Governor Roy Cooper may have estimated that Hurricane Florence caused $17 billion in damages statewide, but many of us measured the destruction how we always have: by telling stories. By now, we’ve shared our own and heard those of our neighbors and friends. We listened to the ones from those who stayed to ride it out, watching the pine trees bend like sawgrass. And we also heard from the ones who left and couldn’t get back for a week, only to find upon return a missing roof or a smashed boat or car. We also know there are those who turned out to be living right and emerged remarkably unscathed.
Any way we count it, it all adds up to an awful September—one most of us would prefer to forget, but one which still echoes into the present, for better or (far more often, unfortunately) worse. Most of us have PTSD (post-tropical-storm-depression), not to mention, by this point, four months later, we’re sick of thinking about Flo. Though our day-to-day lives may have returned to something resembling normal, many still are finding ways to work through the grief and loss it caused.
Four months—seems like a long time. For many people who lost everything, who lacked flood insurance, or who were still recovering from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, it’s not nearly long enough. It could take more months, even years, to restore any normalcy, according to Pamela Saulsby, a FEMA spokesperson. They are people who live in our community, but may not be immediately visible. FEMA wants them to know the agency is still here, still helping, and they’re not going anywhere until everyone gets the help they need.
“None of our work has been minimized, halted, or slowed down over time,” Saulsby tells. “I think our response is just as robust today as it was four months ago.”
New Hanover County was one of the counties approved for both the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (that’s where FEMA pays for short-term hotel stays for survivors and their families who were displaced, while they look for long-term housing) and the Direct Housing Assistance program (which delivers travel trailers and manufactured housing units to eligible residents). At the height of the disaster, Saulsby says, there were 867 households enrolled (of the 6,292 eligible households) in the TSA program, statewide, in nine impacted counties. Now, that number has fallen to 295 households, with 774 household members.
Locally, 71 different hotels in the Wilmington area were used at the peak. Even today, there are 91 households living in hotels in New Hanover County. It may not seem like very many, but anyone who has spent time on the road knows hotel living can be sterile and stressful. Saulsby expects that number to continue to drop as well.
FEMA is providing Direct Housing Assistance in 13 counties, including New Hanover. Overall, they have provided 572 units to families across the state; here in New Hanover County, there are 12 units licensed to families. Saulsby expects this number to grow.
“This program is for households where . . . FEMA-verified damage of more than $17,000 is one factor in determining possible eligibility for direct housing,” she explains. “It’s a program that takes time and effort; there’s permitting involved, different municipalities have different policies on zoning, and you have to make sure the infrastructure is in place and the property is not in an area at high risk for floods.”
If the property doesn’t meet these criteria, the units are delivered to a commercial mobile-home park. It’s less than ideal, Saulsby admits, especially when it might not be near work or a child’s school, but the units are safe, sanitary and functional—adjectives which no longer describe the family’s alternative.
A major reason New Hanover County was chosen to be a part of both the TSA and DHA programs is because of something we all knew already: There aren’t enough homes to go around.
“The inventory for housing is just not here,” Saulsby confirms. “The demand and supply don’t meet at all. Forget about having available, affordable housing. . . . There was already a shortage, and this just amplified it.”
Wilmington has had a decade-plus-long growth obsession. Our city seemingly hasn’t quelled its monomaniacal drive to bulldoze every available stand of old-growth trees and build hideously uniform luxury condominiums in their place, which most of the people already living and working here cannot afford.
The assistance given by FEMA and its partners, including the Small Business Administration and National Flood Insurance Program, adds up to just over a billion dollars—a number which speaks to both the impact and magnitude of the disaster, and how much has been done by these agencies to help survivors. Regardless, FEMA’s resources aren’t infinite, says Saulsby. The main thing they’re working on now is what she calls “the whole-community approach to long-term recovery for survivors.” Essentially, FEMA must pass the baton to “long-term recovery groups,” local community and faith-based organizations, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, which will be around to help people long after FEMA’s mission is complete. To be clear, FEMA is not planning on leaving soon.
“We’ll be here for as long as the state needs us,” she emphasizes—or until the governor decides the state can handle the rest. “We are helping [these groups] strategize, organize and get resources where they need to be, assessing needs and getting assistance to people who were left out, who may have fallen through the cracks.”
One of the first questions Saulsby has received from every reporter who has spoken with her since December 22, 2018: How has the ongoing partial government shutdown impacted the work FEMA is doing in this area? How has it impacted the workers and the program’s funds? As it turns out, FEMA has continued helping areas of natural disasters, from Wilmington to California, and even areas affected in 2017, like Puerto Rico. Saulsby reached out to FEMA’s internal affairs to find out:
“About 75 percent of their workforce continues to support disaster operations during lapse in appropriations. These dedicated employees have received a paycheck, and will continue to get paid, as they are funded from the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) to which the U.S. Congress has appropriated funding for emergencies and major disasters declared by the president. Also, note that under these declarations, FEMA continues to disburse from the DRF funding to impacted survivors, states and territories for FEMA’s individual assistance, public assistance and mitigation programs.”
Yet, FEMA’s work goes beyond numbers. It also touches the human element, as the agency’s work is challenging both emotionally and physically. So why do these people do the work that they do?
“I’ve spent a lot of time in our disaster recovery centers,” Saulsby begins. “Folks come in—men, women, kids, elderly, all kinds—and they’re really out of sorts and distraught. I’ve always been impressed by the folks who work to find assistance, to see if folks are eligible, to try and find as much as they can to assist the survivors in terms of resources and money; they’re really special men and women, with a heart for caring. They work so hard to try and make things right. I’ve seen people come in very despondent, near tears, emotional, and I’ve seen them leave looking lifted. They’re standing a little taller because they have hope where they didn’t have hope before.”
Though there’s still a long road ahead for our town and its families to feel whole again, at least now, the sun is out. And things are looking a little brighter every day.
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