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By Thomas Goldsmith

At first, Arthur Sargent, 83, of Fairmont, downplayed the trouble he and wife Doris went through when Hurricane Florence dumped torrents of rain on their Robeson County home.

Wanda Hammonds, 65, keeps up with friends and relations affected by the storm, even as she serves as Senior Miss Lumbee for 2018. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

After all, their house escaped flooding, he told a reporter last week, but there was some inconvenience, he conceded.

“With all the water around my house, I had no electricity for five days,” Sargent said.

Sargent and wife Doris, 82, who has dementia, made it through the storm and its aftermath through fortitude, experience and resilience. Sargent recounted the experience as the couple spent an afternoon of post-storm relaxation at the Robeson County Fair in Lumberton, where officials welcomed hundreds of people for Senior Day.

“Bless these seniors,” the Rev. John Campbell said during an invocation. “Bless them today to remember that the Bible says these latter days will be greater than our former days.”

Through a special program for older people and in interviews with fairgoers, enduring themes emerged of faith, hope and neighbors helping neighbors. Federal and state governments, Robeson County and the regional Area Agency on Aging also won recognition.

“I have canned foods and water that I keep on hand and the county reimbursed me for the other food that I lost,” Sargent said, also praising a program that provides him with 27 hours of respite annually from taking care of Doris.

Arthur Sargent prepared for Hurricane Florence by putting aside water, propane and canned food, but still had to endure five days without electricity while looking after wife Dorris, who has dementia. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

Sargent worked at New York City’s Rikers Island jail until retirement, as well as becoming an experienced woodlands camper in New York state.

Before Florence, he had stocked up on propane, which allowed him to boil water. “I was worried I was going to run out,” he said.

“Reluctance to talk”

Members of state geriatric mental health specialty teams will be assessing older residents for symptoms of anxiety and depression through services such as Meals on Wheels, said Twilla Allen, aging program administrator for the Lumber River Council of Governments.

“There’s still some reluctance to talk, but sometimes they will in a safe environment,” Allen said.

Robeson, in the state’s Sandhills region, is North Carolina’s most racially diverse county, with significant Native American, African American, white and Hispanic populations, all hit by Florence.

“Some of them lost their homes; some of them had to go to shelters,” said Wanda Hammonds, 65, who was wearing decorative Indian clothing as 2018 Senior Ms. Lumbee.

Several residents referred to the brief span that separated Florence’s destruction from that of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Palmer Bryant, 78, of Pembroke, said a different storm had torn apart his previous home, but added that his faith had assured him he’d survive and thrive.

“You’re already saying that what you will have is going to be better than what you did have,” Bryant said.

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Older people showed up often at the county shelter at Purnell Swett High School, said Kerigahn Jacobs, 17, a student who also volunteered at the shelter.

“It has been great seeing the community come together,” said Jacobs, who is 2018 Teen Miss Lumbee. “It shows you how people can work together — two years in a row.”

Leaning on hope, FEMA

The people of Robeson likely would not have endured as well through the twin disasters of Matthew and Florence on faith alone. The community will be getting help from FEMA in providing temporary homes for those displaced by the storm, Allen said.

Kerigahn Jacobs, 17, Teen Miss Lumbee for 2018, worked at a shelter in Lumberton for people displaced by Hurricane Florence. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

On the other hand, a national PTSD researcher told North Carolina Health News earlier this year that hope and belief in something greater can definitely help dispel stress and anxiety.

“If a person has a strong sense of optimism, if they have a strong sense of faith, it really is the most important element to getting them through difficult times,” researcher Patricia Watson said.

A broader study of faith-based approaches to mental health treatment has detailed conflicting views.

“… religious communities might provide physical, emotional, social and philanthropic supports to victims,” British researchers said in 2016. “But sometimes differences and conflicts regarding religious beliefs and values among survivors and between survivors and professional helpers can interfere with service delivery.”

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...