FAIR BLUFF, N.C. — The flooding is long gone, but its shadow is everywhere. It is etched in the waterline on the windows of empty storefronts, in the mold blooming on the walls of a neglected building, in the rippled sign hanging in a window: “We will be closed Saturday Oct. 8 due to the storm.”
Drive to Lumberton, half an hour north, past the fields of sweet potatoes and cotton, and there are still piles of sand carried in by floodwaters 11 months ago and ruined homes that stand dark. Two and a half hours northeast, in Princeville, the elementary school stands empty, and in a mobile home park just outside of town, displaced residents are anxiously wondering when — or whether — they will be able to go home.
The flooding last October from Hurricane Matthew killed 31 people in North Carolina, displaced thousands and poured water in threadbare towns dotting the flat green landscape of Eastern North Carolina. And now, in towns that have barely begun to recover from Matthew’s punishing rains, residents are nervously eyeing the possibility of a new threat: Hurricane Irma.
“If Irma comes, I need cots here, I need generators, I need a stove, I need food,” said Adrienne Kennedy, who runs a Lumberton storefront where victims of Hurricane Matthew have picked up donated clothes and housewares. Ms. Kennedy herself is still reeling from Matthew — it inundated her home and left her living in a mobile home. But now is not the time to think about that.
Even if this hurricane stays away, the long aftermath of last year’s flooding offers a grim preview of what lies ahead for storm victims, particularly those in rural areas.
The recovery in North Carolina, which experts say has been hobbled by a gap between unmet needs and available aid, as well as the region’s underlying economic struggles, has felt painfully slow, with many families still displaced and rural towns reckoning with the possibility that some residents will never return.
“There are neighborhoods that have not been rebuilt yet and some that won’t be rebuilt because of the devastation,” said Kenny Flowers of East Carolina University’s office of innovation and economic development. “Houses that are lost forever.”
According to the state, Hurricane Matthew caused some $4.8 billion in damage, affecting 98,000 homes and nearly 20,000 businesses. So far, according to the governor’s office, the federal government has committed $1.2 billion toward the recovery, but the state has asked for more. Early this year, Gov. Roy Cooper requested $900 million in additional federal funds, citing hundreds of millions of dollars in unmet housing and infrastructure needs, but his office said only $38 million had been granted so far.
And, with costs related to Harvey and other disasters expected to rise, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has frozen the funding of many projects related to last year’s storm.
“We still have more of a need of dollars than we are receiving,” said Joe Stanton, the assistant director of North Carolina Emergency Management.
Ms. Kennedy in Lumberton said, “We’ve been fighting this for 11 months, wanting to get our houses repaired and elevated.”
It is not unusual for disaster recovery to take years. But the hurricane’s impact has been felt most acutely in poor towns and low-income neighborhoods that had few resources to spare before the storm hit.
“It consumed the most concentrated population of low-income people in our county, and one of the poorest in the nation,” said Mac Legerton, a minister and community activist in Robeson County, which includes Lumberton. “Not only did the flood exacerbate the challenges, it also strained the community’s assets.”
Here in Fair Bluff, a town that never fully recovered from the decline of tobacco farming, last year’s floods scoured Main Street of most of its businesses, leaving former community pillars like the Ellis Meares and Son hardware store closed.
Mayor Billy Hammond, who decided to leave up American flags in the empty downtown to try to brighten things up, said that about 300 of the town’s nearly 900 residents had been displaced and that 34 homeowners wanted the government to buy and then demolish their homes.
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