When Hurricane Florence hit, Alex Carias took shelter in his pickup truck, riding out the storm with his terrier, Gus.
With their mobile home ruined, he planned on living inside the truck at least temporarily, but a social worker found them and ordered them into a shelter in nearby Morehead City.
On Saturday, he and dozens of others flooded into Ann Street United Methodist Church in Beaufort, filling out paperwork for rental assistance from FEMA, speaking to real estate agents about the chance of bunking in vacation homes. But Carias, who uses a wheelchair, came away from the housing fair shrugging, saying he’d added his name to a long list.
“I’m pretty much lost,” said Carias, 60. “I’m going to have to sneak back into the trailer park and get my truck.”
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Carias is taking refuge along with about 40 others at the Red Cross shelter in Morehead City, which had planned to close at noon on Monday, shoving him and Gus closer to the homelessness that threatens hundreds in eastern North Carolina in Florence’s aftermath.
After The N&O inquired on Sunday afternoon, the Red Cross reversed that decision and vowed to remain open as long as refuge is needed.
“They walked that back,” said Jerri Jameson, a spokeswoman for the agency.
At the peak of the need, more than 20,000 people were in shelters across the state, according to the Department of Public Safety. Many of those were evacuees who were able to return home once danger had passed. The organization has no set policy on how long emergency shelters can remain open, and works with local officials to close them as soon as possible. Late last week, more than 600 people were still living in 11 Red Cross shelters in the state’s southeastern corner. But emergency officials said the numbers left homeless could be far higher.
“You may have 12 people staying in a house made for two and three people,” said Stanley Kite, emergency services director in Craven County. “That’s going to come unglued.”
Recovery aid for the victims of Florence will come from four main sources: private insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, nonprofits and the state.
FEMA reported last week it had paid out $82 million in North Carolina through its Individual Assistance program, which gives homeowners money to make temporary repairs to their homes. Those funds also help with rental payments if homes are not “safe, sanitary and secure.”
In the three weeks since Florence hit, FEMA also has paid out $66 million in flood insurance claims, said spokesman Mike Wade, who is assigned to an office in Research Triangle Park while the agency works with North Carolina on the recovery process.
Also, Wade said, the federal Small Business Administration has made more than $61 million in low-interest disaster loans in the 28 counties that were declared disaster areas after the storm. SBA loans can go to individuals as well as business owners.
Forced out of their homes
But many households are facing the same stubborn truth displaced residents learned after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and after Hurricane Matthew in 2016: Many areas of rural North Carolina had a shortage of affordable housing before floods hit, and high waters took out much of what did exist.
The initial hit from Florence has grown worse as building inspectors have been able to get inside housing.
At the housing fair in Beaufort, Clara Keenan explained that she and her neighbors — all senior citizens — were forced to leave Edenbridge Apartments in Morehead City because inspectors found mold inside.
“They only gave us, like, three days,” said Keenan, 69, who walks with a cane. “Old folks running around like chickens with their heads cut off. I’ve talked to the Red Cross. I’ve talked to FEMA. I’ve talked to the Council on Aging. It’s nothing available. It’s like a waiting list everywhere.”
She has been sleeping in a recliner at the Red Cross shelter in Morehead City, while her friend Geraldine Grant, 65, sleeps in a hospital bed. Grant uses a wheelchair and breathes with the help of an oxygen tank.
“I just want a place to put my head down at night and know it’s mine,” Grant said, “and nobody can tell me to get out.”
For some, FEMA offers help through its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which pays for hotel stays while residents look for more permanent solutions. As of Oct. 3, Wade said, FEMA was providing that aid to 342 households, serving a total of 1,044 people.
Right now, Wade said, TSA funds are available only to people whose address before the storm was in one of nine counties: Brunswick, Carteret, Craven, Columbus, Jones, New Hanover, Onslow, Pender and Robeson.
Stephen Rea, emergency services director for Carteret County, said at least three of the larger local hotels were flooded during the storm and have not re-opened, and the others are full with people who were displaced by the storm or came to the county to help repair or rebuild. So when inspectors condemned the 80 units at Edenbridge in Morehead City and the 118 units at Beaufort Towne Apartments in Beaufort, that left a lot of people looking for housing that may not exist.
“I’m worried about not having space to house these people, to have a roof over their heads and be able to sleep at night,” Rea said. “We have nowhere for these people to go.
“We need the housing to come from FEMA,” Rea said. “That’s what they’re here for.”
Rea said he has been visiting the shelter, which has taken over a senior community center, daily since it opened, and that things improved recently when laundry and shower facilities were added.
“Most of them are in good spirits when I talk to them,” Rea said of the 44 people still living in the shelter as of last week. “But it’s not like living with family. You’re living with strangers. It’s hard on people.”
After Hurricane Floyd, FEMA brought hundreds of travel trailers and some mobile homes to North Carolina to house people who had been displaced by flood waters. The state bought several hundred more travel trailers, and communities of the tiny homes were set up in places such as Rocky Mount, where water and electrical lines were laid to accommodate them.
The communities became known as FEMA-villes, and while they served an urgent need, residents eventually began to complain of overcrowding, noise and crime in the makeshift neighborhoods. The structure themselves, not meant for long-term occupation, quickly frayed.
By the time Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina, FEMA had moved away from establishing temporary trailer communities, and where trailers were used, they usually were parked in homeowners’ driveways while repairs were made to their homes.
Wade said last week that FEMA had not approved the used of travel trailers or manufactured housing for Florence victims in North Carolina, but state Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said the state is requesting trailers and he expects an announcement soon on when they might arrive.
The trailers came as welcome news to shelter residents in Morehead City, particularly Daniel Brant. Brant, 50, has been living at the shelter with his two cats, Snowball and Miss Pretty, after the storm damaged his family’s home.
He came away from the housing fair Saturday with no solid leads on new housing, and like Alex Carias, he considered staying inside his truck. But he made this plea.
“Quit holding the trailers up,” he said. “Get them down here.”
In the meantime, the state rolled out a new program last week to try to help those who receive little or no help from FEMA because they aren’t homeowners or lease-holders. The program, called Back@Home, was launched by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which modeled it after work done to help a similar population after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, in 2017.
DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said Friday the program kicked off with $12 million and will work in two phases, starting with the people who remain in shelters because they have nowhere else to go.
“It’s not a huge number, but it’s a real need,” Cohen said.
Back@Home is based on the notion that rapid rehousing is the best way to prevent long-term homelessness. It will provide help to eligible recipients in finding a place to live, paying security deposits and up to six months’ rent. The money will be paid to qualifying landlords.
At the church in Beaufort, the Rev. Taylor Mills said his congregation couldn’t sit idly and wait for help.
“I know people aren’t going to find all they need,” he said, asked about the waiting lists where shelter residents were adding their names. “Maybe God will make something beautiful out of it.”
How to help
County emergency officials are hoping that people who own a vacation home or seasonal rental in eastern North Carolina, particularly in Carteret and New Hanover counties, will step forward to offer housing during the off-season to those in need.
Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said her agency is trying to connect people who need short-term housing with property managers and owners who have openings. English said a large proportion of property owners in the county’s beach communities — Wrightsville, Carolina and Kure beaches and Fort Fisher — are owned by permanent residents in places such as Raleigh, whose permanent homes may not have been damaged in the storm. English said she hopes some of those property owners will consider renting their beach homes to people who need a place to stay for six months or so while their former homes get repaired. That would still leave the summer season open for vacation rentals.
Anyone who has a rental property that could accommodate displaced residents and repair crews is asked to contact Lexie Alston at email@example.com or (910) 762-2611 ext. 200.
In Carteret County, contact Julia Royall the Ann Street United Methodist Church in Beaufort, 252-728-4279.