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Cracks in the system

While state leaders say Hurricane Floyd is history, residents of one small town are still fighting for help repairing homes damaged in that stormand anxiously awaiting the next big one.


MAPLE HILL--When Hurricane Charley dragged a sodden curtain across southeastern North Carolina last month, Wilma Rich felt more than a little uneasy.

It wasn't just that a neighboring town in her home county of Pender had been hammered by a deadly tornado only days earlier during Tropical Storm Bonnie. And it wasn't just her five-year-old memories of Hurricane Floyd, a storm of historic--some say Biblical--proportions that sent a small ocean of floodwater to surround her house in rural Maple Hill.

Rich and her husband Clyde considered it a blessing that Floyd didn't submerge their property or wash away their belongings, as it did to many of their neighbors in this unincorporated part of the county, 30 miles inland from Topsail Beach. They made a few repairs and got on with life in the close-knit African-American community where Wilma grew up.

But now they have reasons to be uneasy--reasons as familiar and proximate as the walls and floorboards of their house. In the last few years, those walls have begun to pull away from the ceiling and the baseboards, leaving gaps that Wilma stuffs with mothballs to keep out rats and snakes. The bedroom floor sags in the center like a surface in a carnival funhouse. The dark wood furniture surrounding the bed looms up scarily, as if the side tables and chests of drawers are evil cartoon characters ready to hurl themselves onto the bedspread and take the whole room down with them.

"I sleep on this chair in the living room just about every night because I'm afraid to sleep in my bed," says Wilma, a retired nursing assistant who has suffered recurring lung infections in the last year that have her shuttling in and out of the hospital. With hurricane season roaring back in, she and Clyde--a former Marine who works as a security guard at Camp Lejeune--worry that their house won't hold up against another major storm.

They aren't the only ones in Maple Hill who feel that way. Five years after Floyd, community leaders say scores of families here are still struggling with unmet home-repair needs that leave them vulnerable to future storms. Many residents say they are also suffering from illnesses such as respiratory infections and skin irritations they fear are a result of living in crumbling, moldy homes.

"We could almost bury ourselves in a ditch and be safer," declared Cindy Moore, a member of the Pender chapter of North Carolina Fair Share, an advocacy group for low-income communities, during a June press conference she helped organize in Raleigh. "What does it take to get us some help?"

It's a refrain that exasperates county officials, who point to lists of local residents who've received government loans and grants for repairs, or who have been bought out and moved to new homes outside the floodplain. In Pender, 355 homes have been repaired, replaced or bought out with state and federal funds since Floyd, including 83 in Maple Hill. (Wilma and Clyde Rich are on the list of those with incomes above the qualifying limit.)

But when pressed, some of those officials concede that assistance programs created in Raleigh and Washington, D.C., aren't without cracks of their own.

"Was there somebody that missed the deadline or was not able to get into the program? I'm not going to tell you there was not," says Dwight Strickland, chair of the Pender County Board of Commissioners. "There are probably people like that all over the state."

What he doesn't say is who those people are--residents of mostly black, working-class communities like Maple Hill. All over eastern North Carolina, the places Floyd hit hardest were those with the least financial backing and political pull. Census figures show the 29 North Carolina counties Down East, where heavy flooding occurred, are noticeably poorer, more rural and more African-American than the rest of the state.

It's these same areas, activists say, that have been left behind by the state's disaster relief locomotive. While wealthy beach towns have successfully lobbied for relief funds for eroded sand, communities like Maple Hill are still fighting to get officials to recognize that needs have gone unmet.

It's a disconnect familiar to Legal Aid lawyers, church volunteers and social-service workers who describe how hurricane relief programs are set up in ways that too often deny access to those who need help the most. That means working-poor communities where people frequently lack clear title to property that's been in the family for generations; where breadwinners aren't always able to handle new loans or mortgage payments; where many longtime residents can't envision a move to a town full of strangers. ("It's considered 'away' if you are from Maple Hill and you move a few miles to Burgaw," says Valerie Kaalund, the new director of Africana Women's Studies at Bennett College, who's gathering information on health problems in Maple Hill since Floyd.)

The persistent calls for help from Maple Hill are a reminder that despite good intentions, the state's disaster relief system remains entangled in existing inequalities of race, class and place. Until those gaps are faced, political pronouncements about help for all will have a hollow ring.

At the moment, Maple Hill's small band of organizers is bracing against a flood of a different sort--the flow of pronouncements timed to the anniversary of Floyd that paint the state's most costly and damaging storm as a $6 billion memory.

"We have heard that Hurricane Floyd is now part of history, that they are closing the book on it," Moore told legislators during a midsummer day of lobbying in Raleigh. "But in our community, people are still suffering, still living with it."

Here's what you see as you drive into Maple Hill from N.C. 53 as it turns east in the direction of Topsail Beach: flat, green fields; small houses with big porch swings; churches; cars and truck cabs on the lawn; gardens; doublewides; a whitewashed social club; horses; ditches; a water tower; a sign in a yard advertising "collards 4 sale."

Here's what you won't see: a grocery store, a hospital, a school, a mall, a sign--at least in the African-American section--that tells you where you are.

The town of 1,300 or so is the midway point between Burgaw and Jacksonville in an isolated northeast corner of Pender. The nearest grocery store or health clinic is in Burgaw, the county seat, a 16-mile drive away.

The land here was once the Sycamore Springs cotton plantation, and some of the town's black families are descendants of slaves who worked for the owner, John James.

Maple Hill remains divided--blacks and whites live on different sides of Moores Creek. During the era of segregation, there were two public schools in town. The all-white one closed in 1961 because it had so few students, and the formerly all-black one did the same in the early 1990s. Students are now bused 24 miles to schools in Rocky Point--the community wrecked by a tropical storm-spawned tornado in August.

Maple Hill's black section is an echo of an African village, with houses built on family plots that have been subdivided over the years. "If you go back to family trees, we'd all be one family," says Washington Irving James, Cindy Moore's dad, who lives on Webbtown Road, one of Maple Hill's main arteries, near several of his seven living children.

It's the kind of rural, Southern community where doors are always open, visitors are offered jars of the latest sweet-potato preserves, and the evening dark rolls out uninterrupted by many streetlights.

And it has other gifts. Maple Hill is home to the Angola Creek and Holly Shelter Game Land preserves, expanses of longleaf pine and blackwater streams that support the highest number of rare plant and animal species in North Carolina, according to The Nature Conservancy.

Two generations ago, most people in Maple Hill worked the land. Now, they work at Camp Lejeune or poultry and hog processing plants in the region, or at county offices and health clinics in Burgaw. Young people don't stay here as often as they used to, though some--like Moore--end up returning after living in other parts of the country.

When Hurricane Floyd hit on Sept. 16, 1999, it was days before anyone in Maple Hill saw relief workers. The morning after the storm, Moore, who's a member of the town's volunteer fire department, says she and her brother tried to drive his pickup to the station. They had to circle back through Onslow County to avoid floodwater covering many local streets.

"It was awesome," recalls Cleveland Simpson, North Carolina's assistant secretary for community development who was then a Pender County commissioner. "You just can't imagine going down a road and seeing the tops of telephone poles. The water was moving at the speed of light."

Throughout the region, the areas most harmed by Floyd were those with the fewest resources to cope with its aftermath. The state reports that only half of the 45,000 homes damaged by inland flooding were insured, and nearly half were low-income households with diminished access to credit, health care, transportation and other necessary rebuilding tools.

Recognizing the epic nature of the disaster, the state was more generous with Floyd aid than with any previous storm. Lawmakers approved 20 programs worth $600 million during a special legislative session in December 1999--an amount that was upped to $836.6 million over time. Students from the state's historically black universities were recruited to do outreach to African-American communities. These members of the Hurricane Floyd Recovery Corps passed out health and safety information and helped with cleanup efforts in flooded towns.

When funds did not flow fast enough, Gov. Mike Easley came up with a new plan in 2001 that consolidated relief activities under one agency, the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. Easley also set a goal of completing recovery within 24 months, by this past May. To date, the governor's office reports North Carolina has spent $275.9 million on Floyd relief--most of it for housing.

Moore and others in Maple Hill were encouraged by promises from politicians to not only return flooded communities to their former state, but to improve life in areas that had long been overlooked. They were heartened when many people in town got government grants and loans for repairs and replacement homes.

But as time went on, frustration grew about the many others who were left out.

Some, like Vivian Lisane, found that the only help offered them came in a package they couldn't accept. "They told my husband to take out a [Small Business Administration] loan," Lisane says. "But we couldn't pay on what he draws for disability, and I knew I couldn't take out a loan because I was about to lose my job" at the now closed Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in Holly Ridge. She currently earns a little money from babysitting. Tan splotches of mold are visible on the walls and ceilings of her modest ranch house.

Others were told they made too much to qualify, didn't complete the required paperwork on time, or didn't have clear title to their property.

Still others were reluctant to be removed from the community where they'd put down roots. "They'd rather buy you out than fix you. Why is that?" asks Cloretta Holmes, whose Maple Hill home is on Fair Share's list of those still needing repairs.

Concerned about the push to close the door on Floyd recovery and the lack of outreach to their community, Moore and others helped organize busloads of residents to lobby state legislators in Raleigh. A meeting with the governor's staff last year netted suggestions for additional state grants available to some counties for "crisis housing" assistance. Activists complain that none of that money has come to Maple Hill, either.

This far removed from Floyd, the pool of funds available for help appears depressingly small. At a Pender commissioners meeting last year, chairman Strickland reported the county had received $200,000 from the state to supplement a $400,000 crisis housing grant to handle a list of 500 homes in need of repair and replacement--including those damaged by Floyd.

Under the Bush administration, federal funds for disaster grants have been cut by 50 percent and a new "pre-disaster mitigation" program has been established that has communities competing for money for programs like buyouts.

Which areas will benefit? The Washington Post reports that dozens of affluent towns along the East Coast, including some in North Carolina, successfully applied for taxpayer-funded disaster relief after Hurricane Isabel last year to replace eroded sand.

Awareness of such disparities has sparked new frustration and resentment in parts of Maple Hill. People talk of county leaders who are "more interested in hearing from those people in Topsail," and express fears that Fair Share activists are being "blackballed" for speaking out.

Moore--who was appointed to a county Crisis Housing Task Force in 2001--has her own theories about why help hasn't been forthcoming. "Even as a child I can remember this community being sort of left out," she says. "You are at the end of the county. And I think a lot of it is because of the composition of people here. This is basically a black community." (There are no blacks currently serving on the Pender County Board of Commissioners, she points out.)

Local officials insist they did all they could under difficult circumstances. After Floyd, they had to navigate a complex disaster aid system where the rules kept changing, applications were handled by outside contractors, and funds for administering programs were nonexistent.

"It's layers and layers of complication," says state Rep. Carolyn Justice (R-Pender), another former Pender commissioner. "Has the county cheated people? I don't feel it has. But that doesn't mean they don't feel that way."

Some hurricane aid programs have had less than desirable effects for local governments. Strickland notes that buyouts have taken properties off the tax rolls and left the county responsible for maintaining vacant land. Also, Pender has notified the state that it may have to foreclose on 13 of the 95 properties purchased with government hurricane-relief grants. Although not all related to Floyd, statewide mortgage foreclosures have seen a huge spike in five years, from around 15,000 in 1999 to more than 44,000 in 2003, according to a study by the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center.

While they sympathize with arguments about unfunded mandates, not everyone agrees that local governments did all they could to meet the needs after Floyd. "I think there was a lack of commitment to the citizens--not just in Pender, but in Lenoir, Nash and elsewhere--who fell through the cracks," says state Rep. Thomas Wright (D-New Hanover), who has been following the situation in Maple Hill. "I think they were all too anxious to close the books on this."

"Politically, government is responsive to the people who make demands," says Simpson of the state Commerce Department. "There were a lot of poor whites in Pender who weren't served, either. Floyd is history. What we have to deal with are the effects."

Forecasters are warning that this year's hurricane season will be intense. Already, the double-whammy of Bonnie and Charley has caused $55 million worth of crop losses, destroyed 20 homes and damaged 2,676 others in eastern North Carolina--mostly in poorer, inland communities. Gov. Easley has asked President Bush to declare six counties--including Pender--official disaster areas so they can qualify for government aid.

What Cindy Moore wants to know is, "What is going to be done differently" when the next big storm hits? So far, she hasn't gotten much of an answer.

Suggestions have been made for further streamlining the hurricane-aid process and giving more support to local governments responsible for distributing that aid. The state, with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is already doing more extensive flood mapping. Government officials say the experience of Floyd has made North Carolina more storm-ready than ever before.

But there are other, less hopeful signs. FEMA has eliminated its innovative Project Impact grants, designed to help communities find ways to lessen the impact of natural disasters through home elevations, buyouts and better planning. And North Carolina's new budget has little room for the kind of economic development that had been promised to counties Down East after Floyd.

Local elected officials say there's been no change in the way aid programs are structured. "If the goal is to assist people who got flooded, that's one thing," Strickland says. "If it's to help people who meet a certain criteria, that's another goal."

What's really missing from disaster relief, says Danny de Vries, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill, is community involvement. De Vries, who studied the impact of Floyd for the Carolina Population Center in 2002 and is now working on a project for FEMA, has written about the need for planners to identify "socially vulnerable populations"--areas with mostly black, low-income elderly residents who are least able to take advantage of assistance programs.

"The point is to make [planners] think about what social vulnerability really means," he says. "In reality, [disaster recovery] money seems to flow where there are people capable of bringing it in, and these tend not to be people from socially vulnerable communities."

Vivian Lisane doesn't need studies to tell her that.

When asked why she's stayed active in Fair Share's organizing in Maple Hill, she says simply, "Because justice wasn't done. I'm having a tight spell. Others are having a tight spell. They need to fix the houses of the people who are struggling."

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