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By Thomas Goldsmith

When the Trent River overran the Haiti community of Jones County, Linda Faith Perry lost her mobile home, her car, even her dog Kujo.

Starting Sept. 14, Hurricane Florence sent torrents coursing through Jones’ county seat Trenton, with the Haiti neighborhood where Perry lived hit especially hard. In the weeks since, many Trenton residents and others in the 10,000-resident county have lived betwixt and between, flooded out of their customary homes, but unable or unwilling to relocate permanently.

Linda Faith Perry, of Trenton, lost her trailer home, car and dog when Hurricane Florence surged through her neighborhood in September. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

“I’ve been through two hurricanes here,” Perry said, referring to Florence and the catastrophic Hurricane Floyd, which clobbered the town in 1999. “Now I’m living at a hotel.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave housing help to Perry and more than 129,000 other North Carolinians who have registered as disaster survivors since Florence. In Jones County, 650 homeowners and renters were awarded $4.4 million in state and federal housing grants.

A slow recovery

“It was by far the worst flooding we’ve ever experienced in Jones County,” said county manager Frank Howard. “There are parts of the county that saw five to seven more feet than in Floyd. We don’t know for sure because our flood gauges went out of order. They were under water.”

In a county where manufactured homes such as Perry’s make up as much as 30 percent of housing, the slow-moving storm was particularly damaging. Some applicants to FEMA were provided with travel trailers or manufactured housing as a temporary solution, Alex Bruner in the agency’s public affairs office said via email.

“It’s a slow recovery process — folks are trying to get their homes back in order,” Howard said. “We’re still in the process of getting debris off the road.”

Countywide estimates to date say the county suffered $16 million in damage from Florence from heavy rain and the overflowing Trent River, Howard said. Anyone whose house was torn up by a hurricane can live with disruption and stress, but it’s safe to say money usually helps. The median household income in Jones is $34,080, about seven-tenths of the statewide figure of $48,256.

Decisions about rebuilding won’t be easy. On Haiti Street, next door to a house with a man-sized cross and a statue of the Virgin Mary in the yard, Victor Guadarrama was at work clearing mounds of sodden debris from his mobile home.

Hurricane Florence devastated Victor Guadarrama’s trailer, with water coming up to the bottom of the window to his right, in the Trenton neighborhood of Haiti. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

“I bought it from my parents three months before the storm,” said Guadarrama, who had no insurance on the dwelling.

Residents from Haiti, one of the neighborhoods closest to the river, were driven from their homes and are staying with relatives, at motels, or wherever they can find lodging, neighbors said. Even before the storm, the county had a shortage of affordable housing.

“I have a family of six living with me,” said Trenton resident Angela Wilson. “They’re not kin, but they were flooded out. They were living with another lady and it was too cramped at that house.”

Like others throughout the state, many Jones County residents face the decision of whether to repair a badly damaged long-time home or accept money for it from the government to move on, Howard said.

“It just depends on their abilities,” he said. “A lot of folks are inquiring about the FEMA buyout process.”

The buyout process is a complex one but may result in a market-value payment so the homeowner can make a new start.

Public, private help

Many Jones County residents first saw their FEMA applications rejected because of paperwork difficulties, Wilson said. But FEMA brought counselors to a temporary center on Highway 58 to help those who’d gotten discouraging answers.

For now, some Haiti residents who can’t go home make daily visits to their former houses, checking on belongings and remaining neighbors.

“After the storm, everyone was pretty much at a loss for words,” said Jennifer Bruinton, accepting customer payments at the Old Plant Diner, just blocks from Haiti and from the Jones County Courthouse. “It really affected the community a lot. They seemed very worried and upset.”

“Many of these people didn’t have much before the flood and now they have nothing.”
Along with the millions in federal and state assistance coming into Jones County, the private sector is also pitching in. Old Plant Diner owner Michael Murrell, whose establishment escaped serious damage, offered free hot meals to survivors and workers the day after the storm. Haughton Chapel Free Will Baptist Church, where Bruinton is a member, sold meals in the parking lot of the Red & White Store to raise money for disaster victims.

And celebrity chef Vivian Howard, whose restaurant in Kinston is 20 miles and change from Trenton, is also raising money for Jones County, through sales of T-shirts. On her website, Howard pointed out the low profile of Jones County, where about two-thirds of working residents have jobs outside the county.

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“It’s a place that can be easily overlooked,” she said. “Many of these people didn’t have much before the flood and now they have nothing.”

“Trying to thrive”

Wilson, the woman who’s sharing her home with flood survivors, said Jones County had maintained its population in recent years and had been looking to grow.

Jennifer Bruinton greets customers at the Old Plant Diner in Trenton. The diner gave away hot dinners the day after Hurricane Florence swamped much of the town. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

“I would say in Jones County, we are a county that is trying to thrive,” she said.

“We are the fourth poorest county in North Carolina. In trying to overcome that obstacle, we are trying to take advantage of all the opportunities that are available to us.”

While Wilmington received national publicity because flooded roads cut off land access for days after Florence, similar isolation Jones County went mostly unnoticed.

“We couldn’t get out of Jones Count after the hurricane for about five days,” Wilson said. After that, it was an hour and a half drive just to New Bern.”

It usually takes about 20 minutes to get to New Bern, where Wilson works as a prison re-entry case manager for Craven and Pamlico counties and as a job-readiness counselor at Craven County Community College.

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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...