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By Greg Barnes
It’s been three years since Hurricane Matthew crashed into Robeson County, causing water to bubble up through the plumbing of Isa Alvarado’s mobile home and leaving behind a mold-infested mess.
Alvarado, 63, didn’t vacate her Fairmont home after Matthew. She said she continued to live there, with her two children and a husband who suffered from cancer and COPD.
Hurricane Matthew knocked out the heating and air-conditioning system, so the family got by with space heaters, a window air conditioner and a small, college-dormitory style refrigerator.
”We didn’t repair,” Alvarado said. “We didn’t have the money. My husband was disabled. I had quit my job to be home with him. I was his caregiver.
“We had to live there. We had no other place to go. I mean what are you going to do? I tried to take it as is, then came Florence.”
Alvardo’s story is all too familiar in Robeson and other counties that were hardest hit by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.
And now, while people still struggle to recover from those storms, comes yet another hurricane, Dorian, which threatens to leave more damage along the North Carolina coast this morning.
Farther inland, torrential rain is the biggest concern. In Robeson County, officials are keeping an eye on the Lumber River, which was expected to approach flood stage.
Many people who experienced Hurricanes Matthew and Florence have suffered mental and physical health problems that persist today. For some, Hurricane Dorian could make those health conditions even worse.
No money for repairs
Alvarado’s husband didn’t live to experience Hurricane Florence. He died two months before that storm rumbled into Robeson County as a tropical storm September 2018.
Alvarado doesn’t know whether the mold and mildew her family lived with after Hurricane Matthew contributed to her husband’s death. But she’s sure it didn’t do him any good.
Alvarado said Florence knocked out windows, the rain buckling the floors and soaking the furniture. But even then, she said, she and her children continued to live in the home.
“In reality, I just let it dry, because I had no money. I had no money to buy beds, to buy new furniture. I mean, all that smell was there. I just took it as it was, and thank God for it … If I have to go through this in life, let it be. You know, you can’t let nothing take away your happiness.’’
Alvarado said she went to countless places seeking help — the Federal Emergency Management Agency, ReBuild NC, the American Red Cross — before finally being referred to the Robeson County Disaster Recovery Coalition.
In August, the coalition relocated Alvarado and her children to a motel, almost three years after Hurricane Matthew ransacked their home and 11 months after Florence delivered another crippling blow.
Thousands more needing help
Cassandra Campbell, executive director of the Robeson County Disaster Recovery Coalition, said the coalition has assisted about 11,000 people since Hurricane Florence.
The organization did not exist before that hurricane. Its core mission is to develop, coordinate, manage and deliver services to people in need after a disaster. Through its partner organizations, Campbell said, the coalition is working to get Alvarado’s home repaired before new furniture is delivered.
Meanwhile, Alvarado and her children will live in the motel, free of the mold and countless other hardships they had endured for nearly three years.
Campbell said there are thousands of others in the county who need help. Some are still living in conditions that are just as bad, or worse, than what Alvarado experienced. Some, Campbell said, are still homeless because of the hurricanes. Others have moved away.
Campbell said her coalition and other organizations have been canvassing neighborhoods, trying to find people who need help.
“We find out the different individuals out there who are, you know, living in not safe conditions,” Campbell said. “Homes that are, you know, got big holes and damage to trees, and they are still staying there and it’s not safe …. But they have nowhere else to go because of the housing crisis that we know we have, especially with affordable housing.”
Faced with limited options for low-cost housing, many hurricane victims have packed up and fled the county. In August, the Public Schools of Robeson County closed five schools in an effort to address a more than $2 million shortfall caused by dwindling enrollment. A loss of textile and tobacco jobs and an increase in charter schools are partial reasons for the decline in enrollment.
But another, perhaps bigger reason, is the two hurricanes. According to The Fayetteville Observer, enrollment in Robeson County’s public schools has declined by 1,699 students in the past three years, a drop of more than 7 percent.
Where’s the relief money?
Blue tarps still cover roofs in some parts of Robeson County. By and large, those are low-lying areas inhabited by poor people who did not have flood insurance or the means to make repairs themselves. The federal and state governments are supposed to help them get back on their feet, but that hasn’t happened, at least not to a large degree.
Three months after Hurricane Matthew, in January 2017, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development released $236.5 million in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds to North Carolina Emergency Management, which was at that time responsible for allocating the money to counties.
Much of that money is supposed to be used to pay or reimburse low-income people for repairs of damage to their homes caused by Matthew. The money, much of which was designated to Robeson and three other hard-hit counties, is in addition to millions of dollars that poured into the county from FEMA and other sources shortly after the hurricane.
By December 2018, more than two years after Matthew, the state had allocated only 1 percent of the money — or $3.4 million, according to a report dated May 20, 2019, from the N.C. General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division. The division found that Emergency Management had unnecessarily spent slightly more money than had actually been used to help people. The report blamed a lack of expertise.
At least partly as a result of the spending issues, the state created the Office of Recovery and Resiliency to oversee the federal block grant funds, which Campbell said are finally beginning to get into the hands of people most affected by the two hurricanes.
An estimated 8 percent of the block grant money has now been spent — or about $19.5 million of the $236.5 million. More than a quarter of the money spent has been in Robeson County, and more than $15 million has been designated to county residents in the form of housing award letters, according to the Office of Recovery and Resiliency. Another $168 million in federal block grant funding became available for Matthew victims in August.
Ernestine Pierce, 62, of Rowland is among those still waiting for assistance.
Hurricane Matthew sent a big tree crashing onto Pierce’s roof, causing $30,000 damage. The house was insured, and Pierce’s family moved into a relative’s camper while repairs were being made.
Two years later, Hurricane Florence again inundated the house, leaving the home’s ductwork lying wet on the ground. Pierce said insurance has declined to pay for those repairs, so she’s waiting on government assistance.
ReBuild NC, FEMA and other programs, including church organizations and advocacy groups, have done tremendous work getting people back into their homes. But Campbell and others say it’s not nearly enough.
For those still awaiting help, the hurricanes have taken an emotional, physical and mental toll.
Behavioral health study
The day after Hurricane Matthew, Pierce said, she went to the hospital thinking she was suffering a heart attack. The doctor said her rapidly beating heart was caused by stress, nothing more severe. After her heart began racing a second time, Pierce said, the doctor advised her to take it easy for a while.
Two months later, Pierce said, she tried to return to work at a cabinet shop. She said her boss wouldn’t rehire her, so she was forced to retire.
Now she spends a lot of time at home, worrying about the next big storm. As she sat for an interview with NC Health News, then-Tropical Storm Dorian was building in the Atlantic. Pierce was paying close attention.
“When any kind of storm comes up I’ll be watching and I can’t be still because I’m scared something else is going to happen,” she said.
That’s a common reaction among people who have suffered through a hurricane.
A study being led by researchers at East Carolina University and UNC-Pembroke is tracking 261 hurricane victims in four counties — Robeson, Scotland, Columbus and Bladen — to gauge their emotional, physical and mental health months after Hurricane Florence.
Of the 261 victims, 164 are using applications on their cell phones to document their well-being on a daily basis.
The initial data provide startling insight into the mental and physical health of the participants, said Ashley Batts Allen of UNCP and Heather Littleton of ECU, the study’s two lead authors.
According to data from the study, 73 percent of participants reported mold damage, 46 percent were out of work for two or more weeks, 67 percent developed a new or worsened mental health condition, and 22 percent developed a health condition caused by exposure to mold or contamination. A quarter of children in the survey recorded a new or worsening mental health condition.
More than half of the participants reported that their homes were flooded, and 63 percent said they had lost possessions.
“What we know about some of these really devastating hurricanes is that the aftereffects can linger on for a long time …, essentially that the storms can have longer-term impacts, things related to people losing their job, losing their home, having to relocate, developing a health condition due to exposure to mold or contamination or developing a new or worsening mental health condition,” Littleton said.
Littleton and Allen said the study will be used to try to understand the causes of hurricane victims losing the ability to function normally long after the storm has passed and to develop interventions to keep that from happening after the next storm hits. They plan to present their findings in hard-hit communities in the hopes that the information will help those residents and bring in more resources.
One of Allen’s responsibilities for the study was to recruit members. Because she is a professor at UNC Pembroke, many of her recruits came from Robeson County.
As she went into neighborhoods, Allen said, she found that people were angry after Hurricane Florence. Many had just gotten back into their homes after the damage caused by Matthew, or they were still waiting for their homes to be fixed, she said.
“So having that kind of a catastrophic event impact you twice, in such a short period of time was, I guess you’d say, somewhat defeating for people.”
Many of the people affected were renters left to the mercy of their landlords to fix the homes, Allen said. Others were waiting for FEMA assistance, or insurance, or something or someone else to come along and help them.
“It just takes a really long time to get those resources to be able to fix the physical condition, but then, in the midst of that, of course, there’s a lot of daily frustration,” Allen said.
For many, the research by Allen and Littleton suggests, the daily frustrations and substandard living conditions compound into mental and physical health problems.
The state is aware of the emotional roller coaster residents have been on. It allocated $3.5 million to a Department of Health and Human Services program called Hope 4 NC after Hurricane Matthew and $12.2 million after Hurricane Florence.
The program has provided behavioral health services to more than 147,000 people in 27 counties. Of those helped, more than 24,000 were referred for more intensive community-based services, according to a statement from the program in July.
‘At least I had a place’
Despite all she has endured, Isa Alvarado has not been among those who have sought emotional help.
Somehow, she manages to keep a smile.
Alvarado said she is grateful that she is now in a motel and not bitter that it took almost three years to get out of her house.
“As a Christian I know we go through trials, through many things in life, and we have to learn how to face them,” she said. “I started thinking I’m not like other people, that they are out in the street. You see them homeless, hungry.
“At least I had a place, it wasn’t the best … It had damages because of two hurricanes. I have mold, my clothing was smelling, I had concerns about my health, but at least I still had a roof. So I say, hey, I’m not the only one that has been through problems. There’s other people in other places that don’t have nothing.
“So you gotta be happy and just see the positive side, you know.”