Editor's note: A story Sunday about hurricane recovery efforts in Pamlico County incorrectly described the town of Oriental. There are no golf courses within the town.
PAMLICO COUNTY -- Three-year-old Molly Popperwill curls up in a torn recliner just after dark, her makeshift bed in a trailer loaned by the federal government after Hurricane Irene decimated her family's home last August.
It's as much comfort as she's had in five months, and even this respite in early February is fleeting.
By April 1, the Popperwill family - parents Jennifer and Todd and their four daughters under age 7 - must give up their FEMA trailer and move into an even smaller camper they bought as a backup should they run out of options. Irene pushed four feet of water inside their home in Lowland, a fishing village on Goose Creek Island along the Pamlico River. The force of the rushing water also knocked it off its foundation. Last month, they knocked the house down and hauled the molded bits to the dump.
"This piece of dirt is ours," said Jennifer Popperwill, 30. "It's all we really have in this world."
On Aug. 27, Irene stalled just beyond the Outer Banks, pushing the rivers farther and faster into the Inner Bank counties than any hurricane in memory. Hundred-year-old homes in Pamlico and nearby areas saw water for the first time, and those rising waters still haunt the hardiest of seamen, who remember swimming to safety that day.
In the five months since Irene, recovery has eluded many in Pamlico. Many of the 13,000 residents have struggled to rebuild the simple, quiet lives they enjoyed in these fishing villages and crossroads communities. What little progress has been made comes at the hands of volunteers who spend days or weeks in the county with church groups.
The storm left as many as 400 Pamlico County families homeless. The lucky have bunked with family or neighbors; the less fortunate have spent the winter in drafty homes in dire need of repair.
For the 100 or so families that qualified to stay in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer, time is running out. The federal government says it must remove the trailers from flood plains well ahead of hurricane season. Alternative housing is scarce.
The challenges have hit nearly everyone: the insured and uninsured, the prepared as well as those caught flat-footed. Many in the area had defaulted on costly flood insurance payments over the years as a faltering economy brought tough choices. Those families that had gotten FEMA help during a prior storm and let their insurance lapse can't qualify for FEMA aid this time.
And even those with flood insurance have battled stringent mortgage company rules that have tied up their settlements. Some who have secured insurance settlements wait on long lists for contractors to get to their home.
"It's every problem imaginable," said Dawn Baldwin Gibson, head of Pamlico County's disaster-recovery coalition. "Every safety net has seemed to fail some of our residents."
Home of memories
Pamlico County juts into the Pamlico Sound, splitting two major rivers. The county is rural and flat with long stretches of highway dotted with nothing more than fields and creeks. Most of the 5,000 households have anchored their livelihoods to the natural bounty of the rivers or the fertile soil.
Even before Irene, life was bleak in Pamlico County. The waters had been overfished, and many fishermen were grumbling that state regulations aimed to protect the wildlife had made it tough to make a living. Tugboat crews in the area say work slowed in recent years. Tobacco crops, once prevalent here, were scaled back after the federal settlement with farmers.
Except for the well-to-do who erected luxury homes near golf courses in the port town of Oriental, those who live in Pamlico are here because of roots. Their mothers, fathers and grandparents settled into the county decades before, and they never saw a good reason to leave. They live in modest houses with no water views and little more than their homes to show for a lifetime of hard work.
Mary Paul, 83, came to the community of Pamlico near Oriental as a young bride in 1949. Her late husband fished, and a dynasty of past storms - Hazel, Fran, Floyd and Isabel - hasn't pushed her away.
One morning this month, she coughed faintly as she leaned into her couch. After the storm, volunteers stripped the walls in her house to let the wood dry and ward against mold. The holes have lingered for months, and while Paul talks, a cat crawls through a gap in the floor behind her couch. A slight breeze rushes through her living room.
Paul didn't keep the books in her family, and it wasn't until Irene that she realized her husband had stopped paying for flood insurance before his recent death. Because the Pauls had sought aid in a prior storm, she was ineligible for FEMA help.
Many of her neighbors in Pamlico have asked county officials to buy their property so they can afford to relocate to higher ground; more than 100 households in the county have applied for a buyout grant.
Paul won't budge. She won't complain, either. She knows the risk of living so close to the water and the unpredictability of nature's fury. She says she will wait and hope for another round of Samaritans to knock on her door and patch her walls and floor back together.
"I know it's not much, but it's mine and where all my memories are," Paul said.
No help from FEMA
Geneva Gibbs also waits for the kindness of strangers.
Earlier this month, she leaned against a walker and waited on social workers to call her to fill out another pile of paperwork.
This is her last hope to save the home in which she raised her children and two grandchildren.
A national organization, Eight Days of Hope, has picked Pamlico County as its spring project. It will bring as many as 2,000 skilled laborers and millions in donated supplies to the area in May for eight days.
Gibbs, 83, is one of many FEMA declared "noncompliant" after the storm. Gibbs took help during a prior storm to fix her electrical box and says she didn't understand the fine print that said she must keep up her flood insurance.
Like many elderly in Pamlico, Gibbs didn't finish high school and lived off the land. She and her children ate vegetables she grew and hogs and chickens she raised. Her parents built the house in Alliance where she lived until the storm. She had planned on living there until she couldn't care for herself.
Since the storm, she has lived with her daughter, Jean. Each day, she rocks in a recliner, staring blankly at the dramas on the TV. Quietly, at night, she weeps in her room and wishes she were home.
Gibbs' is one of nearly 300 households who've asked for help from volunteers coming in May. The group can tackle about 200 homes.
Payments washed away
Jennifer and Todd Popperwill grew up in Lowland, and say they are related to most people in this tiny village by blood or marriage.
The couple believed there were few places safer and quieter than Goose Creek Island to raise a family.
Years ago, a neighbor offered a rent-to-own opportunity on a modest home on Lowland's main road. It was an informal kind of arrangement while the owners of the home worked through a tax issue on the property. Todd Popperwill is a commercial fisherman, and though the industry has been tough in recent years, the couple managed to make the last payment of their $27,000 price tag in March. Todd and Jennifer waited patiently for the owners to settle the tax issue and sign the deed over.
Then Irene hit. The house wasn't legally theirs. The owners had no insurance.
The Popperwills have now moved the home into their name and have secured about $28,000 in FEMA aid to cover flooded vehicles and ruined items, and to tackle whatever repairs they could on their home. They spent nearly all of it to demolish a house they knew couldn't be saved and to buy a camper that will be their home when they run out of options.
On an unusually warm afternoon in February, Jennifer and Todd watched their three youngest daughters dart across the dirt where their home once sat. Oyster season has been closed in Pamlico County, and Todd couldn't harvest enough oysters in Dare County the day before to justify the expense of gas.
The girls sang and danced for their parents. Jennifer tried to exhaust them with play outside before the family piled into the tiny FEMA trailer for another night. One tight bedroom has been filled with items they salvaged from their home. Donated clothes have been stacked along the top of the couch in the living room that also serves as a kitchen and sleeping space for the 3-year-old twins Molly and Maggie and 7-year-old Viviana. Jennifer and Todd have slept each night in a double bed in the other room, with 2-year-old Sidney snug between them.
Todd paced across the lot outside, eyeing stately pines at the back of the property that he wishes he could cut and use as wood for a new home.
He said he feels powerless to pull his family out of this mess. It's been a hard fall from the sense of accomplishment he felt when he made the last of his payments on the house last spring.
Since the storm, he has worried that social workers may come and take the girls, declaring that they aren't living in good enough conditions. For weeks after the storm, the girls had nightmares of sharks and snakes and rising waters.
And, he has fretted about how much this trauma has robbed them of their childhood.
"I'm not sure any of us will ever be the same," he said.