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Hurricane Florence: Disaster Recovery

In September of 2018, Hurricane Florence, the wettest hurricane on record, tore through the Carolinas. Despite only being a Category I tropical storm when making landfall, the storm stalled for several days and dumped heavy rain. The rivers and streams quickly reached capacity and overflowed their banks. The destruction was similar to Hurricane Matthew that went through in September 2016, just two years earlier.

As a certified volunteer disaster relief inspector, NC SEER requested that I deploy to Robeson County to inspect some of the buildings that had been inundated with floodwaters. Along with a team of other volunteers, we arrived at the Emergency Operations Center on September 25 for a quick briefing before heading out. It was clear, even this far inland and far above sea level, that the storm had been devastating. But it didn’t prepare me for the things I saw in the coming days.

Each volunteer was teamed with a County building inspector who knew the area well and could provide transportation while we inspected buildings. We divided the county up into sections and focused on the areas most susceptible to flooding. Surprisingly, we did not see much wind damage. I suspect the community would have preferred to repair a roof rather than deal with what the floodwaters had done to their homes and businesses.

The tragedy of the situation is that the areas hit the hardest tend to be low-income areas. Building in a floodplain is restricted, but not for inexpensive manufactured or “trailer” homes. They are allowed in floodplains because they are considered “temporary.” Land is also inexpensive in floodplains, so it is attractive to low-income individuals and families. Most of the damage in the rural areas affected manufactured homes in active floodplains and swamps of the Lumber river.

The first site we visited was a dozen or so manufactured homes at the edges of the swamp. The water lines on the buildings suggest they experienced at least 5 feet of water, carrying debris that caused physical damage in addition to the water damage. I met an older man, probably in his eighties, at his front porch and explained what we were doing. We were there to help. He seemed completely demoralized. His power had been cut off by the energy company until we could verify his electrical system had not been compromised. It clearly had, and my duty was to staple a yellow placard labeled “Restricted Use” on the fence outside his home. In short, it meant he could stay, but his power would not be turned on until he repaired his electrical system. He told me he had no idea how he would be able to afford it. I had to move on.

His neighbor turned out to be his granddaughter. In fact, all the homes in this particular area were owned by the same family. Her home also received the yellow placard. Every thunk of the staple gun from the yellow placard on their homes got to me deep down. I can only imagine what it sounded like to them. It must’ve sounded like a gavel telling them their life was over. I can only imagine. The granddaughter told me they had just recovered from Matthew. They received FEMA assistance from Matthew to raise their homes above the floodplain. Instead, they spent the money to put on a new roof, because they had received no assistance from the wind damage and the leaking roof was a priority. She explained that because they had not used the money properly, FEMA would not help this time. She too, would not be able to afford to replace the electrical system. I had to move on.

Some of the roads were still impassible and the homes still underwater. We would have to come back for those when the waters receded. But the roads that were passable all told the same story: the floodwaters had been inside. Couches, insulation, carpet, duct work, and anything that held water, were piled outside in the yard – useless. And everyone told me the same story – we just finished recovering from Matthew, and FEMA would not be helping them this time, we have no flood insurance. Many told me they would have to abandon their homes.

I only had to attach a red placard to about three or four homes. These were in the worst areas, where the water was so high and moving so fast it had caused structural damage, pushing the homes from their foundations and making them unsafe. The mosquitoes were bad here, almost an inch long, and the stench from the stagnant water was almost unbearable. Water contamination from animal feces and carcasses would be the next problem, on top of all the others. Everyone just seemed defeated. Their eyes seemed blank, as if their souls had been evacuated from their bodies. I will never forget it.

After two long days I was exhausted, and it was a long drive home. But I did get to go home to my family, and it made me feel slightly guilty. I had a lot of time to think in the car. About those who are underserved in the community. About how just after they had finished recovering from Matthew, they were slammed with another. I thought about that family who would be sleeping in the dark tonight, with giant mosquitoes coming inside as they tried to dry out the home with the doors open. They would likely be living like this for weeks, months, or even years.

But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part is another one is coming. No one knows when, or where, or how much damage it will bring. But it is coming, and for many, there is nothing they can do about it…

Please consider donating your time or money, or both, to disaster recovery in your communities.

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