In 1996, Motts Channel Seafood in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, closed for nine months after Hurricane Fran struck the island and battered the beloved dockside shack. “The major damage then was from boats in the marina down from us,” says Alison Long, who co-owns the market with her husband, Gene. “They tore up all of our docks and the building. You could see daylight through the roof.”
That weathered green roof, along with a neon sign by the front door signaling “Fresh Seafood,” had been inviting residents and beach-goers to pick up daily catches—black sea bass, sheepshead, shrimp, wahoo—from local fishermen since 1990. Raised in Wilmington, Gene Long spent his childhood frequenting the municipal docks of Wrightsville Beach, fishing with his dad and later working on various charter boats. One of those captains, Linwood Roberts, urged Gene to buy the marina and open a seafood market to buoy the then-declining commercial fishing industry.
Twenty-two years and nine days after Fran, slow-moving Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach on September 14, lashing the coast with 86 mile-per-hour winds and soaking it beneath twenty inches of rain. Officials called Florence the costliest disaster in the state’s history; the storm caused $220 million in damage in New Hanover County alone.
At Motts, both the private and commercial docks were swept away, and thirty to forty holes peppered the roof, resulting in at least two feet of standing water inside. The Longs closed once again. “We had to take the building down to the studs,” Alison says. For a moment, the couple joked about closing up shop for good. “It would be nice to retire under a palm tree somewhere, but I think our customers would find us,” Alison laughs. “It was daunting to rebuild, but we decided to take it one day at a time.”
An estimated 5,630 houses felt the brunt of the storm in Wrightsville Beach and the surrounding communities, and many homeowners are still working to rebuild. But despite the destruction—nearly 600 commercial structures throughout the county were damaged by Florence, as well—the island businesses are determined to reopen in time for this summer’s tourist season. The historic Blockade Runner hotel, which sustained roughly $10 million in damage, South Beach Grill, and Shell Island Resort are among the latest local businesses to open their doors. “I think a lot of people are using this opportunity to make improvements,” Alison says. “But everyone in town is bouncing back. I’d say we’re all ninety percent back up and running and everyone’s spirits are up.”
The Longs aren’t surprised though; they could have predicted this comeback. Last September, the day before Florence arrived, a drizzling rain was falling as the family battened down the hatches on their business. When they looked up, they saw a rainbow emerging from the clouds, ending right at Motts. “My husband and I saw it as a sign that everything would be okay,” Alison says. “I know how silly it sounds, but that gave us peace of mind.”
Months later, as the family cleaned out a flooded storage room, they unearthed a yard sign they had planted at the foot of the island’s drawbridge after Hurricane Fran in 1997, declaring Motts officially back in business. On January 20 of this year, they hammered it back into the ground. “We’d done it before,” Alison says, “so we knew we could do it again.”