RED BANKS, N.C. – During her first night of homelessness, Phyllis Heywood retreated to the far corner of a windowless high school gym and slept on the hardwood floor. The noise of several hundred others woke her up after just a few hours, and so Heywood walked into a bathroom stall, hung her clothing on a hook and bathed herself with a soapy rag. She rinsed with two bottles of water.
“I’m just desperate for some privacy,” said Heywood, 59, who’d left her public-housing apartment a day earlier by boat. “But I ain’t got no home to go back to. Everything destroyed by water.”
Her new home, for the next days and maybe longer, was a school with a ram mascot statue out front and an American Red Cross sign on the front door, one of 50 makeshift shelters that have opened across the poorest parts of North Carolina after devastating flooding. Heywood was without her church dresses, without her insulin, without her glasses, and all she knew about her future was that a $710 monthly disability check – after a career as a cafeteria worker – wouldn’t get back what she had lost.
Hurricane Matthew, which left a trail of destruction up the East Coast after killing hundreds in Haiti, came stealthily to devastate North Carolina, its heavy downpours swiftly overpowering river basins far from the Atlantic Ocean. Seventeen have died in flooding, the water is still rising to historic levels, and new evacuations were being ordered Tuesday afternoon.
The disaster is leaving a particularly deep scar across a part of inland North Carolina that was already the most economically vulnerable part of the state. More than 4,000 people have been forced from their homes into hastily assembled shelters at high schools and recreation centers. Many lack flood insurance, health insurance or stable employment.
Officials in this corridor of farmland and struggling post-manufacturing towns along Interstate 95 are bracing for a protracted recovery where displaced people will be without permanent homes for months or longer. Many will depend heavily on assistance from aid groups and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said the agency can provide only a partial solution, offering emergency housing such as trailers or providing temporary rental assistance.
“It is not designed to make survivors whole again,” Lemaitre said.
The most severe flooding stretches across the eastern third of North Carolina, where more than 2,000 have been rescued by boat, helicopter and large military cargo trucks. Schools in 43 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have canceled classes - including in all seven of the counties with the highest poverty rates. Across the hard-hit region, roughly 50 percent of households are in liquid asset poverty, according to data tracked by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, meaning they don’t have enough savings to handle short-term expenses after a crisis.
In some flooded communities, like Lumberton, the disaster also struck along racial lines: A white area of town was preserved, while a lower-lying African American part now stands in several feet of water. That disparity, also seen in some North Carolina towns after 1999 flooding from Hurricane Floyd, is the legacy of geographic segregation in which blacks were pushed toward less desirable – and often lower-lying – land. But in other sections of the state, emergency officials say, a diverse group of people have been pushed from their homes.
“When a flood like this hits, the pain of it is exacerbated by the poverty,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of a church in Goldsboro, where the Neuse River was expected to crest Tuesday night 10 feet above flood stage. “What we’re taking about, particularly in eastern Carolina, are some of the poorest communities in the country - black and white, who already had economic challenges before something like this.”
In a news conference Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said that “extremely dangerous” conditions would persist until at least Friday. “Get out,” said McCrory in a direct message to people still refusing to leave areas under evacuation orders. “Get out now.”
President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration that provides additional federal aid to 13 counties. At a campaign event for Hillary Clinton in Greensboro, Obama said such crises transcend politics. “We’ve been making sure the local and state officials all have what they need to recover and rebuild,” he said. “It’s a reminder of what we do here in America, which is we have to look out for one another no matter what.”
McCrory said officials will work to quickly dispose of decaying animal carcasses that could contaminate waters and pose a potential public health threat. Tens of thousands of chickens, hogs and other livestock are feared dead in the floodwater that washed over factory farms.
Some in North Carolina on Tuesday were still caught by surprise as water was spreading into new neighborhoods. In Robeson County, which has the highest poverty rate in North Carolina and is seeing among the most severe flooding, the swollen Lumber River tumbled across Harpers Ferry Road, eating into a neighborhood composed mostly of Native Americans. By noon Tuesday, trailers and old minivans were half-submerged. A lawn chair was visible underwater. A pig walked circles in a dry patch, surrounded on all sides by water.
Faith Sanderson, 27, after watching her 1989 Champion mobile home get swallowed by water, walked toward the last dry part of the road carrying a box of days-old Entenmann’s doughnuts, which she distributed to neighbors, who gawked at their own flooded homes. Sanderson said she’d managed to save her three kids from the home, as well as her pets. She earned $9 per hour at an Einstein Bros. Bagels shop, where she tended to the cash register.
“I probably have $8 in my bank account,” Sanderson said, “because I paid the light bill last week.”
For those who came to evacuation shelters, relief workers passed out sneakers and donated clothing. But many, instead, dwelled on the possessions they lost.
“Let’s see,” said Mae Campbell, 65. “A living room set. Three TVs. A microwave. A smoker. Another tabletop. A grill. A coffee maker and toaster. A fish fryer that we never used - a nice deep one with the propane tank. I left my receipts. Maybe $150 worth of meats in the freezer. Three pot sets. A meat slicer. Three mops, two brooms, two buckets. Sets of sheets and a pillowcase. Towels, washcloths, an Oriental rug that was my mother’s - 13 by 15 feet. Two coffee tables. One … two … three. Another table.”
Campbell stopped for a moment, as other friends – fellow residents from the now-flooded First Baptist senior affordable housing community – gathered around.
“I am so hurt,” said Campbell, 65, who was soon planning to retire as a home health aide. “I had a plan. Now I have no plan at all.”
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