Wheeler: People are needed more than goods

On the sidewalks of this Pamlico County town of 254 souls, sticky insulation is piled high. A plaid couch sits in a front yard under shreds of sheetrock. The windows of the decades-old homes lining the main road are open, in the hope that the bare studs inside will dry.

A month after Hurricane Irene sent the Bay River surging into these houses - where fishermen and farmers and tugboat drivers live, where the waters had never reached in recent memory - time has nearly stood still.

People are waiting. Waiting for insurance checks. Waiting for the plywood floors ripped of soaking, stinking carpet to dry. Hoping for help.

"Our biggest need is volunteers," says the Rev. Scott Fitzgerald, pastor of Bayboro Missionary Baptist Church, which has become disaster-relief central in Pamlico County. "We have all the equipment. We have the people to lead them and do what needs to be done. If they call me and tell me who they're bringing and when they want to come, I can match them up with their skill abilities."

Not food. Not clothes. Not money. The pleas coming from Pamlico are for people. And for mosquito spray. And for fans, because fans are blowing inside wet homes 24 hours a day. Nothing can be rebuilt until everything is dry. And it just keeps raining.

Vandemere, 30 or so miles north of New Bern, is where my friend Donna Tyndall's family has lived for generations. Her father, Jasper Voliva, 71, was a commercial fisherman there, as were his father and grandfather.

It's a town where everybody knows everybody, where the people who see Donna as we walk around looking at the destruction hug her and ask after her mama, Julia, who is going through chemo for lymphoma.

Jasper and Julia have lived in their home on the town's main thoroughfare for more than 50 years, but don't ask Jasper whether he has lived his whole life in Vandemere. He'll tell you with a twinkle in his blue eye that his life's not quite done yet, thanks.

Daughter Anna Simeon and her husband, Greg, live beside them with their youngest child, and daughter Crystal Paul and her three children live across the street. Donna and her husband, Kevin, live around the corner with Donna's two sons.

When Irene came calling Aug. 27, all four families were flooded out of their homes - and dispersed.

The two Volivas, the three Simeons and the four Pauls are piled into a doublewide a few streets over; its owner recently passed away, and his relatives were kind enough to say, "Y'all use it."

The Tyndalls have moved into Kevin's mother's house miles away, closer to New Bern, where Donna works in a surgical office, but too far away from Julia for Donna's comfort. She calls her mama every day and hates that she can't see her that often now, thanks to Irene.

"We've had to do what we had to do," Donna says. "Families, whoever got flooded, you take your family in. Everybody's just living with everybody until it gets fixed."

Donna will tell you she has it better than most. She and Kevin had flood and content insurance because the mortgage company required it. A lot of people in Vandemere didn't have such insurance because they have lived there so long, and they own their homes, which had never been flooded before.

With no money coming and no way to do the work themselves, Donna wonders how many of her hardscrabble neighbors can possibly go on.

"The first thing most everybody did was rip the carpet out," she says. "And you've got older people. It's hard for these people who can't physically do this work - move the furniture, rip carpet out. When we ripped Mama's carpet out, it was still dripping water. It's heavy."

'We'll get through it'

Exactly a month after the hurricane, Julia's ruined pantry is still sitting among her other possessions on the sidewalk, which is strewn with LEGO blocks, crayons, linoleum shards and broken Christmas bulbs.

"This isn't a big city where people have big-city jobs," Donna says. "Most people live off the land or the water. It's bad. When you ride along the road and you just see everybody's possessions, everything they had on the side of the road, it's kind of heartbreaking."

Right next to the Bay River, Benny Rose Jr. is pacing in front of a huge pile of debris that used to be his mother's house. The brick beauty had stood for more than 40 years without being flooded. After Irene, it had to be bulldozed.

He asks Donna about Ms. Julia and her chemo. She asks about his mama, Margaret, and how she's doing in the wake of her bulldozed home. Benny has come to see the remains because Ms. Margaret simply can't face it.

As we swat continuously, talk turns to the mosquitoes, which have bred to epic proportions in all of the standing water. The two decide maybe the biters aren't near as bad as they were last week, when The N&O ran a story citing an internationally known expert saying he had found in Pamlico County this month the highest concentrations of the insect that he has ever encountered in the nation.

But the bugs are still bad enough that the children have not played outside since the hurricane.

Bad enough that nobody can mow the grass, if they took a notion to, which only adds one more eyesore to the depressing landscape.

"We'll get through it," Benny tells Donna as they hug. "Everybody's still here. That's what matters."

Hopeful but tired

It's a sentiment Donna has expressed numerous times throughout the evening. She feels especially blessed because Kevin's family owns Pamlico Home Builders, and he clearly knows how to wield a hammer.

With the additional help of Donna's two teenage boys - and the comfort of knowing an insurance check, size is still a question, at least is coming - her house is emptied and ready for work.

"People are trying to stay positive and help each other," she says. "I don't know what we would have done without churches, even ones outside Pamlico County. We've had a real outpouring in this community, really helping each other."

But the people of Pamlico are tired. They have to work their jobs, then try to repair their homes while displaced or while living in the top of a damaged and foul-smelling two-story home or, in some cases, tents in their still-wet yards.

The Rev. Fitzgerald of the Bayboro Baptist Church welcomes help any day, any time. Just call.

"If you have 15 people coming down in one day, we could use 200 people coming on a day," he said. "We could use 300 people coming. We've got over 300 or 400 jobs that need to be done, and I'm sure that's not all the jobs. That's just the ones who have come here who said, 'I need help.'

"The more people who come, the faster we can get things done."

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