Slow Recovery from Hurricane Floyd
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TOM BEARDEN: Last September, Elsie Stokes was throwing away nearly everything she owned. Her house had been inundated by nearly five feet of filthy water. The flood was caused by torrential rainfall from Hurricane Floyd, the worst flood in North Carolina history.
ELSIE STOKES: This is the worst. It’s… It’s like you have everything, and waking up with nothing– nothing, nothing, not even a roof over your head.
TOM BEARDEN: Nearly four months later, Elsie and her husband, Jimmie, have a roof over their heads, but it’s an aluminum roof. They and their 18-year old son, Travis, are living in a tiny camper trailer supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It’s parked next to their ruined home.
JIMMIE STOKES: I mean, we’re trying to be real patient with each other. We’re trying… You know, and… It… It… It’s hard. It’s hard when you want to rest and you need rest, you can’t rest.
ELSIE STOKES: I guess the hardest part is we are used to electricity and being able to cook dinner and have a nice dinner, and right now we are kind of just eating out of bags. You know, we’re eating a lot of soup and eating a lot of frozen things, and that’s hard, because I don’t feel like I’m feeding my family like I ordinarily would.
TOM BEARDEN: The Stokes are among 4,200 people living in travel trailers and mobile homes, some parked on their own property, others in large parks like this one near Rocky Mount. Jimmie Stokes is trying to get out of the camper and into a new home and is finding the process extremely frustrating. Stokes’ home had almost $80,000 in damage. FEMA gave him a one-time payment of $7,000. So he decided to apply for a low-interest disaster loan to build a new house. FEMA has a contract with the Small Business Administration to run that program. Stokes started laying a foundation, but says he’s getting the runaround trying to complete the process. The SBA approved a loan to rebuild his old house, not a new one.
ELSIE STOKES: We’re calling them weeks apart, because each time we call, they say, “oh, we don’t have your stuff in front of us. Let us go get it. We’ll call you back.” They don’t call you back.
JIMMIE STOKES: They don’t call you back.
TOM BEARDEN: How many times has that happened?
JIMMIE STOKES: 15, 20 times, at least.
TOM BEARDEN: And they don’t call you back?
ELSIE STOKES: No, and every time you get a different person you are talking to. Nobody is holding your case. One girl says, “okay, you call and ask for me.” So I call and ask for her, and then she acts like she don’t even remember me.
TOM BEARDEN: There are similar complaints in Princeville, a town founded in 1865 by former slaves. Even though contractors are clearing away rotting mobile homes to be replaced by new ones, people say the work was slow in starting. Nearly all the houses in this subdivision are being gutted. Warped joists and crumbling sheet rock are being replaced; new plumbing and appliances are being installed. But Teresa Byrd says the government wasn’t much help.
TERESA BYRD: It flooded out. We tried to get help. They denied us. We tried three more times. They denied us again. So then we went to SBA and then finally got a loan from SBA, but FEMA didn’t help.
TOM BEARDEN: So, how did you survive in that time?
TERESA BYRD: It was hard. Red Cross, people just giving out stuff, shelters.
TOM BEARDEN: How far is that going to go?
TERESA BYRD: Just to fix up the house. And what about furniture, clothes? We don’t get nothing for personal property.
TOM BEARDEN: James McIntyre is a public affairs officer with FEMA.
JAMES McINTYRE: FEMA is dealing with over 1,000,500 people that have been devastated by disasters throughout the nation. In this particular state alone, North Carolina, there’s over 80,000 victims. So that creates some of the delay, because so many people are involved. And then there are different areas where administrative things, things that they need to provide, deeds and things that were lost in the flood, and that takes time. So the process does have some delays built in, but basically people are getting what they need as quick as possible.
TOM BEARDEN: Stokes says it’s not only the delays that gall him. He’s upset the government only offered him a loan instead of the outright $20,000 grants it gives to poorer people. And he resents the aid given to victims of overseas disasters.
JIMMIE STOKES: I paid my taxes. Like I said, I’ve never asked for anything from them. But they can go out and help these foreign countries, and I’m sure they ain’t paying it back. But when it comes time to needing them, they haven’t helped us. All they done was give us a bunch of paperwork.
TOM BEARDEN: North Carolina’s Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture, Weldon Denny, says he’s hearing similar complaints from farmers.
WELDON DENNY: I hear that almost daily. People call in and say, “well we’ll send $8 billion to Honduras or somewhere, and we can’t get a billion dollars set up for our own people.” And that’s true, and that’s hard to answer.
JAMES McINTYRE: Based on the law as it’s established right now, the Small Business Administration is the bank for FEMA, and it offers loans to people to recover from the process. Those people who are determined that they can’t repay a loan are given grants through funds that are provided to the state. That program is administered by the state, you know, which was affected by the disaster. As far as money going outside of the country, that’s a different law, a different program, and we can’t comment on that.
TOM BEARDEN: Denny says a lot of farmers are having an even tougher time than homeowners in getting loans because FEMA doesn’t cover agriculture.
DOUGLAS MAREADY, Farmer: Yeah, I went to the government for loans. And I went and talked to them, but that’s about as far as it got. I found out quickly that I didn’t qualify for nothing they had.
DOUGLAS MAREADY: Come on!
TOM BEARDEN: Douglas Maready raises turkeys near Kenansville. The flood drowned 6,500 turkeys and left him with a huge cleanup problem. The state hired a Pennsylvania hazardous waste company to dispose of the carcasses, but his turkey houses were damaged in the cleanup. He also lost his crops and had no flood insurance because the land had never flooded before.
DOUGLAS MAREADY: It’s been kind of slow to get everybody to agree to throw us a life preserver. Sort of like a drowning man, you know — you’ve got so many people that’s got to agree to throw that life preserver until it slows everything down, and in the process there’s people that’s going under.
TOM BEARDEN: Maready says he’ll survive by dipping into his retirement nest egg. But Commissioner Denny says not all North Carolina farmers will make it.
WELDON DENNY: There’s about probably 5%, 10% of them that may not get… May not get back at all.
TOM BEARDEN: That’s a pretty big number, 10%.
WELDON DENNY: It is. It is. But… And it may be too big. I hope it is. But when you can’t… When you can’t get a loan or you’re not able to repay a loan if you could get one, and you were marginal to begin with, and your prices are as low as they have been and are still, some of them, it’s very difficult for them to get back into business.
TOM BEARDEN: The biggest surprise in the wake of the flood is the lack of environmental impact from the inundation of hundreds of municipal sewage treatment plants and the waste lagoons of dozens of large-scale hog raising facilities. The hog lagoons have long been controversial, but predictions of dire consequences if they were breached were not realized. Bill Roper is the dean of the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health.
BILL ROPER: It didn’t happen. Does that mean we can go right on with the current arrangements for disposal of hog waste? I don’t think so. Just because we didn’t have a major problem that we can document right now, I think it’s still highlighted to all of us, whether you’re a pork producer or a public health official or a homeowner in the community, that there’s some issues that we just need to do a better job with, and I think that’s important.
TOM BEARDEN: Even if the hog waste didn’t turn out to be an immediate problem, it and other organic material and sediment may have a long-term impact on a commercial fishery on the Atlantic Coast. North Carolina’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Bill Holman, says the state is carefully watching Pamlico Sound.
BILL HOLMAN: We still don’t fully understand the impacts, and we’re… With support from Governor Hunt and the general assembly, we’ve stepped up and enhanced work quality monitoring effort, so we can watch what’s happening in the Sound this spring and summer. But it’ll probably be this time next year before we really know the full impact of the hurricanes.
MUSIC: Got to be cool now got to take care…
TOM BEARDEN: Life will return to a semblance of normalcy for some Princeville residents in a couple of weeks when they’re able to move back into their rebuilt homes. For the Stokes family, it’ll be at least five months before they can move into their new home. That’s the shortest amount of time it would take to build the house, longer if there’s any more delay in getting their disaster loan.