9 months after Irene, people in NC still suffer

AP News
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Posted: Jun 07, 2012 5:02 PM
9 months after Irene, people in NC still suffer

As winds from the second named storm of the 2012 hurricane season picked up speed, the sounds of recovery from the only hurricane to hit last year still echoed through a rural area across the water from North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Buzz saws, nail guns and other power tools competed for attention with birds and frogs as almost 1,700 volunteers from a group called Eight Days of Hope carried out their work in Pamlico County. They pulled out insulation and Sheetrock, put down new flooring and replaced electrical outlets submerged when Hurricane Irene roared through eastern North Carolina in August before tearing a path up the East Coast.

While Irene did more damage in the Northeast, states farther south are more likely to take a lashing from tropical weather during the new hurricane season that started June 1. The remnants of Tropical Storm Beryl late last month did little damage in North Carolina but served as a reminder of the urgency to rebuild houses before more storms arrive.

Irene caused $15 billion in damage and killed 49 people across an area that stretched from the Carolinas to Vermont. North Carolina took the hardest hit in the Southeast, with at least $1.2 billion in damage, not including uninsured crop losses.

"It's like how I expected," said Charles McKinney, a volunteer who came to Virginia. "When something like this happens, when it first happens, you have all the media attention, you have the FEMAs and the insurance people. And everybody descends upon the area. But three months _ this has been close to a year _ later, and these people still have no homes."

About 2,200 households in Pamlico County, which has a population of about 13,000 people, registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and 104 households received a temporary housing unit from FEMA, a local volunteer leader says. More than 350 people completed the grant application for either buyout or elevation assistance.

The founder of Eight Days of Hope, Steve Tybor, said that while Katrina caused the most damage of any disaster he's seen, he finds the situation in Pamlico County more shocking because so much time has elapsed since the storm.

"People don't realize people are still living in homes that are like they were the day after Irene," he said.

Pamlico County is the ninth area visited by Tybor's faith-based group, which is based in his hometown of Tupelo, Miss. Tybor started it after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Its volunteers descend upon a disaster-stricken area for eight days to repair houses. The 1,685 volunteers in North Carolina came from 43 states, Canada and Australia.

Several feet of Irene's floodwaters had filled Wade Miller's house, washed away his outside steps and submerged both of his vehicles. He has been applying bleach and water to the walls each day to stanch the growing mold. He showers and changes clothes there, but sleeps across the street at his brother's house.

Volunteers cut the walls out, replaced the sheetrock and put in new flooring in the one-story home with white siding where the 45-year-old computer assistant and former Army specialist has lived for 17 years. Some work remained at the end of last week, including installation of a heating and air-conditioning system, some painting and sealing of the drywall. He hopes to hire a contractor to finish most of the repairs.

But without the volunteers' help, he wouldn't have been able to afford to make his house inhabitable again.

"I think it's a great blessing from the Lord -- a great, great blessing from the Lord," he said outside his house last week as volunteers put down new flooring.

In Virginia, most of the damage from Hurricane Irene occurred inland in the Richmond area. The Virginia Department of Emergency Management estimates that 20 people lost their homes, primarily due to wind damage. Most of the storm damage was covered by private insurance. He said he didn't know how many people were still displaced.

"Compared to some of our other events, that's not too bad. If you were to tell me Virginia would get hit by a Category 1 hurricane and only 20 homes were destroyed I wouldn't believe you. So that ended up being much better than what we feared at the time," VDEM spokesman Bob Spieldenner said.

In North Carolina, Eight Days of Hope worked in 127 homes, completing 65. Smaller groups of the volunteers are planning to return to finish up the rest.

While Eight Days of Hope rolled into the county, the on-site leaders of the N.C. Baptist Men Disaster Relief and the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church Disaster Relief gave their volunteers the week off. Both groups have been working in the area since shortly after the storm.

"We'll be here until we get most of the people's houses repaired," said Gerald Wilson, the on-site coordinator for the Baptist Men. The group has repaired 70 homes since he arrived in October.

The Methodist organization has repaired about 60 houses, said Bruce Watson, the group's construction coordinator in Pamlico.

All three groups worked together, with Eight Days taking on houses where the Baptist Men had left materials but hadn't finished repairs.

The Pamlico County Disaster Relief Coalition helped steer Tybor's group to the area. The coalition of volunteers had planned to wrap up its work by the end of the year but may stay longer because the damage was so overwhelming, said chairwoman Dawn Gibson Baldwin.

Outsiders may think that coastal residents tend to be well-off and know what they're getting into when they buy property near the water, she said.

But the people of Merritt, Maribel and other small towns in Pamlico County are "families who have been here for decades," she said, breaking into tears. "They're fishermen and farmers, hard-working people who have been hit hard in these economic times. They're struggling. And so, they've done the best that they could do. You drive through the county, see these houses and they look OK. But you go inside, and they're gutted."

Eighty-three-year-old Geneva Gibbs hasn't been back to her house since she fled just ahead of Irene. Her son stayed at the house with a dog, and both ended up being rescued from the attic by a boater. The Baptist Men had made some repairs before Eight Days arrived.

"They're doing a wonderful job out there by putting it back together," she said. "I'm so thankful. I don't know how I'll ever thank those people for that."

Eight Days of Hope didn't finish Gibbs' home, but she feels much closer to being able to move back in.

"I don't know" how it will feel to sleep in her own bed again, Gibbs said. "But I know I'll be happy. I am telling you. To be in my own house one more time _ I don't know how the feeling will be. I just don't. I'm telling you the truth."

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc