Pitt-Greenville Airport’s new executive director said Hurricane Matthew changed the question about flooding from the Tar River from “will” to “when.”
“We know the Tar River will flood,” said Betty Stansbury, who has been on the job since June 1 after relocating from Indiana. “We can’t move the river, and we can’t move the airport ... so we have to minimize the risk associated with being next to a river that floods.”
The Pitt-Greenville Airport is back to normal operations after Hurricane Matthew and the resulting floods hit eastern North Carolina. The airport shut down operations on Oct. 9 and reopened its shorter runway to smaller planes on Wednesday. The facility resumed commercial airline flights on Friday, Stansbury said.
The south end of the airport’s main runway was covered by floodwaters for several days, and water flooded the parking lot and damaged some vehicles that had been left at the facility.
“When we closed that Sunday, there were about 75 cars parked at the airport,” Stansbury said. “We contacted as many people as we could and opened the gates so people wouldn’t have to pay to get out. We were down to about 33 cars when the river reached its highest level. A few of them did get some water damage, but most were parked where it was a little more elevated.”
Water entered most of the facility’s 24 hangars but did not get inside the airport’s terminal, Stansbury said.
“The damage was not as bad as it could have been,” she said. “Our estimates for damage to the hangars is about $350,000 right now.”
An engineer from the airport’s consulting group assessed the structural integrity of the runways before the airport reopened.
“The engineers inspected the runway, and there was no visual damage,” Stansbury said. “And they performed a load-bearing test to ensure that planes could land on it. In a few weeks, we will do additional testing to make sure there is no damage to the foundation.”
Crews also spent several days cleaning debris from the runways before any planes could land.
“That absolutely had to be done because any debris is hazardous to aircraft,” Stansbury said. “It cost $33,000 to have that done.”
Now that operations have been restored, Stansbury said airport officials can discuss what can be done to prepare for a major flood event in the future.
“Our first priority has been getting the airport up and running,” Stansbury said. “Now we’re going to have some discussions here with the Federal Aviation Administration to see what we can do to limit the amount of damage the next time the Tar River floods.”
Stansbury said one of the airport’s top priorities should be elevating the south end of the facility’s main runway to keep it above potential floodwaters. Stansbury said the runway could be elevated if funding can be secured for the project.
“The north end of the runway is at an elevation of 26 feet,” she said. “The south end is at 20 feet. The north end of the runway did not flood. We need to look at leveling the runway off, which is just a matter of obtaining the funds needed.”
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the District 1 representative from Wilson, said he will be seeking federal grant money for a potential runway elevation project.
“We have to keep that runway out of the water,” Butterfield, who recently helped the airport secure a $2.5 million grant to fund improvements and upgrades, said. “I am working on getting money from the FAA to do that.”
Stansbury said airport officials also may consider moving more of its operation into the second floor of the facility’s terminal. In 2011, the Pitt-Greenville Airport completed a $7.9 million expansion and renovation that added a second floor to the terminal where the passenger screening and holding areas are located.
“That renovation was done with Hurricane Floyd (in 1999) in mind,” Stansbury said. “After Hurricane Matthew, we had to move everything on the first floor up to the second floor in case the water entered the terminal. If the airport decides to do another expansion, we could consider moving operations to a second story to keep everything out of potential floodwaters.”
Keeping the airport’s hangars and parking lot away from flooding could prove more challenging, Stansbury said.
“You can’t elevate the hangars because you wouldn’t be able to get the planes into them,” she said. “I’m not sure what can be done for the hangars and the parking lot. I will have to discuss that with our engineers to determine what can realistically and reasonably be done.”
‘A valuable asset’
Some people have raised concerns about investing federal tax dollars into an airport damaged by two major flooding events in 17 years. Others have suggested consolidating air services with the airport in Kinston and developing that facility into a larger, regional airport.
“A lot of people will say move the airport to Kinston,” Stansbury said. “But we don’t want to go to Kinston and have everyone in Greenville have to go there for their air transportation needs.”
Stansbury said many areas west of Pitt County also rely on Pitt-Greenville Airport for air transportation services.
“We are the closest airport for these communities,” she said. “They need us here as well.”
Stansbury said the Pitt-Greenville Airport also plays an important role in Pitt County’s economy.
“The airport makes a significant economic contribution to this community,” she said.
During the June 6 meeting of the Greenville City Council, Pitt-Greenville Airport Authority Chairman John Banks presented the results of a study conducted by the state on the economic impact of airports on local economies. According to the study, airports contribute to an economy through:
* Direct impacts, which come from businesses that are directly engaged in the movement of people or goods through an airport, such as airline employees and rental car companies;
* Indirect impacts, which come from spending by airport-related businesses on products and services provided by support businesses, such as office supply companies or property maintenance;
* Induced impacts, which comes from payroll expenditures by employees of directly and indirectly related businesses that produce successive spending locally.
Banks said the Pitt-Greenville Airport has an estimated economic impact of about $100 million a year in Pitt County, according to the state’s study. That estimate has almost doubled since 2011, when the state’s data put the airport’s economic contribution at about $51 million each year.
“That is a big economic draw for this region,” Banks told council members during the June meeting.
Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas, also a board member of the Pitt-Greenville Airport Authority, said the airport is an important factor in the area’s economic growth.
“Transportation is an important part of our infrastructure,” Thomas said. “A lot of businesses here depend on having access to air transportation services, and having an airport is one of the top things businesses and industries look at when looking at an area to locate.
“This airport is an asset ... and we think it’s an important one,” Thomas said. “And we are going to continue to aggressively develop this asset in the coming years.”