Road to recovery could test patience of Matthew victims
TARBORO, N.C. (AP) — Tiajuana Williams lives in a one-story apartment building in Princeville, North Carolina, that was flooded by a river bulging with rainwater from Hurricane Matthew. Before driving out of town in her Honda Civic ahead of the storm, she hurriedly packed a small bag with little more than a change of clothes.
Now, even while seeking aid to replace her belongings and arrange long-term housing, she has more pressing needs: "I ain't got no clothes. I left my clothes in there!"
If other recent floods in Louisiana and elsewhere are any indication, she could face a long road to recovery. She filled out a FEMA application online and signed paperwork Thursday with an agency representative who met with people in Tarboro, just across the Tar River from Princeville.
But Williams was told that it could take a week or more to get to the next step, which will be a phone call from another representative who will go over her information again. She doesn't have renter's insurance and fears her stuff has been ruined. Making matters worse, she hasn't been able to get to her job as a home health nurse and doesn't expect a paycheck this week.
"I've had a headache for about four days," the 53-year-old said, taking a drag off a cigarette.
Her stress may not go away anytime soon if other recent flood disasters are a guide. In Louisiana, thousands of displaced families are still waiting for government assistance after the catastrophic deluge there two months ago — from a storm system that didn't even have a name.
Amanda Burge doesn't feel any closer to returning to her home in Denham Springs, Louisiana.
She is struggling just to get her family on the waiting list for a government-issued mobile home, which would allow them to live on their property while they repair damage. Daily phone calls to FEMA haven't yielded any answers for when — or if — they can get one delivered.
"We feel like we're not making any progress forward," said Burge, a married mother of three young sons. "We don't want money in our pockets. We just want to go home."
Last month, Congress authorized $500 million in flood recovery grant money for Louisiana and other states. That was before Matthew churned up the East Coast.
In West Virginia, where 23 people died in June flooding and thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, rental options are scarce and the hilly terrain leaves few flat areas open for new construction. Clay County commissioner Jerry Linkinogger estimates nearly 1,000 people in the central West Virginia county of 8,500 residents applied for FEMA aid. The county has only one small hotel, so some flood victims left the area to find temporary housing.
"For a while, we had people living in tents," he said. "People are just working their way back slowly."
FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said the federal government currently has about $5 billion in a fund for all FEMA-funded disaster relief work.
"We've known for quite some time that flooding is the most common and costly disaster we see in the U.S.," Lemaitre said. "We're working very hard to make sure impacted areas get the support they need from the federal government."
More than 24,000 survivors in hard-hit North Carolina have applied for federal disaster assistance, and FEMA has approved more than $5.8 million in individual assistance to cover needs including repairs or temporary housing, Lemaitre said Friday. That amount is expected to increase.
As of Thursday morning, about 3,400 people were staying in more than 40 shelters in eastern North Carolina. The next step is to move them into hotels or rental properties.
"We want to get these people out of shelters so they have more privacy, so they have more dignity, so they have better care, so they can be with their families and reunited with their pets if possible," Gov. Pat McCrory said.
More permanent housing will be "a major challenge," McCrory said.
In Louisiana, FEMA mobile homes are considered the last resort. The primary vehicle for helping displaced homeowners is the state-run, federally funded "Shelter at Home" grant program, which enables residents to live in their homes while making repairs. It's the first of its kind since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, according to Lemaitre.
The program has received more than 20,000 applications from residents, who are eligible for grants of up to $15,000 if the repairs can get them safely back in their homes. As of Tuesday, work funded by the program has been completed on nearly 2,000 homes and a final inspection was needed on another 3,000 homes.
Many residents and elected officials have criticized the program's pace.
"It's the red tape on top of red tape, which takes up weeks and months," said state Sen. Bodi White, a Republican running for mayor of Baton Rouge.
This week, 466 households in Louisiana and 39 in West Virginia were living in FEMA-provided mobile homes. FEMA also is paying for approximately 2,500 Louisiana families to stay in hotels.
In Lumberton, North Carolina, residents are only just emerging from the shock of such a large disaster. Floodwaters from the crested Lumber River are still preventing hundreds of residents from getting home.
Janet Meier didn't wait for the waters to recede. The 36-year-old waded into the clear brown water barefoot to retrieve her son's warmest blanket and a laptop on Thursday. While her home is surrounded by flood water — and her carport is flooded with knee-deep water — the inside is mostly dry.
Meier doesn't know if she'll be eligible for any federal assistance. She's not sure she will even ask for it.
"I've lost a lot, but it can come back," she said. "It's able to be replaced. I have the most important things."