A Plea for Help: An e-mail about North Carolina floods

(from Maine Townsman, November 1999)
by Joe Meskey

EDITOR’S NOTE: The information technology of the Internet and use of e-mail never cease to amaze me. The following article started as an e-mail that the author, Joe Meskey, sent to his coworkers in North Carolina at the National Institute of Health. That e-mail was found and printed in the Raleigh News & Observer. Staff at the North Carolina League of Municipalities read the article and decided to send it to the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C. NLC published it in their newspaper, Nation’s Cities Weekly (NCW). The Tennessee Municipal League picked it up from NCW and reprinted it in their newspaper, Tennessee Town & City (TT&C). Because a good friend of mine is the editor of TT&C, I happened to be reading their newspaper and saw it. Remembering the Ice Storm of ’98, it dawned on me that there are lessons for everyone, including Maine local officials, in what happened to the people in a large number of small towns across North Carolina whose homes and businesses were flooded by Hurricane Floyd this summer. As my friend Gael Stahl, TT&C editor, said in his introduction to the article, "Meskey’s two-hankie letter paints graphics more vivid than the media photos."

 Hi folks,

As you know, the flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd is the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. You’ve seen several e-mails encouraging donations and volunteer efforts. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the suffering in a situation like this without seeing it. I just returned from four days working in Jones County helping relatives dig out. For those interested, I would like to offer a firsthand report of the emotional, economic and environmental devastation. I would also like to encourage you to contribute whatever you can to relief efforts. [See end of this e-mail for information.]

The situation is desperate.

No matter how many photos or videos you’ve seen of the flooding, nothing can adequately convey the sheer magnitude and heartbreak. Rocky Mount, Tarboro, and Princeville were, of course, hit hard. But so were hundreds of other small towns and communities not mentioned as often in the news Greenville, Kinston, Winterville, Ayden, Grifton, Kenansville, Village Creek, Cove City, and many small, poor, rural communities you may not have heard of.

Last Thursday, my wife and I drove to Trenton, a town just south of Kinston, where my father-in-law’s home was destroyed. What should have been a two-hour ride took seven hours due to dozens of road closings along the way — some roads covered by water, the pavement of others simply washed away by the current. Several roads the DOT told us were open were, in fact, closed — I think they’re simply overwhelmed trying to keep track of it. What we saw on the way and when we arrived looked like the aftermath of a war.

On our 240-mile, detour-laden route, we passed hundreds of families sitting outside their now uninhabitable homes, with their water-soaked possessions spread out on their lawns. Desperately picking through the mess for anything to salvage, most people, particularly the elderly, seemed to be in a state of shock. The larger towns had a visible Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross presence, but in smaller towns it looked like utter confusion and despair — no one in charge, no one knowing what to do or where to go for help. People on the street would periodically flag us down and ask if we were with FEMA.

We found the infrastructure of these areas to be in absolutely critical condition — bridges, schools, doctors’ offices, restaurants, day-care centers, and stores shut down, people effectively stranded in their communities because it’s a two-hour drive to the next town because of the detours. Many people we talked with had no idea when they’d be returning to work since their employer was shut down.

In Lenior County, we passed entire farms that had been destroyed — half-mile-wide swaths of cotton, corn, and soybeans lay flat down in the muck, machinery buried at 45-degree angles in the mud. Driving south on Highway 41, we passed bonfires of hogs killed by the flood. According to friends in Cove City, this process has only just begun — one of the larger hog farms north of Trenton is still partially submerged. As we entered Jones County, we noticed a thick, grayish-white dust on wide areas of previously submerged streets and homes — God only knows what this was, since the regular soil there is a rich, red clay.

When we entered Trenton, the magnitude of the flooding was apparent. If you’ve passed through this little farming community on Highway 58 on your way to Emerald Isle, you may be familiar with the historic "Mill Pond" just south of the town center. About a half-mile east of the Mill Pond is the Trent River, which snakes from the northwest to southeast. By the time the water crested, these two bodies of water met and jointed into a half-mile-wide river. According to locals, this didn’t happen even during the last big flood in 1908.

We arrived at my father-in-law Bob’s home late Thursday. The front windows had been broken by the current, and water had been about 3 feet to 4 feet deep inside. The entire building reeked of raw sewage — imagine the smell of the animal pens at the state fairgrounds, only not so delicate. Sewer water was literally spraying up like a fountain from a manhole cover in the street and draining into Bob’s back yard and the crawl space beneath his house. The flood water had pretty much receded from the home, but virtually everything inside was destroyed — furniture, appliances, clothing, you name it.

We brought a lot of cleaning equipment with us. We should have brought demolition equipment instead. We wound up tearing down all the drywall, pulling up the floors and throwing out every last bit of furniture in a desperate attempt to dry the house before the timber started to rot — it had been under water for a week. I rigged up a sump pump beneath the house and pumped out thousands of gallons of sewer water mixed with black petroleum products and more of the fine grayish-white slurry of unknown origin.

We won’t know until later this week whether our work was in vain — the county building inspector has to examine Bob’s house and hundreds of others to determine whether they are structurally sound or should be bulldozed. My friends in Greenville tell me that when homes are condemned there, safety officials paint a big, red "X" on the door. I guess if we return to Trenton in a few days and find such a thing on Bob’s door, we’ll know what comes next.

Countless other homes in Bob’s neighborhood were in the same condition — completely saturated with toxic wastewater, no electricity, and structurally questionable after being immersed so long. Little old ladies and men sat quietly on their lawns, picking through their water-soaked photographs and personal effects while Marines and church volunteers heaved their furniture and appliances into garbage trucks. Speaking of Marines, the ones I met (all volunteers, many of them officers) were incredible — cheerfully doing some of the most dangerous and disgusting jobs imaginable.

Most people I talked with were staying with relatives or friends, but some were in Red Cross shelters or churches. Many had no idea they could not (or at least should not) return to their homes without removing the toxic, waterlogged walls and rugs. Some had borrowed generators to run wet-dry vacs to dry the rugs and were planning to stay in their homes while the rest of the house aired out — the health risks of this overwhelmed me. Speaking of health risks, we wore respirators and other protective gear when removing the more toxic materials. As far as I could tell, we were the only ones in town to do so. FEMA and Red Cross centers had lots of free coffee and bottled water for rescue workers but very little in the way of safety gear.

FEMA officials in Trenton told me that people were returning to their homes as the waters receded, but I couldn’t help but think "returning to what?" They obviously can’t (or shouldn’t) live in these homes. Even if the homes are eventually repaired, it will take months, possibly years. FEMA is setting up a small trailer park south of Trenton for flood victims but, given the sheer volume of families affected, I can’t imagine where they’ll ever put everybody.

And, as you know, most flood victims did not have flood insurance since the areas they lived in had not been seriously flooded this century. FEMA will extend grants to these folks, but only to a maximum of about $13,000. Most victims will get less. For many homes I looked at, the repairs could easily run $40,000 or more. You can get a low-interest, long-term rebuilding loan from FEMA, but that doesn’t erase your first mortgage. And God only knows what retirees or others on fixed incomes will do.

On Saturday afternoon when I walked around the town during a work break, at least six elderly folks asked me about the news coverage. Why wasn’t Trenton ever mentioned on the news? Why were there no reporters or cameras to be found in Jones County? I told them that there are a lot of small towns in North Carolina. I also promised I’d try to get the word out when I got back to the Triangle — hence this e-mail.

And so, if you’d like to help out, please consider sending a monetary contribution of any size to: Hurricane Floyd Disaster Relief Fund, Office of the Governor, 20301 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C. 27699-0301.

As you know, there are many donation centers set up around the Triangle for canned goods, bottled water, and so on. These items will help, of course, but in my opinion, what is more critical at this point is sheer manpower to help the tens of thousands of victims dig out and rebuild their homes and businesses. Contributing to the Governor’s Disaster Relief Fund will, I think, help to mobilize these resources pretty quickly. Even if it’s just a buck or two, there are desperate folks down east that will be forever grateful.

Thanks for listening, folks. Next weekend my wife and I travel to Greenville to help dig out my sister-in-law, Barbara. The flood waters have not yet receded from her home, but we’re hopeful they’ll come down if we don’t get any more rain. Wish us luck. We’ll need it.

Joe Meskey