In the sunny days that followed Hurricane Matthew, emergency officials had trouble evacuating some parts of Eastern North Carolina they knew would flood as rainwater made its way downstream.
In this town on the south bank of the Neuse River, many residents pointed to the clear blue skies and said they wouldn’t leave. Then the water hit.
Now that it has receded, some are saying they won’t go back.
The state doesn’t yet have a tally, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has more than 42,500 reports of homes in North Carolina damaged or destroyed as a result of Matthew. There are likely more, whose owners have not registered with FEMA, though all are encouraged to do so.
Even if their homes are repairable and they want to move back in, for many residents it could be a year or more before the structures are livable again. For someone living in Fayetteville, where a shrinking military population has left a glut of apartments, it might be relatively easy to relocate. But in more rural communities that were submerged by floodwaters, residents may struggle to find replacement housing.
“Right now I’m sleeping on the floor at my cousin’s home, and my mother is on my cousin’s couch,” said Stephen Potter, who has served as mayor of Seven Springs for 16 years. “She’s been kind enough to keep us for almost three weeks. But we do need to find a place to go.”
Like many Seven Springs residents, Potter has familial ties to the town; the house where he and his mother were living had belonged to his great aunt, and he bought it from her heirs after she died.
He was living there in 1999 when the last great flood hit Seven Springs, the one caused by Hurricane Floyd, the one of a magnitude that everybody said should happen only once in 100 years.
Floyd was at least the fourth disaster in the history of the little village in Wayne County’s southeastern corner. There was the fire that nearly burned the town down during a Civil War battle in 1862, and another blaze 60 years later that started in a general store, spread through the businesses on Main Street and to the houses beyond. In 1996, Hurricane Fran came along and brought the Neuse River with it.
Some thought that Floyd might be the death knell for Seven Springs. It flooded all but four of the town’s 70 houses, and locals say about half the people living here before the storm never came back. Potter says 11 homeowners sold their properties as part of the FEMA-funded Hazard Mitigation Program, which razed the buildings and modified the deeds so no permanent structures can be built back. The empty weed-grown lots scattered around town look like unsold properties on a Monopoly game board.
But in the years since, some new people had moved in, and the population had rebounded to about 110.
“The town was coming back,” said Ronda Hughes, who with her husband renovated an old house near the river landing and, in 2010, opened Neuse River Traders in a commercial building next door. They rent out kayaks and run river trips, and serve as a stop for people who bring their own boats to launch from Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, just upstream.
“We try to make it inviting, you know, so people will feel comfortable here, even if they aren’t here to buy anything,” said Hughes, who serves on the town’s board of commissioners.
When word came that the town was likely to flood again from Hurricane Matthew, as badly as during Floyd, the Hugheses loaded up everything they could – the merchandise, the ice cream machine, the rocking chairs and checker boards – and hauled it all to higher ground.
As it turned out, Matthew was worse than Floyd in Seven Springs, topping the old high-water marks by 15 inches.
Hughes’ home is one of several in the town that were elevated after Floyd with the help of FEMA money to protect them from future flooding. But the water came in anyway, and now the Hugheses will have to sand the wood floors to level out the warping, treat the floor joists and walls for mold growth and rewire the whole house.
Hughes said she and her husband had no insurance, and they don’t know what the repairs will cost. They have relatives who own an RV sales company nearby, who loaned them a camper that will hold them, their daughter and grandchildren, who were all living in the two-bedroom house. “We’ll be all right,” Hughes said. “Others are a lot worse off.”
Throughout the areas hit by Matthew, owners of homes that were damaged should register with FEMA in case they are eligible for aid. FEMA has given out tens of millions of dollars worth of grants in North Carolina so far for emergency needs, which can include some medical and dental expenses, funeral and burial costs, certain home repairs and temporary housing.
Our first mission is to save lives, and get people back into safe, secure housing. We don’t make them completely whole again.
FEMA spokesman Ross Fredenburg
FEMA spokesman Ross Fredenburg, assigned to the service center being set up in Durham, said homeowners who suffered losses must rely first on insurance. If they have no insurance or their coverage falls short of the cost of repairs, they may qualify for FEMA grants or can apply for low-interest loans from the federal Small Business Administration.
“Our first mission is to save lives and get people back into safe, secure housing,” Fredenburg said. “We don’t make them completely whole again. We try to make it livable so they can get back to their life and their employment.”
After Floyd, FEMA brought in hundreds of travel trailers and mobile homes, placing some next to people’s houses while repairs were made and arranging others in what became known as FEMA villages.
Fredenburg said the agency regards the trailer communities as a solution of last resort, because of the infrastructure required, the distance they place between residents and their jobs and medical services, and because living conditions are stressful and sometimes dangerous. FEMA, which also is responding to flooding in other states, has not decided yet about using mobile homes in North Carolina.
The people of Seven Springs have scattered, as have others from flooded-out communities. Across the state, eight shelters remained open as of Saturday, with 378 residents. Of the thousands displaced from their homes, some people are staying with relatives, some with friends, some in hotel rooms. If no apartments or rental homes are available, FEMA will pay for hotel stays for displaced people who have no other choice. In Edgecombe County, so many families are living in hotels that school buses pick up and deliver students from them.
“I do know it’s very hard to get a hotel room in Goldsboro right now,” said Jourdan Applewhite, operations manager for TownPlace Suites, one of 10 inns in Goldsboro, about 20 miles from Seven Springs. The hotel has 98 rooms, “We’re sold out every single night for about the next month right now.”
Besides people displaced from their homes, TownPlace is hosting utility company crews working in the area, along with FEMA inspectors and others helping with recovery.
Chance Carter is staying at the hotel with his mother, who had just moved with him into Carter’s uncle’s home in Seven Springs the week before Matthew. Carter had not even had time to transfer the utilities into his name, he said, and without such proof of residency it’s not clear what FEMA will be able to do for him and his mom.
But Carter works at the hotel, which has offered to house its employees who are unable to return to their homes until they can make other arrangements.
Carter said he believes his uncle will repair the house.
“It’s a Carter thing,” he said. “We’re stubborn.”
This place has broke my heart twice.
John Lee, Seven Springs town commissioner
John Lee already has started work on his house in Seven Springs. After Floyd, he said, it cost $30,000 to raise the house above where the water reached. Matthew didn’t get in, but the water came up to the floor joists. Last week, Lee pulled out the soaked insulation, piled it by the road and started spraying bleach underneath the house to knock back the mold.
Lee is a town commissioner too, and people have asked him whether the town’s residents will come back, whether the town itself will survive. If it loses too many residents, he said, there won’t be enough tax base to fund a city government. Already, the town has said there will be no Christmas parade this year. The owner of at least one of the two restaurants in town has said he will not reopen. It’s not clear whether the post office will come back, or the bank or the propane supply company.
If Wayne County decides to pursue FEMA money to buy up land in Seven Springs to get people out of the flood zone, “I’d take it like that,” Lee said, snapping his fingers.
“This place has broke my heart twice. You can’t keep putting your family through that.”