John Davis knows exactly how he's going to celebrate. "The first thing I'm gonna do, I'm gonna cook fried fish. And fried chicken," the 64-year-old Lumberton man told an Observer reporter last week. "I don't have pans yet, though. I might even cook them together. I'm serious," he said with a chuckle. "I want my hand greasy. The fast food isn't good like that. You take that stuff for granted."

Like a lot of his neighbors in the First Baptist senior apartments, Davis has been living in motels for the past nine months — four motels in all. And his meals were either takeout or what he could cook in the microwave in his room. The apartment complex was flooded out during Hurricane Matthew last fall.

It's taken this long for the apartments to be repaired and made habitable again. Davis was one of 17 who moved back into their apartments last week, the first wave of 81 who were forced out by the flooding.

There are plenty more people still living in motels in Robeson County, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent more than $25 million so far on disaster assistance. Hundreds of homes, apartments and businesses were similarly flooded on Oct. 8 last year when the Lumber River overflowed its banks after the hurricane dropped record amounts of rain on the region.

There are similar stories in Cumberland County, which was hit just as hard by the hurricane, and out in Goldsboro, Greenville and Rocky Mount. Princeville was almost completely destroyed by the flooding, just 17 years after Hurricane Floyd did the same thing to the little riverside town. In Princeville as in Lumberton, protective dikes meant to prevent severe flooding weren't up to the challenge.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from Matthew. The clearest is that we aren't prepared for severe flooding, and in some places, not even moderate flooding. In Fayetteville and many other cities, stormwater management systems are woefully inadequate even in normal heavy rains.

Perhaps we just can't afford the cost of protecting ourselves from monster storms like Matthew. But if we look at the other side, at the tens of billions that insurers and government are spending on the recovery, perhaps we'll see that prevention might be worth the price anyway.

We see, too, just how long it takes to recover from a storm of that magnitude. When we reach the one-year anniversary of Matthew in October, many people will still be in temporary housing. It will be years before all the damage is repaired. Is there a way we can move faster and get repair work started sooner and more efficiently? We hope that federal and state disaster managers are studying the aftermath as carefully as they're studying the storm's immediate effects. When recovery is measured not in weeks or months, but in years, we've got to believe there are more effective ways to respond. We need to find them.

The loss isn't just about home cooking, although that counts for something important. It's the loss of a home, a decent place to live, a job, an investment you've spent a lifetime building. It's all of those things, and we're still learning how to replace them quickly after a massive disaster. Maybe this time we'll find ways to do it better.

— The Fayetteville Observer