollies, deciduous magnolias, dogwoods, red maples, and pines of various ages. The youngest trees had just been planted the previous fall and hadn’t developed roots strong enough to sustain the floodwaters.
“The current just laid them all down to the ground,” Cagle says. “When you tried to stand them up, you could step right beside the root system and [you’d sink] all the way to your shin; there was just that much moisture in the ground.”
Other trees in the field were nearly a decade old. Although the more established crops stood strong, the threat of lasting damage rendered the entire field a loss.
“Maybe some things would have made it, but you won’t know until it’s put under stress, and you can’t sell it as a healthy plant without knowing,” Cagle says. “So, we had to treat everything as though it was not sellable material. It was a sick feeling.”
The second surge
The Cagles had just begun to assess the damage at Greenthumb when Tropical Storm Michael struck three weeks later, blasting wind gusts as high as 74 mph in some areas. “The second [storm] was what got us because the ground was already saturated, and that’s when we had a lot of trees fall on greenhouses,” Cagle says. “It was like the perfect storm because one had the rain, the other one had the wind. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Large pines crashed down onto four cold-frame structures, several trailers, and the pumphouse. While most of these structures were easily repaired, two of the cold frames were completely destroyed, Cagle says.
“The trees went straight through them; there was no salvaging those.” Cagle ultimately decided to repurpose that space into staging areas instead of rebuilding.
Cleaning up the flooded field, however, took much longer. “We had to go out with equipment and either dig up or push up trees [that weren’t already laid over], and pile them all up to let them dry out, to get ready to burn,” Cagle says. “We had at least six months’ worth of cleaning before we could even start thinking about tilling the ground, and then you’ve got another six months to get everything replanted.”
Rather than replanting the same varieties in that field, knowing that flooding could potentially happen, they replanted that field with trees that will take more moisture, such as willows and river birches.
In the meantime, Greenthumb tried to maintain regular operations by selling other plant material out of the fields that survived the storms. Although customers were willing to substitute other varieties or smaller calipers to replace the trees lost to flooding, they pulled replacements from younger plant material—which inflicted long-term implications on Greenthumb’s supply.
“They still got the trees they needed, but we still definitely felt it, because if we’re selling smaller trees that we wouldn’t normally plan on selling, then that’s hurting the crop that we would have for the next two or three years,” Cagle says. “And then, of course, you’re selling them at a lesser price because they’re smaller trees.”
Cagle estimates that the flooded acreage affected about 20% of Greenthumb’s field-grown revenue, setting back production several years. “I wouldn’t bat an eye saying that you’re looking at about $75,000 a year over the next four or five years,” he says. “It’s going to wind up affecting [our sales by] a few hundred thousand.”
Recovering from the damage
Several days after the storm, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler began surveying the damage from a helicopter. Right away, he says, “I knew that our nurserymen were going to need financial help quickly, or we could be looking at hundreds of farms being lost in our state.”
Although total damage is difficult to estimate, since some losses were likely not reported, Troxler estimates that Florence’s impact on the state’s nursery and sod industry exceeded $22.66 million, based on claims submitted through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) disaster program. By the time Michael followed Florence, “we had farmers who qualified for assistance in 76 of the state’s 100 counties,” Troxler says.
The state legislature unanimously approved the Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Act, which earmarked nearly $240 million in relief funds to support agricultural operations impacted by the two storms. The NCDA&CS administered $8.75 million to nurseries and sod producers, specifically, according to Troxler.
“This relief program was crucial to the nursery industry,” he says. “It kept farmers afloat and allowed them to stay in business.”
Cagle agrees that the state funding was vital to Greenthumb’s recovery. “We could not have planted back what we did, as quickly as we did, if we didn’t get the assistance that we got,” he says. Still, he estimates that it will take another two or three years before Greenthumb’s availability is “back to normal.”
While reflecting on the impact of Florence and Michael, Cagle is quick to consider other nurseries near the coast that suffered even more damage. He encourages his industry peers to reach out to the North Carolina Nursery and Landscape Association, where he serves on the board, whether they want to request help or volunteer to help others recover from disasters.
“Never take anything for granted,” he says. “We just assumed it would never happen to us, but we will definitely watch storms more carefully in the future and just remember what could happen, because it could always be worse.”