- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2020

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) - Save for the hum of cars winding by on Princess Place Drive, it’s all quiet at Bellevue Cemetery - and it’s caretakers are immensely grateful for it.

Nearly a year and a half ago, Hurricane Florence ripped through the region and ravaged the 32-acre historic cemetery. The destructive storm drowned the staff’s landscaping equipment in Burnt Mill Creek, knocked over countless trees, and dislodged or broke grave markers that have stood for decades - in some cases, more than a century.

This time last year, Charlie Rivenbark and his handful of dedicated volunteers were facing an uphill recovery. They had no equipment to maintain the grounds, little to no volunteers beyond the community service hours completed on the weekend and dozens of trees to remove - all with minimal funds.

But in the intervening year, community support - financially and hands on - has helped accelerate what once seemed like an impossible task.

“We aren’t fully recovered, but you could ride through the cemetery right now and wouldn’t know it,” Rivenbark said.



The progress made includes slowly but surely cutting up fallen trees and hauling them off, and getting assistance from community groups like UNCW students to help pick up the grounds.

Marion Vernon, who works closely with Rivenbark, has spent months using a homemade epoxy to repair broken markers.

Checks and donations also poured in, allowing the cemetery’s core volunteers, who spend many of their weekends working at the site, to buy new mowing equipment that they can actually count on.

“We’ve got five lawnmowers now, and some weed eaters,” Rivenbark said. “We’re getting back to the strength we were prior to Florence. And I can’t tell you how nice it is to pull a cord on a lawnmower and know it’s going to crank up.”

But work still needs to be done.

The biggest lingering remnant of the storm is the more than half dozen oaks that have died since Florence.

“We consulted an arborist, who told us they likely drowned from all the standing water that came from the creek flooding,” Rivenbark said.

One was removed this month, but bids from contractors to remove the remaining ones have been well above the non-profit cemetery’s budget.

With the storm still claiming a large number of the cemetery’s vegetation, it has also cost it the naturalistic, green-space atmosphere that once established the site as a recreational park of sorts.

The cemetery was opened in 1876 as a private burial ground for people of moderate means. It was built on top of a piece of land known as Green’s Battery in the Civil War.

Over the years, people would visit the cemetery to not only pay respects to loved ones, but also for an afternoon stroll or picnic.

Rivenbark said they still encourage people to come visit the cemetery, even if they don’t have family or friends buried in its borders. But to make it even more welcoming after Florence, the cemetery just received a $6,800 grant from the Cape Fear Garden Club to replant trees and shrubs where Florence left her scars.

“We want some color out here in the spring, and we want to add some oaks to replace what we lost,” he said. “We want people to come out here, and we already get a lot of walkers and runners.”

Part of that aesthetic makeover will be addressing the often busted fence that runs along Princess Place Drive, one that has been torn down by reckless drivers or crashes numerous times. The most recent incident saw a vehicle plow through the fence, hit several graves and then flip upside down.

Rivenbark said he is working with the N.C. Department of Transportation to find a permanent solution to protect the graves and avoid constantly reinstalling the fence.

For now, volunteers will keep hustlin’ and making due with the community support, equipment and finances they have. The outlook for Bellevue Cemetery is much better in 2020 than a year ago, but Rivenbark still has one request.

“We just don’t want another (storm) anytime soon,” he said.

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