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In NC, nonprofits have become the ‘backbone of disaster recovery’

Courtesy of Macayla Bell

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Macayla Bell and her family left their home in Chinquapin before Hurricane Florence because they were told all that rain would make it an island in the overflowing Northeast Cape Fear River, and they wouldn’t be able to get out until the flooding receded.

Expecting to be back soon, they took a few changes of clothes and went to Raleigh to wait it out. The next time Bell saw the house, it was in the background of a video showing her neighbor being rescued by boat.

At her place, “The water was up to the windows.”

The four-bedroom, three-bath manufactured home in Duplin County was the first house Bell and her husband, Justin, ever bought. They had moved into it in January with their two young children and Bell’s 87-year-old grandfather. When they bought it, Bell said, she asked her insurance company about flood insurance and was told the site was outside the flood zone.

It was two weeks before the couple could get into the house to see the damage.

“By then, mold was up to the ceiling,” Bell said. Nearly everything inside was lost, and the structure would have to be taken down to the studs to be made livable again.

Best estimates are that repairs will cost about $60,000. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has promised the Bells the largest grant it can offer — about $34,000 — through its Individual Assistance Program, but the couple will have to squeeze the rest out of what Justin makes working at a solar-panel manufacturing plant in Willard.

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Macayla and Justin Bell’s home was flooded by Hurricane Florence. A local non-profit gave the family some much-needed help. Courtesy of Macayla Bell

With the help of family and friends, the Bells have stripped out the rotten drywall and insulation, and ripped up the moldy floor to save money. But with every dollar they have going toward materials, Bell had worried how they’d furnish it: “I couldn’t even buy beds for the children to sleep in.”

Shocked as she was by what happened to her home, Bell has been almost as surprised by the people who have come to her aid through a local non-profit called S.H.A.R.E.

The all-volunteer group, based in Hampstead in Pender County, is one of dozens of organizations working in North Carolina since Hurricane Florence to try to fill the gaps around what private insurance and government programs can do for flood victims.

Immediately after the storm, S.H.A.R.E collected and distributed donations of cleaning supplies, baby diapers and wipes, bed sheets, blankets, towels and children’s clothing, some of which made their way to the Bell family.

“I don’t think I could ever say how much it’s meant to us, just to know that people have been so kind and willing to help us gather these things,” Bell said. “In this world where it seems like everything can be so rough, people are all coming together to help people they don’t even know. That is an amazing thing to see.”

As natural disasters become more frequent and more severe, the work of charities has become critical to alleviating suffering, preventing homelessness and preserving communities in the state. Leaders of nonprofits are involved in discussions with federal, state and local officials before, during and after a storm to make sure their resources are put to best use at every stage.

With every new disaster the government looks for new ways to partner with charities in the state to multiply the effect of taxpayer funds in the rebuilding process.

Without nonprofits and the donors who support them, many thousands of flooded-out families in North Carolina might never be able to resettle in their homes.

“We see nonprofits as the first ones in and the last ones out after a disaster,” said Bob Ottenhoff, director of the Washington-based Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which helps foundations and corporations channel their giving to disaster-relief groups working around the world. They’re the first in, he said, because often they are made up of volunteers who live and work in the community and come to the aid of their neighbors.

“They’re the last ones out because they’re the ones who stay around for the mid-term and then the long-term recovery,” he said.

Baptists, Methodists prepare

Hurricane Florence was still spinning in the Atlantic when state emergency management officials started coordinating with local leaders of the American Red Cross on when and where to open emergency evacuation shelters. The N.C. Baptists on Mission, based in Cary, met with the state to figure out where the group’s mass feeding operations would be needed in the case of widespread flooding, and how the trucks could get where they needed to be. The N.C. chapter of United Methodist Committee on Relief, based in Garner, was collecting “flood buckets” full of cleaning supplies a week before the storm made landfall.

During four days of relentless rain, volunteers with boats — some from as far away as Texas, Alabama and Louisiana — evacuated people from homes that were surrounded by water.

And when the flood receded, volunteers from across the state and around the country began moving in to neighborhoods to help carry out ruined belongings, shovel mud and pull down drywall.

In any natural disaster, private insurance is the largest source of recovery funding for homeowners, followed by FEMA and the federal Small Business Administration. Most of the households that had registered with FEMA as of early November will get enough money from one or more of those sources to make their homes “safe, sanitary and secure,” as FEMA says.

But with every disaster, experts say, a percentage of survivors — some say as many as 10 percent — have little or no insurance, don’t make enough money to qualify for an SBA loan and need much more than FEMA can provide to rebuild.

For them, the work of nonprofits can mean the difference between recovering from the hurricane and spending the rest of their lives struggling to get back on their feet.

After Hurricane Matthew, FEMA called volunteers “the backbone of disaster recovery” in North Carolina.

“There is real room for the charity sector here,” said Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden Leaf Foundation, the nonprofit that was set up to oversee the use of North Carolina’s share of the 1998 tobacco settlement cash.

After Florence, the N.C. General Assembly tasked Golden Leaf with administering the state’s Disaster Relief Fund, established in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd, reactivated after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and again for Florence recovery.

The fund receives taxpayer money along with donations, and is now accepting grant applications from nonprofits that would use the money to help hurricane survivors with temporary housing, home rebuilding, medical and dental costs and other expenses.

A disaster as large as Florence, which damaged nearly 95,000 homes in 34 counties, will require the work of every charitable group that can participate, Gerlach said, and will test the ability of volunteers to stay with the effort, likely for several years.

“The robustness and the diversity of the charitable sector is on full display in a disaster like this,” he said. “It’s the best of the human heart at work. The challenge for philanthropy is after a month or a year, when the next hurricane hits, do all your volunteers just run to the next storm?”

Worries over donor fatigue

Briana Knight, who founded S.H.A.R.E., the group that is helping the Bells and others in Duplin, Pender, New Hanover, Brunswick and Columbus counties, worries about what some organizers call “donor fatigue.”

Some groups that do home rebuilding saw it after Hurricane Matthew. A year after the storm, it was still easy to find houses that needed rebuilding. It was harder to find teams to do the work. Flooding from Florence was even worse, and the storm re-flooded many houses that volunteers were just finishing up from the previous hurricane.

So far, every time Knight has put out a plea on Facebook asking for items for flood victims, the offers have poured in. Recently, she was looking for several dozen beds to replace ones that were soaked by high water, and now she’s trying to get people to adopt local families for Christmas.

“I worry that so many people have donated during this time, that maybe they just won’t be able to give anymore,” she said. “That’s kind of a concern.”

Dwight Shepherd, pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church in Warrensville, so far has coordinated two deliveries of relief supplies to S.H.A.R.E. The items were donated by members of his church and at least eight other congregations in Ashe County, in northwestern North Carolina, where he lives.

The effort grew out of a connection his church had to a resident in Burgaw, where flooding was severe.

“We were just trying to fill a void,” Shepherd said. “If there is something they need, maybe we can get a little of it.”

First, the group sent cleaning supplies and other immediate needs. Now, Shepherd said, they’re gathering furniture for when people are able to get back into their homes.

“I tell my folks, ‘It could be us.’ ” Shepherd said. “It’s not likely to be a flood for most of us; it’s going to be an ice storm or a devastating snow storm.

“But it doesn’t make any difference if it’s not ever us. Just help somebody else move forward.”

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