The wreckage of thousands of homes and businesses flooded by Hurricane Matthew is being hauled away in dump trucks, but fear lingers like the stench of a wet mattress.
“People still don’t know where they’re going to go,” said Thurman Everett, moderator of the Lumber River Missionary Baptist Association, which represents 39 churches in Robeson, Bladen and Columbus counties. Everett attended the first regional meeting on Tuesday of Gov. Pat McCrory’s Hurricane Matthew Recovery Committee, and used a brief public comment period to speak on behalf of the people he says he talks to every day who were flooded out by the storm and as yet have no prospect of paying to repair, rebuild and move back home.
The governor’s office says nearly 80,000 residential structures in the state were damaged or destroyed by the storm across 48 counties, and about half of them sustained uninsured losses.
Homeowners who didn’t have insurance can apply for small grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to do relatively minor repairs, and can apply for low-interest loans from the federal Small Business Administration if they have enough income to pay back the debt.
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But Hurricane Matthew hit many of the lowest-income residents occupying the lowest-lying land along rivers and creeks that came far out of their banks in what is now being called, in Lumberton at least, a once-in-a-thousand-years storm. In many such neighborhoods, residents were living in homes bought by family members one, two, even three generations ago. Once the house note was paid, homeowners often dropped flood insurance, if they had it, and may have canceled their insurance altogether to save money.
“When you don’t have insurance, FEMA says, ‘We can’t help you,’ ” Everett told the committee, which consists of more than 30 state emergency officials, educators, attorneys, small-business owners and people from nonprofits, among others. “There is a missing piece,” he said, and asked whether FEMA could find a way to help those who are now wondering where they’re going to live.
FEMA’s rules are set by Congress.
This week, McCrory asked the state’s congressional delegation to pursue more than $1 billion in additional federal assistance and to reduce the state’s required match of federal funds from 25 percent to 10 percent.
As they did after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and other hurricanes since, homeowners who had major damage and no insurance are expected to rely heavily on volunteer, mostly faith-based groups. Those groups are pleading for teams of volunteers to clean out flooded homes, remove the contents and pry off damaged sheet rock.
“That part doesn’t cost much,” said Jeff Mixon, executive director of the N.C. Commission on Volunteerism & Community Service. “All you need are people, some tools and maybe a mask and some gloves.”
But two or three months later, when the structure has dried out and the Mennonites – or the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians or Habitat for Humanity volunteers – come back to rebuild, costs rise exponentially as they buy everything from duct work to doorknobs.
After Floyd, most of those materials were paid for from a disaster relief fund set up by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, which was dedicated to helping people rebuild after the hurricane. The fund raised $22 million, which was distributed to qualified nonprofits whose volunteers contributed their labor, and often helped buy materials as well.
Mixon oversees the governor’s Hurricane Matthew Relief Fund, and as of Tuesday, it had received less than $500,000 in donations.
“We have discovered that there are a lot of competing hurricane relief funds,” Mixon said, including some that receive taxpayer funds, some that are organized by nonprofits such as the Salvation Army, United Wayand the N.C. Community Foundation; and even some television stations.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mixon met with a subcommittee dedicated to raising money for the disaster relief fund, and its members brainstormed about possible sources for donations.
Until the money starts flowing in for repair and rebuilding, displaced residents remain scattered, living with friends or relatives or in hotels.
In Lumberton, many are staying in hotels paid for with FEMA funds that are now set to last at least through January. While that’s better than being in a shelter, the last of which closed this week, pastors report that not all hotels will accept Hurricane Matthew refugees at federal rates when they can charge full price to travelers stopping on their way north or south along Interstate 95, which runs through town.
Some of the hotels available to displaced residents, Lumberton council member Chris Howard Jr. complained, are infested with rats and roaches.
Further, Howard said, many of those who are living in hotels lost their cars as well as their homes. With no public transportation in Lumberton, it’s difficult for them to get to a grocery store. And anyway, they have no way to store or cook food. Some groups deliver meals to hotels, but their efforts are not coordinated. As a result, some residents go for days on bags of snacks from vending machines or that they received in food giveaways.
LaDonna Ramsey, 40, is back in her apartment in Turner Terrace in Lumberton. Ramsey lives at the complex with her mother, daughter and granddaughter, in a unit that missed – by inches – being flooded when much of the rest of the public housing complex was under more than two feet of water. Of the 10 units on the Ramseys’ cul de sac, five have been reoccupied. Residents of three others have said they won’t come back, even after the apartments are rebuilt.
Ramsey’s insurance paid off her 2010 car that was ruined in the flood and there was enough money to replace it, so she hasn’t missed any work.
“We’re OK,” she said, but until her neighbors are able to move back in, “it’s kind of lonely.”
How to help
To give to the North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund for Hurricane Matthew, text NCRECOVERS to 30306, visit NCDisasterRelief.org or send a check or money order to North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund, Office of the Governor, 20312 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C. 27699-0312