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<p>In addition to caring for students physically and emotionally, officials and students from the Robeson County campus reached out to the surrounding community after Matthew’s floods.
By Thomas Goldsmith
Hurricane Matthew dumped more than a foot of water and a load of problems on the University of North Carolina at Pembroke on Saturday, Oct. 8.
The mighty storm spared the college some of the damage visited up on nearby Lumberton, where the flooding Lumber River brought about widespread destruction and several deaths.
No one died at UNCP, but the storm brought two to four feet of flooding. Most students left campus, reducing the student body of 6,300 to about 800 on the day the storm arrived, then to about two dozen. While looking after the physical and mental health of students, campus leaders and the facility itself also served as a key resource and as lodging for emergency personnel from across the state. Students and staff who returned to campus have continued to help other hard-hit communities in Robeson County.
Interviews with students, faculty, administrators, emergency workers and local residents showed that the college benefited from comprehensive emergency response planning and crafted aid for the nearby community as well as ensuring student and staff safety.
Here’s how the story unfolded:
Monday, Oct. 3: Hurricane Matthew heads for Cuba and UNCP officials take serious notice.
On that same day, Randy Faircloth, an Iraq veteran and Connecticut transplant, starts work at a Lumberton upholstery factory after other jobs don’t work out. He, wife Mary and daughter Kara, 9, live in a mobile home with their five dogs. They will be among more than 1,000 Lumberton residents displaced by Matthew who receive help from UNCP staff and students.
Wednesday-Thursday, Oct. 5-6: Travis Bryant, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and emergency operations, and other officials keep watch on Matthew, hoping that it will track far enough east to miss UNCP. Bryant gets out his 80-page disaster plan and the cheat sheets for specific tasks.
“It was coming up on the weekend and we were talking to students about emergency planning,” Bryant said. Administrators urge students to go home for the weekend. Most leave.
Dr. Robin Cummings, UNCP chancellor, holds regular meetings with his cabinet and leadership. Initially, he prepares to send help to UNC-Wilmington, based on projections of Matthew’s path.
Saturday, Oct. 8: The university is inundated by 12.5 inches of rain ending just before 6 p.m.
“Matthew sort of changed its mind,” Cummings said. “Suddenly we’ve got three to four
feet of water on campus.”
Saturday morning, Oct. 8: As water starts to pour into their mobile home, Mary and Kara Faircloth shelter on higher ground at a friend’s nearby brick home. Kara, who is on the autism spectrum, is severely shaken by the storm. Randy stays to look after the family’s animals.
Around 1 p.m.: UNCP campus loses power with 800 students on campus. The 16-member police department fires up its natural-gas generator.
“The rain and the wind were frightening,” Bryant said. “Without lights, it’s difficult to respond to an emergency. When you lose power, you lose communications.”
Staff members for Sodexo, the generator-equipped campus food vendor, prepare food for remaining students, serving 2,300 hot meals and 900 box meals using generator power. Many staff members have flooding or other problems at home, but most remain on the job. Staff delivered food to students who worried about leaving their dorms.
“These people are in absolutely desperate situations but they are helping each other,” Bryant said.
Students are told not to drink the water on campus. Some use the solar panels in front of the library to charge their phones, but heavy cell traffic prevents calls from connecting .
Sunday, Oct. 9: UNCP’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS team, begin a week of on-call duty to help students. The employee assistance program offers help to those who need either mental health aid or help with flood damage, financial issues, etc.
“Our first goal was to take care of our 800 students on campus,” Cummings said. “Over the week we whittled that down to 20 to 25. We did things like posting a guard in every dorm.”
Sunday evening, Oct. 9: A student’s family calls from Lumberton, asking directions to UNCP so they could pick up their daughter. Instead of trying to steer them down treacherous roads in the dark, Bryant takes a pickup truck and delivers the daughter and two friends at about 7:30 p.m.
Sunday afternoon, Oct. 9: Mary and Kara are evacuated from flooded Lumberton, with only the clothes on their backs.
Monday, Oct. 10: Crystal Moore, a nurse practitioner in UNCP student health services, checks the campus along with other staff to ensure student safety.
With his trailer in ruins, Randy Faircloth catches a bus picking up storm evacuees. It happens to take him to Robeson County’s Purnell Swett High School on Deep Branch Road, where he is reunited with Mary and Kara. The dogs are housed free at at the county animal shelter in St. Pauls, except for Stewart, a Jack Russell who ran off in the storm. During Hurricane Katrina, emergency officials across the country learned that many people will refuse to leave home without their pets.
Whitney Jackson, center fielder on the UNCP Braves softball team, serves flood evacuees as one of what she called an “outrageous” number of students working at the community shelter set up at Purnell Swett.
“The chancellor named Monday a service day. The community came together here and absolutely outdid everything,” Jackson said. “There were people who needed 24-hour care and got it. We didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”
Both gyms at Purnell Swett are full of people and additional shelters are set up at Southeast Robeson High School and other locations.
As disaster aid from across the state arrives Monday in hard-hit areas, those workers need places to stay.
“We had all these National Guard members and first responders asking was there someplace they could sleep,” Cummings said. ”We said, ‘Oh, yeah, we have a gym that’s 9,000 square feet.’”
Also on Monday, staff drive the food produced for the expected 200 emergency workers to Lumberton when the workers’ large vehicles are hampered by flooded roads.
Tuesday-Wednesday, Oct. 10-11: Power is restored to campus and cleanup begins.
Emergency workers, including swift water rescue teams with specially designed boats, work out of UNCP in Lumberton and other flooded areas. Moore and other campus health staff work in shelters as few students remain on campus.
October 12: Gov. Pat McCrory visits UNCP with state Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry to assess situation as part of his tour of areas hit by Matthew.
Thursday-Friday, Oct. 12-13: Previously planned fall break allows time for campus to recover.
Thursday, Oct. 12: Mary Faircloth returns to her old neighborhood and locates Stewart, their missing Jack Russell terrier.
Friday, Oct. 13: EMS worker Robin Roberts from Johnston County arrives on campus with other EMS workers.
Nearby communities including Lumberton and Fair Bluff continue to experience devastation. UNCP provides overnight lodging for emergency workers from Buncombe, Franklin, Wake, Durham, Johnston and other counties.
UNCP starts a hurricane relief fund to help students who lost computers, clothes or other belongings when their residences flooded.
Monday, Oct. 16: Campus reopens for some staff members.
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Classes resume and UNCP offers the community a free showing of the acrobatic “Shanghai Nights” as relief from the stress and tragedy of the preceding nine days. The performance is full.
The Faircloths, among 300 people still in shelters, make plans to move to Fort Bragg, where Randy’s veteran status affords them a motel room. They accumulate donated possessions, but Mary contracts a gastrointestinal illness that she attributes to contaminated flood water.
Thursday, Oct. 20: Robin Roberts and other emergency workers are still living in the UNCP gym, responding to the ongoing need for help in flooded areas.
“Everybody has been extremely grateful,” Roberts says, as workers on another shift sleep nearby. “Even the students walk by and say thanks.”
Intact, but in low spirits, the Faircloths leave Purnell Swett for Fort Bragg in Randy’s aged Pontiac. They’ll have the dogs to pick up and a temporary home as they meet with FEMA about a new place to live.
Friday-Saturday, Oct. 21-22: In another stress reliever, UNCP opens up a Friday performance by the Prince tribute band the Purple Xperience free to students and community members. Homecoming weekend is celebrated as the Braves face the Catawba University Indians in football.