Mirtha Serrano thought she had her own little piece of paradise on Stokes Road.
She had single-wide mobile home on a big grassy piece of land about 2,000 feet from the Tar River.
She planted a garden, and her rose bushes produced dozens of showy blooms each year. She lived there for more than 22 years and was content. She wasn’t rich, but she loved her quiet little spot out in the country.
But when Hurricane Matthew brought rain and floods a year ago, and as the Tar River crested at 24.5 feet on Oct. 14, her little piece of paradise disappeared under the muddy waters.
A year later, Serrano is among many of people in Pitt County still struggling to get back on her feet, repair her home and get back to normal.
Hurricane Matthew caused an estimated $4.8 billion in damage to homes, businesses, public facilities, agriculture and roads in 50 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, and damage in Pitt County has been estimated as high as $27 million. Thousands of structures were threatened by the flood and occupants were forced to evacuate for days. Pitt County records show about 250 structures ultimately sustained damage with 50 receiving major damage.
It’s unclear how much damage remains to be addressed, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports it received 3,313 applications for assistance and approved $2.4 million to individuals and households — far less than the total damage estimate in the county.
Earlier this year, the state declared 11 county properties and two Greenville properties eligible for buyouts, but FEMA still must finalize the recommendations, officials said.
The county continues to seek funding from the state and other sources to aid residents, another indication that recovery is incomplete. Then there are individual stories like Serrano’s.
Serrano’s home was flooded during Hurricane Floyd, too, but she was able to repair it and move back in, but when Hurricane Matthew caused the Tar River to overflow its banks, the water rose and rose and rose until her home was surrounded by water, and it crept up about a foot high within her home.
“Everything was water, water, water,” Serrano said pointing all around her home.
That was bad, but two weeks later, things had gone from bad to worse. Mold grew everywhere, up the walls and onto the ceiling, and the inspector stuck a sticker on her home, proclaiming it was damaged.
She applied for help from FEMA and received $10,000, but the cost to fix her house was about $35,000.
Serrano works at McDonald’s, but as a 48-year-old single woman who doesn’t make much money, it’s been difficult to be able to pay for the repairs, she said.
A year later, she has a bed in one of the bedrooms, and a working bathroom, but that’s about it. There are no kitchen appliances, and for now there is no electricity.
All the walls, ceiling and floors had to be removed and replaced. The floors are plywood, and her living room is filled with construction materials. The kitchen has some cabinets, but the sink hasn’t been installed yet.
“I stay here because I don’t have any money for housing,” she said.
“Water ruined everything,” she said.
“I need help,” Serrano said. “No money. No nothing.”
As she stood on her porch, she remembered the joy she got from seeing here roses bloom. She touched a branch of a straggly rose bush with a couple of blooms on it. Maybe it will come back strong again next year, she said.
Securing the help for people like Serrano will be a drawn out process because it relies on state and federal funding awarded through a grant process.
Earlier this year the General Assembly gave $15 million to the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency to fund the organization’s Essential Single Family Rehabilitation Loan Pool Disaster Recovery program. The money can be used to fund repairs costing between $5,000 and $40,000 owner-occupied housing.
Since the application process opened, 30 people have applied and 15 have met pre-screening requirements. Three applicants have received funding approval, said James Rhodes, Pitt County planning director.
The county is partnering with the Mid-East Commission in the application process, Rhodes said, and the city of Greenville is operating a separate Single Family Rehabilitation Loan Pool Disaster Recovery program for its residents.
This funding source has income requirements and other limitations, especially for manufactured housing repairs.
“We are still accepting applications. If possible, have folks contact our office. We have applications ready for them,” Rhodes said.
Two other grants being pursued by the county.
Funding through the state’s Disaster Recovery Act would make money available for more extensive rehabilitation projects, Rhodes said. The income requirements also aren’t as restrictive. The fund would provide relocation assistance for families that would have to temporarily move during the construction period.
How much work can be funded is dependent on the amount of the award; Pitt County could receive up to $1 million.
“When you start breaking this down; between repairs, replacements, relocation assistance, a couple of other activities we requested funding for, and you look at the number of units you can serve … we think the million dollars will serve us well,” Rhodes said.
The county submitted its application for the state grant last month.
Next week the county will submit an application for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant disaster recovery program.
Like the state grant, the county could receive up to $1 million if approved. This fund could be used to replace manufactured homes that can’t be repaired, Rhodes said.
It’s unclear when the state or HUD will award the grants, Rhodes said.
Once the grants are awarded, there still is the process of collecting applications from residents, the approval process and finally construction, he said. People can expect a two-three year process.
“There are so many things. You have the immediacy right after the flood and trying to get assistance as quickly as possible. But sometimes it takes a little time for flood insurance, it takes time for the FEMA (individual assistance). Sometimes those sources fulfill the requirements. These other programs are specifically designed for households that still have unmet needs,” Rhodes said. “This is truly for those folks who don’t have resources.”
SIGNS OF LIFE
Many businesses were affected, but the flooding of the Piggly Wiggly in Grifton was considered one of the worst effects because the grocery chain decided not to reopen the store, leaving people in Grifton without a full-sized grocery store.
The town has gone for a year without a grocery, but Emmanual Bautista, owner and manager of Tropicana Supermarket in Greenville, is planning to open a Tropicana in Grifton by the end of November or early December.
“A lot of our customers come to the Greenville store, and they say there’s no store over there,” Bautista said. “They need to go 10 or 15 minutes away for milk.”
People in Grifton have been able to buy some of their basic food supplies from smaller stores, but generally not been able to get fresh meat and vegetables in town, he said.
“We sell a lot of meat. We sell a lot of produce, and people like it,” Bautista said.
Grifton’s Town manager, Joe Johnson, approached Bautista. He connected him to the people associated with the Piggly Wiggley store, and they were able to work out a deal, he said.
Buatista and others have been getting the store ready to open and have most of the equipment in place, he said. They were working on shelving last week.
The Tropicana Supermarket will be the same size as the old Piggly Wiggly, and Buatista plans to hire 20 to 30 people.
“All the people we’re going to hire for our Grifton store are going to be from Grifton,” he said.
“We’re going to help Grifton, and we want Grifton to help us,” he said.
The Rev. Rodney Coles Sr., chairman of the board for Disaster Recovery Partner for Pitt County, said his group is still busy helping people, and a committee of unmet needs meets each week to discuss their cases.
“We’re still seeing people with mold or things still need to be replaced,” Coles said. “Air conditioning units need to be replaced.”
That includes duct work since mold can grow inside the lines, he said.
“You can’t replace just one part,” he said.
The group works with contractors who are willing to adhere to strict standards and will finish the job to the customer’s satisfaction, he said.
“Then we cut the check,” he said.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
The timing of Hurricane Matthew couldn’t have come at a worse time for Jeff Davis and his family.
He had just been diagnosed with COPD and emphysema a few months before hurricane flooded his double-wide mobile home at the end of Stokes Road.
The waters rose midway up to the roof, ruining everything that was inside and the home. Nevertheless, after the water receded, he was upbeat and had faith that they’d recover and get back to their lives.
Things haven’t exactly worked out the way he hoped. Because of his sickness, he had to quit his job at the Pitt County landfill.
Now instead of living in the neat and comfortable doublewide mobile home surrounded by rose bushes, he and his family live in an old trailer on the same property. The trailer, which leans to one side, was so old that it was just used for storage.
“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “I’m taking it one day at a time. It’s going to get better.”
Without being able to work, he had to file for bankruptcy through Chapter 13. He received some money from insurance but had to sign that over to company that had the mortgage on the double wide. He received some assistance from FEMA, but he used that to pay some of the bills that piled up after the flood.
“It just bothers me now I can’t work no more,” he said. “I’m worried more about my wife and son. That’s what bothers me. That’s why I’m not happy-go-lucky any more.”
His wife works at a fast food restaurant, but without his job, they can’t afford to start over.
“It hurts me to look over there and see it like that,” he said of his old home.
“Everything I worked for over my life, it’s gone now and I won’t get it back. I won’t get it back because I can’t work no more.”
There’s been delays in getting Medicare and Medicaid, he said.
“It’s like they’re just waiting for you to die,” he said. “That’s what I think.”
Then he smiled and pulled himself straight.
“But it’s going to get better,” he said. “I’m going to get back to the same person.”