Michael Gardner has been uncomfortable since Hurricane Matthew forced him to flee his Princeville home two weeks ago.
The 60-year-old can hardly rest. The cot he sleeps on in a Tarboro shelter leaves him stiff, and he’s surrounded by about 185 others who are unable to return their homes.
Perhaps worse, Gardner lives in an emotional holding pattern. He doesn’t know whether his house is OK or ruined by flood waters from the Tar River. Gardner evacuated before the worst of the storm, and authorities won’t let him return home to see it.
How’s he coping?
“You’re looking at it,” Gardner said, lighting a Newport cigarette outside the shelter. “Situations like this require a lot of patience.”
Nearly 750 North Carolinians are still living in 18 shelters in the wake Hurricane Matthew, which hit Oct. 8 and left 4,070 people homeless immediately after the storm. Many have returned to their homes, and emergency response agencies have found temporary housing for others.
But some communities are still inaccessible because of damage from flood waters. About 440 of the evacuees are living in shelters in Edgecombe and Robeson counties. The rest are spread out across Columbus, Cumberland, Lenoir, Pitt and Wayne counties.
In a statement Thursday, Gov. Pat McCrory said finding stable housing for disaster victims is a top priority. He formed a committee that will aim to help the hardest-hit communities.
“We will continue working closely with our federal partners to find housing solutions as quickly as possible so that people can return to their homes, schools, businesses and normal way of life,” McCrory said.
Many displaced residents in Edgecombe say they have no idea how bad the damage is or when they’ll be allowed to return home. Each resident’s situation is different, so state and county officials are reluctant to give estimates on how long it will take for evacuees to return home.
“Some may be able to return home quickly if their home had little damage,” said Michele Walker, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Joint Information Center. “Some may need to stay in transitional housing for months while their home is rebuilt.”
In Princeville, authorities have blocked off neighborhoods so that FEMA workers can inspect each property to determine whether it’s inhabitable.
Inspectors are placing green tags on houses that are still intact. They’re putting yellow tags on houses that have some damage but can be accessed, and they’re placing red tags on homes that have severe damage, said William Johnson, assistant Edgecombe County manager.
Johnson said the majority of Princeville residents will be able to one day live in their houses again.
“We’ve had a lot more green and yellow tags than red,” he said. “The whole town was underwater, so there’s definitely damage. But it’s not as bad as we originally thought.”
In the meantime, faith groups and emergency response agencies are bringing food and clothes to people in need.
Patricia Sanders, 64, is one of several people staying at the Robert Farmer Center in Tarboro who said she only packed enough clothes for two or three days.
“I didn’t know it would be this bad,” said Sanders, who is living in the shelter with five other family members.
“Some kids couldn’t go back to school because they ran out of clothes,” said Torria Johnson, Sanders’ 18-year-old niece.
Living in a shelter and out of a bag has been such a bad experience for Robert Lane, 66, that he says he’s moving away if his Princeville house turns out to be destroyed, like it was after Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999.
“FEMA can’t help me until I know the damage, but they won’t let me go home,” he said.
The drinking water is warm and the shower water is cold in the shelter, Lane said. He sleeps in his car each night because of the light and the noise in the shelter.
During the day, he’s bored. Lane, a military veteran, is used to exercising every day. Outside the shelter Friday, his main focus was on running or lifting weights – but on occasionally moving his fold-out chair ever so slightly to keep it in the shadow of one of the building’s front pillars.
“I want to go some place where it never floods,” Lane said.
“I had to start over again after Floyd. I can’t start over again,” he continued. “Can you imagine starting over again, at 66?”
If you need help
North Carolina’s Emergency Response Team is encouraging people who suffered damages from Hurricane Matthew to register for assistance by going online to www.DisasterAssistance.gov, by downloading the FEMA mobile app on their smartphones or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).
Major road closures
Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew, these roads remain closed in Eastern North Carolina:
▪ U.S. 13 near Fayetteville.
▪ U.S. 64 in Princeville.
▪ U.S. 74 near Boardman.
▪ U.S. 701 north of Whiteville, north of White Lake and south of Garland.
▪ N.C. 12 in Kitty Hawk.
▪ N.C. 33 in Greenville.
▪ N.C. 41 northeast of Lumberton, near Fairmont, near Delway and west of Dublin.
▪ N.C. 50 south of Kenansville.
▪ N.C. 53 in White Oak and near Fayetteville.
▪ N.C. 55 near Dunn and in Kinston.
▪ N.C. 59 in Hope Mills.
▪ N.C. 71 in Maxton.
▪ N.C. 72 near Lumberton and near Red Springs.
▪ N.C. 87 south of Fayetteville.
▪ N.C. 97 in Zebulon.
▪ N.C. 111 east of Tarboro.
▪ N.C. 403 east of Faison.
▪ N.C. 410 north of Tabor City.
▪ N.C. 411 west of Harrells.
▪ N.C. 690 near Vass.
▪ N.C. 904 near Fairmont and in Fair Bluff.