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Recovery begins for Bertie County flood victims

We travel to hard-hit Bertie County where residents and business owners are sifting through their belongings ruined by floodwaters.  We speak with people who are now homeless, and relief workers on the ground assisting residents on the lengthy road to recovery.   

The historic town of Windsor, situated along the Cashie River, is a warm and welcoming community that promotes ecotourism and kayak and paddling opportunities.  The town of 3,200 people is also home to one of the country’s few municipal zoos, with buffalo, llamas, ostriches, emus and peacocks.  Windsor is a charming place to live or visit, but it’s also had its struggles.  When the Cashie River spilled its banks, floodwaters inundated downtown and areas of Bertie County.   As much as 10 feet of standing water was reported in some buildings.  A state of emergency was issued by Gov. Pat McCrory last Thursday as emergency crews and swift water rescue teams from across the state pulled 138 people from homes and buildings at the height of the flooding.

The flooding has subsided, and a Damage Assessment Team from Raleigh was called in to survey some of the hardest hit areas on Monday.  Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer says they’re estimating $1.43 million in damages. 

“In the single family category, we have 57 homes impacted.  One destroyed, 32 sustaining major damage and 24 sustaining minor damage.”

44 local businesses were damaged by flooding, and 12 mobile homes were a complete loss.  This is an all too familiar situation for Bertie County.  In 1999, Hurricane Floyd devastated downtown Windsor.  It happened again in 2010 after several days of heavy rains. 

“Bertie County is ranked as the number one most economically distressed county in the state.  So to be at the position on a good day and experience the third 500 year flood in 17 years is just devastating to our community.”

This week, residents and business began the long process of recovery, tearing out ruined belongings and rebuilding their lives.  On Tuesday, I visited Windsor to witness the damage firsthand.

Along King Street, still blocked by Police, piles of waterlogged furniture, rolled up carpet, shelves, disintegrated cardboard boxes, soaked appliances and heaps of trash bags line both sides of the streets.  The sights, sounds and the very distinct musty smell that accompanies flood cleanup is exactly as I remember when I was in this spot six years ago reporting on the flood damage.  However, this time, the streets are mostly empty.  Folks have already salvaged what they can, and thrown away what can’t be saved.  Cleanup and restoration companies are power washing mud and debris from inside downtown businesses.  Large fans stand in the doorways to circulate air and prevent mold from growing. 

“People have really hit the ground running.  Nobody is hesitating to get busy, to get things cleaned out, drying out buildings and trying to get things back to normal as quick as possible.”

Over on East Granville Street, only about 200 yards from the Cashie River, I ran into Restoration Specialist with the State Historic Preservation Office Reid Thomas.  He’s a part of a statewide Cultural Resources Emergency Support Team, deployed to Windsor to save antique farming implements and tools in the Craftsman and Farmers Museum. 

Outreach Coordinator with the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Adrienne Berney points to a pencil line inside the door frame of the museum’s office.

“We had some people from emergency management in here yesterday making notes.  So that’s a notation for their high water mark, HWM.  So, I think that’s about four feet.”

The Governor stopped here the day before to survey the damage and meet the team.  Their restoration efforts continue today as volunteers bring old leather saddles, tools, and other farming implements one by one outside to dry in the sun.  Then they rub them with isopropyl alcohol, which Berney explains is a safe way to preserve artifacts and deter mold growth.

“Some of the identification tags washed off in the flood, identification tags.  So we’re retagging them with Tyvek, which is a more water resistant and pest resistant material than paper that had been before.  We have a lot of fans going inside the building to keep the air circulating to help prevent those additional spores from settling and new spores from germinating.”

The CREST team was able to clean and restore all of the items that were submerged and fortunately, no major artifacts were destroyed by floodwaters.  But not everyone in Bertie County was so lucky.

“About 2 to 2 ½ foot of water inside the house and we just lost everything.”

Windsor resident Lawrence Williams lives only a couple hundred feet from the Cashie River. 

“I just don’t know where we going to go from there.  Just believing, asking God, just go from there.  That’s all I can say.”

Williams is among dozens of people seeking financial assistance at a mobile Disaster Recovery Center parked at the Bertie County Social Services building.  The expandable 18-wheeler, provided by State Emergency Management, offers workspace and communications capabilities.  It officially opened Tuesday, but Senior Disaster Manager for American Red Cross in eastern North Carolina David Garrison says they helped about 30 residents who showed up early on Monday.

“Right now, the only assistance they can get is we can do the emergency assistance which is they would get a debit card with money on it. And it depends on how many people are in the home and that information.”

The parking lot is busy.  People have been coming and going all morning.  It’s about 11 o’clock and Garrison says they’ve had 30 families register today.  In addition to emergency assistance through Red Cross, residents who experienced flood damage can speak with voluntary organizations about help with cleanup and salvaging personal belongings.  Disaster Response Superintendent Cliff Harvell is with the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. He says they are mobilizing eight to ten volunteers to assist with recovery. 

“And then also, we go into tear out, after they understand what resources they have to rebuild, we go ahead and get it torn out so that it can be drying out and getting ready so the family can made a decision about what their next step is.”

At this point, Harvell says they’re trying determining how many people need help and then… they can begin recovery efforts.  But the cleanup can’t come fast enough for Michelle Fluker.

“Ain’t no building or restoring for me, we broke, homeless, penniless, I can’t even go back to work right now because I don’t even know where I’m going to lay my head and what I’m going to do with these kids.  Somebody need to help us.”

Fluker is staying at a nearby hotel with her eight children since the home she rents near the Cashie River is flooded.  At the highest point, she says there was four feet of standing water inside. 

“You know a snake swimming around my bedroom as we speak, a brand new mattress and they swimming all across my bed all on the floor.  There’s a 50 inch color TV in there I’m scared to go get.  A snapping turtle is walking through my living room, I wouldn’t even let it out of my house.”

Emotions are running high.  There’s a sense of hopelessness that permeates conversations with flood victims waiting to get into the recovery center.  Some express anger, others hold back tears.  Most of the people I speak with, some who declined to be interviewed because they were too upset, said they feel like they aren’t getting help.

“I’m staying at this one room down here at the Windsor Inn, I’ve got one more morning which is tomorrow, before I’m out.  They gave me $500 and sent me on my way and told me ‘good luck to you.’  This ain’t right, this ain’t right.”

Many of the people seeking help at the Disaster Assistance Center want to get back on their feet as quick as possible.  But Disaster Response Superintendent Harvell says recovery takes weeks, months and even years. 

“We have to determine who we can help, we have to determine how we can help them, and we have to figure out what’s going to be the best way to pull a plan together to be able to help the folks so we can’t promise anything.  When they’re coming in, we tell them what we do if you qualify.  So when they leave here, they don’t know if they qualify or not because they’re still in the process to determine whether or not we can help them.”

Harville asks residents to be patient.  And if they qualify for assistance, he promises that in return…

“We’re going to do the best we can to bring their home up to a point to where they can move on with their life, and it will be a good quality of life, safe, sanitary and secure place to live, and they’ll be able to put the storm behind them.”

Windsor resident LenorraSessoms is hopeful that she’ll get a phone call soon that volunteers will help her salvage belongings. 

“Everything I own is underwater.  So now… all these years, 50 years of… it’s just material things.  But I have pictures and stuff that can’t be replaced.  But, it’s going to be okay.”

Though the sadness and loss of property, Sessoms is able to keep a positive outlook by bringing humor into a bleak situation.

“I’ve shed a few tears.  I called my pastor, they said I’m very comical. I said Reverend Moore, I didn’t even get my good wig, my good wig is floating in the water.  He said Ms. Sessoms, you’re my favorite… I’m sorry, sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.  I said I didn’t even get my good hair.  It’s okay, I’m good.”

It’s only been a week since floodwaters receded.  Most of the folks I spoke with told me this was their first time experiencing flooding in their home and the devastating loss it causes.  Disaster Response Superintendent Harvell says the hardest part moving forward is that residents have to let go of the past and adjust to a new normal. 

“And hopefully, that new normal will be at a place where they can move beyond this flood, they can put it behind them.  Until they can get that debris out of their yard, until they can get their home cleaned out, this flood is going to stay with them.”

That’s why disaster response crews are on the ground, assisting homeowners in Bertie County with cleanup.  The State Emergency Management mobile disaster center remains at the Social Services building in Windsor.  So far, the Red Cross has provided assistance to 60 families, with 17 cases waiting for approval.  It’s estimated that 40 to 50 residents will need home repair and rebuilding assistance. 

"We count our blessings that no one was killed, injuries were very, very minor.  We’re just asking that folks keep us in your thoughts and prayers.”

While federal disaster assistance remains unlikely, Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer says they should know next week if state funding is available to help flood victims. 

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.