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Florence amplifies problems for public housing residents

Florence's powerful winds and storm surge have devastated the small city of New Bern, North Carolina, were residents of a public housing development were already frustrated by the terrible living conditions. The NewsHour’s P.J Tobia reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Florence's powerful winds and storm surge also devastated the small city of New Bern in North Carolina.

    Founded in the early 1700s, it is one of the oldest cities in the state and was briefly the state capital.

    As P.J. Tobia discovered, some of the most flood-prone parts of New Bern also house its most vulnerable resonance.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    The rivers began to swell and the rain didn't stop. By Friday afternoon, much of New Bern, a city of almost 30,000, was underwater. Crews rescued about 500 people. Thousands of homes and buildings are damaged.

    It is among the most devastated areas in Florence's path. In the days since, boats sit on the shore, trees block streets, debris everywhere.

    But over the weekend, the historic downtown, with its old mansions, yacht club and attorney's offices, already showed signs of recovery.

    Just minutes away, however, in Trent Court, residents expect the cleanup process to take longer.

    This public housing development was built in 1939, and regularly floods with the waters from the river behind me. During Hurricane Florence, those waters came to where I'm standing now. Residents here are frustrated by the terrible living conditions and say that Hurricane Florence's storm surge have only made those conditions worse.

  • Woman:

    Those are the same conditions that we have to live in, because we have no other choice. Where else are we going to go?

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Over the weekend, we met these women as they were grilling some perishable food. Like many across North Carolina, their power was still out.

  • Woman:

    The water came out right there.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    But the water rising around their furniture on Friday just compounded existing structural problems, peeling ceilings, crumbling walls, issues with lead paint.

    And as Florence neared, these residents say the only information they got came from the media and in this flyer on hurricane readiness. But even then, because they didn't have cars, cash or public transportation, they felt stuck.

  • Woman:

    If you just walk around, you can see how many — a lot of people was just sitting around trying to figure out what the hell they was going to do, because I was too.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    During the storm, more than a dozen families would have to be rescued from Trent Court.

    Sabrina Bengel represents this ward on the town's Board of Aldermen. After the storm, she came to check on her constituents.

    Was there an evacuation plan in place for these people?

  • Sabrina Bengel:

    You know, no. I'm just going to be blunt and honest, no.

    I called on Monday and talked to the executive director. And my first question was, can you please tell me what your evacuation plan is for Trent Court? And he said, well, we don't have an evacuation plan. We have a hurricane readiness plan.

    And I said, well, that wasn't acceptable to me. I felt that that wasn't strong enough. We knew it was going to flood. We knew the waters were coming in, and I felt very strongly, if nothing else, in the front rows, the rows closest — the buildings closest to the water should be evacuated, period.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    New Bern mayor Dana Outlaw defended his city's efforts to get the word out to its poorest residents, including sending a fire truck and a National Guard vehicle into the neighborhood broadcasting messages from a P.A. system.

  • Dana Outlaw:

    The first-responders going out and knocking on doors, putting flyers on doors, the mayor and aldermen going out and physically picking folks up and taking them to the shelter, I think we did pretty good job.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    We caught up with Outlaw another public housing development just down the street.

    The Craven Terrace homes were recently renovated, to the tune of $27 million.

  • Dana Outlaw:

    They're so much better what they were, aren't they?

  • Woman:

    Not really.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Woman:

    Not really.

  • Dana Outlaw:

    Well…

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Mayor Outlaw says his government is doing what it can for these residents.

  • Dana Outlaw:

    We are certainly working with them to positive — to make positive changes in affordable housing that meets minimum property standards and is safe, sound, without lead paint and asbestos.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    All this comes as New Bern considers a contentious plan to demolish Trent Court, which sits right near the Trent River, and relocate its residents.

  • Jameesha Harris:

    For people to feel like this is going to get tore down and they're going to put up condos and stuff and sell it to the highest bidder that doesn't look like them, yes, I — I'm definitely against that.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Alderwoman Jameesha Harris represents a neighboring ward.

  • Jameesha Harris:

    I can't speak for the rest of the city officials. I do know that they support the plan of the redevelopment, which is getting these individuals into an area that doesn't flood.

    But, honestly, what is that plan? Because what you're doing is, you take them from here. You put them over into another community, that I feel you're just compacting poverty.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Late in the day Saturday, the lights returned in Trent Court, but residents say the local government had not.

    And have any city officials come down here? Have you spoken to any of them or seen them in this area?

  • Man:

    No, no. You're the first person we have seen and talked to. No.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    I'm the first person from out of this neighborhood to talk to you?

  • Man:

    Right. Right.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Has anyone else been here?

  • Man:

    We haven't seen nobody.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    So, residents kept each other company and well-fed.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm P.J. Tobia.

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