PRINCEVILLE - Parts of Eastern North Carolina that were deluged with water after Hurricane Matthew are now seeing only trickles of the volunteers needed to launch the cleanup. While families wait for help, thousands of flooded-out homes molder a month after the storm.
"Some places are just bereft of volunteers," said Ann Huffman, disaster call center coordinator for the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church. After Hurricane Floyd, which caused similar flooding in the state in 1999, so many people wanted to serve on teams going into the flood zone, eight operators worked the phones and still, "We could scarcely keep the calls answered," Huffman said. Since Matthew, three operators and Huffman are busy at the call center but not overworked.
In the first couple of weeks after the hurricane, as the water rose in several river basins and pushed people out of their homes, school groups, churches and sympathetic North Carolinians and others from around the country sent thousands of tons of emergency supplies: bottled water, canned foods, cleaning chemicals, paper towels and baby diapers. They sent blankets and pillows, bags of used clothing. They dropped money into collection jars and wrote checks to aid agencies and the governor's relief fund.
Now that the water has receded and the scope of the damage is becoming clear in one community after another, homeowners need to move from disaster response to disaster recovery. And for that they need people.
First, their houses must be emptied - mucked out or mudded, as volunteer leaders often say - and stripped, often down to the studs and floor joists. Homeowners with adequate insurance can hire the work done, and some of those crews are on the job. But relief workers say a large percentage of those whose homes were badly damaged by the storm had little or no insurance, and will have to rely on some combination of FEMA emergency grants, low-interest government loans and charity in order to rebuild.
Volunteers from dozens of agencies from as far away as Canada have shown up to do such work, and their efforts are paying off in population centers such as Lumberton, Fayetteville and Goldsboro, which were hit hard and made the national news. But in some smaller towns and rural pockets - Seven Springs, Fair Bluff and others - work has barely started.
There is some urgency; as houses sit with soggy carpets and wicking drywall, mold spreads, causing more damage. In addition, local governments using contractors to haul away debris must minimize the cost, and that means setting deadlines. In unincorporated areas of Edgecombe County, for instance, debris collection will begin today and continue for just 30 days.
"Where is everybody?" asked Rusty Holderness, whose daughter and son-in-law run Tarboro Brewing Co. in downtown Tarboro and held a fundraiser there for flood victims. The youth at Holderness' church in Tarboro spent a recent Saturday mucking out a nearby house, Holderness said, and other groups can be found in hazmat suits hauling out furniture here, ripping up carpet there.
But Edgecombe County officials say hundreds of homes were made uninhabitable by the storm, mostly in Tarboro and Princeville, and progress is spotty.
Holderness, whose wife's store in downtown Tarboro was flooded during Floyd but spared during Matthew, thinks the difference in volunteers' response to the two storms is partly the unfortunate timing of the disaster weeks before a bitterly contested presidential election.
"We're just a flash in the pan in terms of the news cycle," Holderness said. "With all the political junk in the news 24/7, it's like the hurricane came and went."
In fact, the two largest nongovernmental disaster recovery organizations in the state - the United Methodists, based in Garner, and the N.C. Baptist Men and Women Disaster Relief Ministry, based in Cary - expect the recovery and rebuilding phase for Matthew will last three to five years.
While the state does not track the number of homes damaged, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says 66,080 households have reported losses from the storm. There may be more who did not register with the agency because they expect insurance to cover their damage, but all are encouraged to register just in case.
Once their homes have been inspected, owners can request help with cleanup directly through the Baptists' or United Methodists' toll-free call centers, or find other agencies organizing volunteers through North Carolina Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD. Volunteers can learn about work opportunities and offer their time through the call centers as well.
At times after Floyd, the United Methodists' relief organization managed 140 volunteers a day at different sites, Huffman said. This past week, just 40 to 50 Methodists were in the field each day under the group's umbrella.
Cliff Harvell, who left a pastoring job to take over as disaster response superintendent for the United Methodists after Matthew, said that when Floyd hit in 1999, there were few other disasters on the eastern side of the country that competed for volunteers' time, and that storm did little damage outside North Carolina. Within the past 12 months, however, there have been major floods in Louisiana and West Virginia, and Matthew caused problems in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina before it arrived here, siphoning off some volunteer labor.
Not Kelley Connolly and her friends at Wendell United Methodist Church, who hauled a trailer full of tools to Princeville on Thursday to work on a house on South Main Street. Seven feet of water had engulfed the four-bedroom, two-bath home, filling it to 8 inches above the kitchen countertops.
Wendell's nine-member team all had different reasons for taking days off from their jobs and other obligations, but they came together with a sense of purpose, arriving at the home around 9:30 a.m., covering themselves in protective gear and proceeding to dismantle the home's interior.
"We're still pouring the Tar River out of here," Connolly said as she pulled a cut-glass serving bowl from a kitchen cupboard and found it full of brown water. She emptied the water and set the bowl carefully on the front porch with the few other items the homeowner might be able to save.
Everything else piled up by the road: moldy furniture, ruined appliances, mattresses, clothing, shoes, a child's bicycle, picture frames. As the walls were torn down, drywall dust accumulated on the floor like snow. The air smelled like a dank cellar.
Volunteer groups come only at a homeowner's request, and work as long as they can be of help. After the clean-out, the stripped-down house may have to sit two months or more while the structural wood dries out and the homeowner decides whether to rebuild and how to pay for it.
It can be difficult work physically and emotionally, said Gaylon Moss, disaster relief director for the N.C. Baptist Men and Women Disaster Relief Ministry. So far, the organization's volunteers have cleaned up homes or removed trees at more than 230 addresses in North Carolina since Matthew, and on recent weekends the group has had more than 400 people a day at work removing the muck from homes. A team of eight to 12 can usually clear out a house in a day.
"I've got people calling, saying, 'Can you come help us?' And I have to tell them, we can't come help you right now," Moss said.
On social media and through its website, baptistsonmission.org, the organization is asking more people to lace up their boots, put on gloves and a mask and go to work. Generally, volunteers get fed, and those who can work more than one day may be housed on cots in local churches.
Martha Quillin is a reporter for the News and Observer of Raleigh. She may be reached at (919) 829-8989, @MarthaQuillin or [email protected].