It’s been three years since Hurricane Florence caused catastrophic damage in Eastern North Carolina. Communities across the region are in various stages of recovery. Most businesses that were damaged have reopened, homes in flood-prone areas are in the process of being elevated, and many residents have made some progress restoring their homes and getting their lives back to normal. But in areas that were hit hard by the 2018 storm, like Craven County, the work is far from over. PRE’s Jared Brumbaugh has more on the ongoing recovery efforts, which are happening in mostly rural and underserved areas of the county.
On a quiet street in the heart of New Bern, volunteers with AmeriCorp remove drywall, ceiling tiles, and fiberglass insulation from the ceiling of a home that was damaged from the wind-driven rain during Hurricane Florence. What started as a minor roof leak has, over time, become a health and safety hazard for the family that has lived in the home for the past three years.
“The back room was the one that still had the mold so we kept that door closed, not really knowing what it was doing to our health.”
That’s the long-time homeowner, who asked us not to use her name to protect her privacy. After discovering the roof leak, she contacted her insurance provider who refused to fix the roof because it wasn’t covered for wind damage. After that, she says she was reluctant to reach out to FEMA out of fear of being turned down again.
“You know, sad, discouraged, you know, wanted to lose faith. But through it all, I couldn’t. Each day I woke up, we had a roof over our head, it just wasn’t the same anymore.”
Eventually, a relative encouraged her to reach out to the Craven County Disaster Recovery Alliance. The organization was formed in 2016 in response to Hurricane Matthew and works with about 70 partnering agencies like Habitat for Humanity, the Fuller Center Disaster Rebuilders, Baptists on Mission, and the Salvation Army to facilitate immediate and long-term disaster recovery.
“Walking through some of these homes and looking at the conditions that they’re forced to live in, tarps aren’t meant to last three years.”
Jeremy Kulberg is the construction supervisor with CCDRA. He says the recovery projects across Craven County keep coming and never seem to end.
“I have ten on my board, ready to go. We’re going through another three homes, maybe four homes on Friday to validate whether we can handle the project.”
“If you look at it in means of numbers, one in four households were affected by Hurricane Florence.”
That’s Craven County Disaster Recovery Alliance Director Kitti Hardison.
“There was over 11,000 FEMA registrations, which I think there’s 44,000 households in Craven County, so that was one in four. And that’s just those that applied with FEMA. There was many more who didn’t apply for FEMA. So that just shows you the magnitude of Hurricane Florence and how it affected from one end of the county to the other.”
When Florence hit, CCDRA was already working with FEMA, State Emergency Management, and nonprofits. At first, recovery efforts focused on mucking and gutting out homes that were inundated with water. Individuals that could do the work themselves or could afford to hire a contractor were able to get back on their feet more quickly. Now, three years later, the majority of clients that CCDRA is helping come from underserved communities. Most are uninsured or underinsured, and have incomes that fall below the poverty level.
Director of Operations Kristy Kulberg says the main challenge with Florence was that the damage was widespread.
“All the corners of Craven County had been touched. Harlowe, Duffyfield, Vanceboro, Cove City, Grifton, Dover, all over the place. It’s safer to say there was not a piece of Craven County that wasn’t touched by Florence.”
Kulberg says they’ve seen a surprising number of people who have been forced to live inside their homes since the storm despite life-threatening black mold and other hazards.
“They really don’t have any other options. Families are struggling so, you know, it’s hard for them to bring a family member into their home if they need a safe place to go. And the rental market is completely depleted, I mean there’s not much left to find a rental.”
There has been some progress. CCDRA and their partners have helped over 500 families return to their homes. But recovery is far from over. Kulberg says they have at least 500 more that are awaiting repairs.
“And people are still almost daily being forced out of their homes and we have clients that are couch surfing, you know, they’ll stay with this friend for a couple of days, then with sister, and then with brother. They’re continuously being moved around because their home still has damage.”
The more immediate repairs from flood damage have slowed. Now, volunteers are replacing drywall and flooring damaged by Florence’s wind-driven rain. Homes that had minor damage during the storm are much worse now. Kulberg says one example is a home in Dover which started with a small hole in its roof.
“She went and look a personal loan to pay a contractor to do her own recovery. The contractor took that money and left. Never repaired her home. Over time, the damage just got worse and worse and worse and now her home is completely gutted and that small leak has now cost her entire house and everything in it.”
Long term recovery can be just that… long-term. CCDRA Director Kitti Hardison.
“When we started doing some estimates right after Florence, we anticipated this being a five to seven-year recovery.”
CCDRA and their partners have about 50 active projects in Craven County at any given time. A major obstacle to long-term recovery is funding, since the repairs are generally covered through state and federal grants and public donations. Volunteers are also needed to physically repair the damages. Another challenge, Kulberg says, is getting the word out that assistance is still available to people impacted by Florence.
“I do think people feel forgotten. I also think that Florence in some ways felt like a molehill and you add COVID on top of it and now it feels like a mountain. This is trauma on top of trauma. You know, people have lost loved ones since the storm, so that’s trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.”
Back at one of the two the current CCDRA projects in Craven County, volunteers have fixed the front door and replaced some of the windows that were broken. The roof damage was fixed earlier this month and new shingles were put on. If all goes according to plan, construction should wrap up tomorrow. For the first time in three years, the family that lives in this small home on Hazel Avenue has hope.
“Just seeing the process, the progress, from what it was to what it has becoming, yes, yes. I can smile again.”
For more information on help available through the Craven County Disaster Recovery Alliance, visit cravendra.org or call (252) 571-2976.