Last Thursday, a little girl and her mother came to the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center for help. When their home flooded during Hurricane Matthew, they lost everything and had nowhere to go.
The little girl found a pink teddy bear among items donated to the center for disaster victims. Volunteer Judy Shaw said the girl picked up the bear, then hugged Shaw’s leg and thanked her.
“It just broke my heart,” said Shaw, who lives in Johnston County’s Bentonville community. “It was such a small thing, but it meant so much to her.”
Shaw volunteered when Johnston County opened a donation center at 912 N. Bright Leaf Blvd. She and other volunteers have separated donations and then placed them into bags for easy transport.
“We try to give the families a little of everything,” Shaw said, pointing to rows of cleaning supplies, canned food, toiletries and pet food. “They come in here and they have nothing.”
For weeks Shaw has talked with Johnston County residents who have lost homes, cars and memories.
“They come in here empty-handed,” she continued. “Every night when I go home, I just say my prayers, and it’s really made me rethink how blessed I am. We take so much for granted.
“That bear meant so much to that little girl. Some of these kids have had to watch their whole lives wash away just like that. They have to start all over.”
And yet it’s hard for many to turn to a place like the disaster recovery center, Shaw said.
“People want to be independent; they don’t want to ask for help,” she said. “I just think about how I would feel – my pride wouldn’t want me to go ask someone to help me out. But you have to. We’re all here for each other.”
Shaw said many elderly Johnston residents were among those hit hardest by the hurricane.
“Some of them have come in and said, ‘I’ll probably never have a home again,’ ” she said. “They had so much independence, and now they’re thinking they’ll have to live with their families or lean on someone else, and that’s hard for them.”
Shaw said she had witnessed an outpouring of support for those touched by the storm. Their donations of food, cleaning supplies and the like have helped many Johnstonians, she said.
“We’ve had hundreds of people come through,” Shaw said. “We’re starting to run out of stuff; it used to be so full.”
While Shaw said the county will end its supply-drive soon, it will hand over what remains to local groups to hand out.
Ready to help
Several such groups came together on Thursday to do just that. A partnership between regional transit provider GoTriangle, WRAL-TV, the United Way and Raleigh-Durham International Airport gathered donated supplies and packed them into three GoTriangle buses and two vans. Their destinations: Wilson, Rocky Mount and Selma.
In Selma, donations of food and supplies went to the Johnston County Partnership for Children building on South Pollock Street. The Partnership for Children is working with the Johnston County Boys & Girls Club, Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the United Way in the “Great Futures Collaborative.”
“It’s all under the umbrella of the Boys & Girls Club,” said Mamie Moore, the club’s director. “We’re working to help our club member families and also working with the schools to find other children and families who were affected by the storm.”
Johnston will need its community groups to recover fully from Hurricane Matthew, said FEMA spokesman Bill Lehman.
“I don’t know how many billions it’s going to take, but this isn’t over by a long shot,” said Lehman, of Idaho. “Most of this damage was flood damage, which is the biggest cause of disaster-relief needs. Water’s not a good friend.”
Lehman got his first big taste of disaster response when he worked for FEMA during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Eleven years later, in Johnston County, 1,170 people have registered for housing assistance, Lehman said, and FEMA has given them $1.01 million.
The center is seeing about 70 people a day, said Tonya Mull, manager. “Sometimes we’ll be empty, and then sometimes it will be standing room only,” she said.
FEMA’s primary purpose in Johnston County is housing assistance, Lehman said. That includes money for hotel stays and living expenses.
But FEMA won’t duplicate benefits, so those who have insurance should call their agents, not FEMA, Lehman said. “It’s mostly for people who are under insured or don’t have any insurance,” he said.
Mull, who’s been with FEMA for about seven years, said one obstacle is that most people don’t know how the process works.
“They don’t know that they can pick their motel, or that if they get a denial letter, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no help for them,” she said.“They can come here or call and we can help them through all of it.”
Mull said she was surprised by the number of people without flood insurance. “They think because they don’t live in a floodplain, they don’t need it,” she said. “So it’s been an educational process as well.”
Like Shaw, the volunteer, Lehman encouraged storm victims to overcome any reluctance to seek help. “People can be really prideful, and they don’t want to ask for help,” he said. “And I can’t imagine how tough it must be. But this isn’t charity. We run on tax dollars, and you have a right to this. It’s what we’re here for.
“We want to get people back into their homes as soon as is safe. Things are going to be OK. Things are going to work out. And we’re going to be here with you until it’s over.”
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett
Disaster assistance: Johnstonians who suffered property damage because of Hurricane Matthew should register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People can register online at DisasterAssistance.gov or via smartphone or Web-enabled device at m.fema.gov. Applicants may also call 800-621-3362 or 800-462-7585 (TTY) between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. seven days a week.
Separately, low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration can help homeowners, renters, nonprofits and businesses of all sizes, including landlords, repair or rebuild their properties. Also, the SBA can help replace lost or damaged personal property. Disaster loans cover losses not fully covered by insurance. For more information, call 800-659-2955, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela. Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals may call 800-877-8339.
Donations: To help Johnstonians recover from Hurricane Matthew, the county’s Emergency Management Department is accepting donations of money and goods. Make monetary donations to the County of Johnston Relief Fund and mail them to P.O. Box 530, Smithfield, N.C. 27577.
Donations of nonperishable food, baby items such as diapers and wipes, house-cleaning products, person-hygiene items and pet products may be carried to 912 N. Bright Leaf Blvd. in Smithfield. Donation hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 6 p.m. Sundays.