LUMBERTON, N.C. — William Lindsay and Judy Locklear just met Monday, but they seem like old friends.
Lindsay, 58, and Locklear, 55, had scraped together their funds to buy some hamburger patties, and Locklear had a hot plate in the $60-a-night motel room where she has been living with her 9-year-old daughter and the last of her worldly possessions.
It’s been more than five weeks since Hurricane Matthew delivered its fierce winds and deluge to eastern North Carolina, but the storm is barely over for many residents.
A Category 5 storm at its peak, Matthew was downgraded to a Category 1 before it slammed into North Carolina. Talk to residents of hard-hit towns such as Lumberton, about 70 miles northwest of Wilmington, and they’ll tell you they think the Saffir-Simpson scale is … well, worthless.
The deadly storm brought record floods to parts of the state. Even after areas of North Carolina began to dry out and Matthew spun into the Atlantic Ocean, Lumberton remained under water for days.
‘I hope I can go home’
Locklear, who is on disability, had 4 feet of water rush through her Lumberton home. She and her daughter lived in her truck for three days after the storm. They had to bathe with water from her cooler, she said, tears creeping into her eyes as she recalled the dark days.
She’s been living in the motel since mid-October and will stay there through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency stops paying for her room on January 7, she doesn’t know where she’ll go.
“I hope I can go home,” the mother of three said. “My children don’t want me to go back, but I ain’t got nowhere else to go.”
As for Lindsay, the hurricane might’ve been the least of his problems. His girlfriend died of cancer in September. During Matthew, a tree fell across the end of his mobile home in Rowland, just southwest of Lumberton. After he evacuated, coyotes ransacked the place, tearing up his clothes and what little else might have been salvageable.
When he and his dog, Bandit, arrived at the Lumberton motel seeking shelter, the pooch took off. He chased the animal, but it shot under a fence, darted across an access road and into Interstate 95. Bandit didn’t make it.
“I lost my woman. I lost my home. I lost my cars. And then I lost my dog. I met her this morning,” Lindsay said, patting Locklear’s shoulder, “and she’s the best friend I got.”
Treated as panhandlers
Ennui is epidemic at the motel. There isn’t much to do aside from watch TV, Lindsay and Locklear say. Lindsay, who drives 18-wheelers for a living, hasn’t been able to find work. He and his son, Ray, had sought work or charity at a nearby gas station. William Lindsay said he hates the looks he gets when he asks someone for spare change.
Ray Lindsay told CNN via phone Thursday that the gas station manager has now banned them from the parking lot. The gas station was also the source of hot water to cook ramen noodles for his daughter, Ray Lindsay said, but now even that most basic act of goodwill is gone.
Many residents of eastern North Carolina are just beginning the long recovery. At the height of its relief efforts, the American Red Cross had 109 shelters open in the seaside half of the state, spokeswoman Brittany Jennings said.
The last one, in Robeson County, where Lumberton is located, closed Monday. Of the more than 35,000 overnight stays the Red Cross provided, more than a third were in Robeson County. And more than a quarter of the half-million meals the aid agency provided were served there, Jennings said.
Getting by on kindness
Thousands of kids in Robeson County just returned to school, though the 130 students at West Lumberton Elementary couldn’t go back after 3 feet of floodwater left classrooms condemned.
Those students were absorbed by Lumberton Junior High, where 100% of students receive free lunch and breakfast and many students are still living in motels or homeless shelters, principal Angela Faulkner said. But the youngsters are resilient, she said, and in some ways, have resettled into the routine better than the teachers have.
They’ve bounced back with the help of donations from churches, local businesses and residents as well as a smattering of contributions from across the country, said school district spokeswoman Tasha Oxendine. Particularly touching was a box of backpacks collected by a boy in Canada, she said.
School administrators have looked for ways to lift spirits, whether it’s extra treats on Halloween or a little music pumped into the cafeteria at lunchtime.
The faculty has had to expand its job descriptions. Social workers traveled to shelters to arrange transportation for students. Teachers have had to act as guidance counselors, encouraging the children to vent about their loss. Guidance counselors have had to determine discreetly who needs book bags and which families might need gift cards to buy food. School staff has been gathering cleaning supplies and other donations to hand out to parents at an upcoming school concert.
“It’s a new normal for us, but it’s a normal. We’re still here. We’ve still got your back,” Faulkner said. “We’ve still got to move forward, in spite of our losses, in spite of our missed days.”
The kids returned to school on an abbreviated schedule on Halloween, and full time on November 2. On top of missing 15 days of school, meaning certain children will need to review some subjects before moving forward, Faulkner felt it necessary to devote the first few days back to “open dialogue, just to let them talk about it.”
The students wrote essays, kept journals, drew pictures and scribed acrostics and poems. One drawing depicts a person trapped on a rooftop, a tree snapping in half in the front yard. Another cheekily illustrates a no Wi-Fi signal. One student drew a poetic comic that ended, “And soon we learned how to be strong, and we lost our house, forever gone.”
‘That was a nightmare’
James Defreece’s home of more than 40 years is forever gone as well. Hurricane Matthew came on his 81st birthday. The water crept up to his porch, then front door. When it began rising up from under his kitchen floor, the Vietnam veteran and retired junior ROTC instructor knew it was time to go.
His wife of 51 years, Loistine, a former teacher herself, called two of her ex-students to the rescue. They couldn’t get their SUV into the couple’s neighborhood, so the Defreeces had to walk out to reach the vehicle. Defreece says his wife is about 5 feet 3 inches, and the water came up to her rib cage.
“Boy, that was a nightmare,” he said.
The Defreeces stayed with a friend for three or four days before going to stay with their daughter and her family in Fayetteville, a short drive north.
Meanwhile, his Sunset Heights neighborhood looks like some combination of ghost town and war zone. Debris piles, some almost as high as the one-story homes that populate the subdivision, stand as testament to Matthew’s wrath. Among the flotsam are prescription drugs, family photos, encyclopedias, toys, rugs, TV, cabinets, mattresses, children’s clothing, soggy food and even an upright piano.
Can’t go home
Some homes have flood cleanup kits in their driveways, placed there by the state, but they may never be put to use as police tape and notices warn, “This building is unfit for human habitation: The use of occupation of this building for human habitation is prohibited and unlawful.” Try to “occupy” your home and you’ll be charged with a misdemeanor, the notices say.
Most houses have their windows and doors open, revealing bare interiors, the drywall and trim stripped off the now-exposed beams. Signs tell you to beware of dogs, but there are no dogs barking. A slight sour funk occasionally wafts through the air.
In the nearby Sandy Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, broken headstones, some more than a century old, floated across the burial ground when the nearby Lumber River and its tributaries crested, historically, during Matthew’s torrential rains.
It might be hard to believe, but Defreece considers himself blessed. He and his wife have found a nice, if unfurnished, rental home in town. FEMA is sending a check. It won’t cover everything, but “every little bit helps,” he said.
He’s used to hosting Thanksgiving, but his daughter doesn’t mind hosting one bit. You get the impression Defreece is very much looking forward to some extra time with his granddaughter.
“We’re still here, living and breathing, walking and talking. Material things can be replaced,” he said. “People holler, scream, jump up and down, but what good is it doing? At least you’re still here.”