Every day – and every sleep-deprived night – that Minnie White remains at the Battleboro EconoLodge with her son and daughter, the room gets smaller, and the region she would move to gets bigger.
Immediately after Hurricane Matthew sent the Tar River several feet deep into her mobile home in Princeville, White knew she would have to relocate outside the flood plain, but figured she would stay in Edgecombe County. Now, three months after the storm and with countless hours spent searching real estate and rental listings, White is considering some different ZIP codes to improve her chances of finding a more permanent address. At 55, she’s starting over, and is willing to try any of a half-dozen counties in the area around Rocky Mount, about 60 miles east of Raleigh.
“I’m expanding my horizons,” White said last week, looking for the number of an agent in Wilson she hoped would have some leads on a three-bedroom house or apartment in her price range. “Change is good for you. I’m going to think of it as a mid-life adventure.”
Hurricane Matthew continues to be an adventure for thousands of people living in the eastern half of North Carolina. In cities and towns such as Lumberton, Fayetteville, Princeville, Rocky Mount and Goldsboro, and in rural pockets scattered through 49 counties, those affected by the storm are in every stage of recovery. Some have repaired the damage to their homes or businesses and resumed their lives. Others, such as White, still are looking for help to clean out the last rotting remains of their flooded homes so they can find out what their insurers or FEMA will pay for, and figure out what to do next.
We have moved now into the long-term recovery phase.
Brittany Jennings, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross’s regional office in Raleigh
Throughout the region, N.C. Department of Transportation crews are making repairs, but sections of 134 roads remain closed. The members of more than 1,300 households still are living in motel rooms and FEMA has extended the deadline for cutting off that support. Though the state and federal governments have promised more than $500 million in aid, churches and non-profits continue to raise money and recruit volunteers because they know more funds are always needed.
After the early scramble to provide food, water, clothing and shelter to those in need, “We have moved now into the long-term recovery phase,” said Brittany Jennings, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross’s regional office in Raleigh.
Hurricane Matthew, which hit North Carolina Oct. 8 and flooded much of Eastern North Carolina over the next two weeks, did an estimated $1.6 billion in damage in the state, wrecking homes and businesses, ruining crops, killing livestock, undermining bridges, collapsing roads and disabling infrastructure. The storm was blamed for 26 North Carolina deaths.
Like Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which flooded some of the same areas, Matthew was especially hard on the poor, who are more likely than people with greater means to settle in flood plains, and who have fewer resources with which to rebuild after a disaster. Thousands of families displaced by the storm had no insurance on their homes or the contents. For them, the best hope of recovery will come from government sources and charity.
Where the money comes from
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided the most financial help so far. As of Thursday, FEMA’s website showed the agency had approved more than $189 million in spending in the state. Most of that has been through programs that help homeowners and renters with temporary housing, usually in motels, or pay for immediate repairs that can make their existing homes habitable; replace or repair damaged vehicles; and replace essential household items. FEMA also has spent money helping local governments clear debris and make infrastructure repairs.
In addition to the FEMA funds, in December, Congress approved $300 million in federal disaster-related spending in the state. That money funds Community Development Block Grants that could help pay for housing, infrastructure and jobs; USDA Emergency Conservation projects such as repairing farm roads, fencing, conservation practices and debris removal; clearing debris and restoring damaged roads through the federal Highway Administration; and repairs to damaged U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property in the state.
In a special session in December, N.C. legislators approved more than $200 million in Hurricane Matthew spending from the state’s general fund and a reserve account. That money is to help with immediate housing and long-term infrastructure repairs. A Hurricane Matthew task force set up by then-Gov. Pat McCrory to determine specifically how the money will be spent appears to be in flux with the change in administrations. Spokesmen for Gov. Roy Cooper could not say last week when the task force would provide guidance on spending the money.
Laura Marx, president and CEO of the United Way of North Carolina, based in Cary, needs to hear from the group as well. The United Way administers the N.C. Disaster Relief Fund, set up after Hurricane Floyd and used for several other storms since.
The fund intended to help with long-term recovery, has been used in the past to help groups such as the N.C. Baptist Men and Women and the N.C. United Methodist Committee on Relief purchase materials for rebuilding houses whose owners had no other way to start again.
Waiting on the money
After Floyd, the fund was heavily promoted and raised $22 million from individuals, corporations and foundations in North Carolina and across the country. Since Matthew, it has not been as aggressively pushed. Last week, Marx said the fund held $756,661, including about $100,000 raised through “Sunday Supper,” a a ticketed meal served on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh in late October. Without guidance from the task force, Marx said, “None of the money in the fund has been distributed yet.”
Community groups in the affected areas say they could use the help.
“I get phone calls, Lord knows,” said Candy Taylor, who with her family and more than a dozen volunteers runs the New Christian Center Food Pantry in downtown Wilson. The agency, started in the early 2000s, receives two truckloads of food a month from the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, based in Raleigh, and buys from the food bank once a month using donated funds. Since the hurricane, Taylor said, she has seen an increase in the number of people asking for help. In November 2016, her records show, she served 401 households, up from 347 in November 2015.
“People’s support systems have been weakened,” said Taylor, a retired mortgage lender who now spends her time overseeing the distribution of frozen fish, orange juice and day-old baked goods to people whose income or benefits often are not enough to fill their kitchen cupboards. Families who were able to help one another before the storm, she said, are less able to do so now, because many have had extra expenses as a result of storm damage.
In Wilson last week, 15 families still were staying in motels paid for by FEMA in a program that is designed to help for three months after a disaster. The state can ask FEMA to consider extending the help.
“The problem is, people are having a hard time finding housing,” said Mike Wade, a spokesman for FEMA at its joint field office in Durham. In many areas where the storm hit, affordable housing was in short supply long before the storm.
I’m going to cook some collards with a big smoked turkey leg, and some fresh corn bread. I want a sweet potato, and any meat other than a chicken.
Minnie White, who has been living in a hotel since Hurricane Matthew destroyed her home
While they say they are grateful for FEMA’s provision of a place to stay, some of those staying in motels continue to struggle. Food is a major concern. Some have small refrigerators and microwaves and can heat up simple meals. Others rely entirely on pre-packaged foods or restaurant meals, and those who lack transportation are limited to restaurants in walking distance of their motels.
“It’s expensive,” said Shanita Fryar, 36, who with her children occupies two rooms at America’s Best Value Inn in Goldsboro. Before it was flooded by the Neuse River in Hurricane Matthew, the family was renting a trailer for $475 a month. She goes out looking every day, but Fryar has been unable to find a new place. She had a good prospect on Wednesday, but by the time she found the landlord, someone else had put down a deposit.
Minnie White, at the Battleboro EconoLodge, said the stress of the disaster that trashed her mobile home has aggravated her back and knee problems, and her motel-room diet has worsened her diabetes. She has a fridge and a microwave she uses as much as she can, but says she and her children have eaten a ton of cheap fast-food chicken.
When she finds a place of her own, she said, “I’m going to cook some collards with a big smoked turkey leg, and some fresh corn bread. I want a sweet potato, and any meat other than a chicken.”
She has no idea when that will happen.
To donate to the N.C. Disaster Relief Fund go www.ncdisasterrelief.org/donate.html.