October 2016 started relatively quiet for North Carolinians. There was a hint of fall in the air, and Hurricane Matthew was a very distant, but powerful, storm. Meteorologists kept a watchful eye on the weather and storm’s path when Hurricane Matthew gained strength over the eastern Caribbean as a Category 5 storm on October 1, 2016. The odds of a United States landfall were becoming more probable. When the storm made landfall as a Category 4 storm in Haiti and Cuba on October 4, and looked to hit the eastern seaboard, the east coast took notice.
With each passing day, it became more likely the United States would take a direct hit. But where? This uncertainty ultimately kept the entire southeastern seaboard on pins and needles until October 8 when Hurricane Matthew made landfall in the U.S. as a Category 1 storm with 75 mph winds at McClennanville, SC. Then we all held our breath.
NC REALTORS® jumped into action and developed a storm preparedness communications strategy for its members and consumers, gathering helpful disaster planning contacts, agencies and checklists, sharing them through various communications channels. One of these resources included creating a Hurricane Hotline for members, which was a direct line to NC REALTORS® President Andrea Bushnell, Esq. The weekend of the storm, she stood by and patiently waited for possible member impact and needs.
NC REALTORS® CARE
Members Wendy Harris of Fayetteville and Phyllis Furr St-Clair of Charlotte have been on the ground since day one, organizing relief efforts and processing applications for thousands of residents.
North Carolinians extended thoughts and prayers to the residents of our beautiful beaches, which expected to receive the brunt of the impact after Matthew grinded up the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts. Initial reports of the storm’s progress gave North Carolinians hope that our coastal areas, while battered, largely escaped massive damage. Hearts soon palpitated, however, as Matthew lingered significantly inland over eastern North Carolina, unleashing heavy rainfall over areas upwards of 40 miles from the coast.
One of the hardest hit areas of the storm, which was a result of the onslaught of rain and not the storm itself, was Robeson County in eastern North Carolina. In fact, when the mayor of Lumberton, N.C., Bruce Davis, woke up on Sunday, October 9, his initial thoughts were they escaped without a lot of damage. “We had a lot of wind and rain during the hurricane, and when I woke up on Sunday morning and looked outside, it was a beautiful day,” he remembered. Moments later, he would get the phone call that would change his life — and the lives of thousands of his City’s residents — forever.
Mayor Davis was quickly summoned to City Hall, which turned into a 24/7 Emergency Operations Center, housing the City Council, including NC REALTOR® LeRoy Rising, members of the city’s administrative and operations teams and even first responders. Sleep and rest were the least of their concern, as they tried to save their beloved city from rising flood waters. Mayor Davis soon realized, “people are going to lose their homes,” which motivated him and others into action.
Soon after arriving at City Hall that Sunday morning, Mayor Davis received a call from Governor Pat McCrory, who was flying over the flood-impacted areas across the eastern part of the state, “I’m looking down on your city right now, mayor, and it’s not a pretty sight,” Davis recalls the governor informing him. To this day, McCrory’s quick action, immediate response and generosity with state resources was largely the reason Lumberton was able to recover as quickly as it did — relatively speaking — from a government and operations perspective. The governor’s gift of water pumps, which helped to pump 800 million gallons of water out of the city and back into the river, “helped to save our city,” Davis stated, fighting back tears.
The city of Lumberton suffered immense damage to critical infrastructure, in addition to washed out roads, bridges, businesses and homes. Understandably, it’s not challenging to realize that basic utilities — such as running water and electricity—– would be impacted for some time. In Lumberton, the main pump stations were under water and damaged, which meant running water was not available for many city residents for potentially weeks. In fact, it would be over two weeks before running water was available in most homes at the faucet. However, boil water and water rationing advisories were not lifted until October 25, 2016 — weeks ahead of schedule.
The North Carolina Department of Insurance estimates that the storm dumped 17 inches of rain over ground already saturated by the previous Hurricane Hermine. Inland rivers rose to levels never recorded, washing away homes and lives with unexpected force and devastation. The death toll in the United States as of mid-October was estimated at 43 and rising with 28 of those deaths reported in North Carolina.
State officials released estimates of $1.5 billion in damage to over 100,000 homes, businesses and government buildings. The impact to agriculture, the key industry of eastern North Carolina, has yet to be tallied.
Dealing with the Aftermath
While FEMA and other relief organizations were trying to mobilize and find access routes to reach impacted areas immediately following the storm, NC REALTORS® called a special session of the Executive Committee and approved funds to be dedicated for immediate needs in local communities, as well as funds to be sent to the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) REALTOR® Relief fund, which would then be available for impacted North Carolina residents for temporary housing expenses. Within days of the storm’s landfall, after damage reports and needs from members flooded in, NC REALTORS® members and staff arrived on site, delivering dry goods, cleaning supplies and other commodities to areas such as Lumberton, New Bern and Fayetteville.
Volunteers rented moving trucks, filled them with supplies, drove through flood-ravaged areas — sometimes with a police escort to guide around blocked and washed out roadways — and delivered them to local residents. Most residents of the hardest hit areas were already on day three and four without power, food and even drinking water or medical supplies.
Thousands of people lost everything on October 8 except the clothes on their back, and NC REALTORS® were there to say, “We see you, and NC REALTORS® care.” In fact, this phrase — “NC REALTORS® care,” became an internal motivational mantra and call to action tagline (#NCREALTORScare) to mobilize our staff and members to give back to neighbors across the state. Perhaps no one lived up to this mantra more than Wendy Harris, Fayetteville REALTOR® of the Year, who has been on the ground since day one after the storm and has since immersed herself in the greater eastern North Carolina community as somewhat of a disaster recovery specialist. Rightfully so, she now serves on the governor’s Hurricane Matthew Recovery Committee.
This started, in part, when Harris volunteered in the Lumberton and asked Linda Oxendine, the city’s Director of Public Services, what the city’s needs were and how could she and NC REALTORS® help with recovery efforts. One thing led to another, and within two days, Harris and NC REALTORS® mobilized dozens of volunteers on site in Lumberton to assess damaged homes and survey residents regarding their needs. Meanwhile, NC REALTORS® used this as an opportunity to increase awareness of the REALTOR® Relief Fund and the grant money available to qualified residents to cover temporary housing expenses. Over the course of a month, 600 plus of the most damaged homes were surveyed and documented and hundreds of grant applications were collected.
Just as soon as relief agencies gained access to flood-ravaged areas (or so it seemed), many relief organizations were leaving two to four weeks after the storm. Yet, many North Carolina authorities were still grappling with the effects of Hurricane Matthew, prompting Governor McCrory to call for a special session of the state legislature in November to discuss and understand the destruction left in the storm’s wake. Housing remains an urgent and ongoing need.
One of the saddest elements in this tragedy is that Matthew hit the most poverty-stricken areas in the nation. U.S. Census officials named Robeson County, N.C., as “persistently poor,” and post-2010 Census analysts named Lumberton as the poorest city in the United States in 2013. Many displaced residents had few resources prior to the flooding, and during Matthew, many lost the few resources they had.
The Situation on the Ground is Dire
As you can imagine, most affected residents do not have flood insurance. Many elderly residents own their home outright and lack the resources (phone, transportation, internet access) to complete applications for temporary housing assistance. Others rent and have now expended all their FEMA temporary housing funds. They must find shelter and pay rent on their damaged housing.
NC REALTORS® volunteers also talked with victims whose homes were filled up to the second floor with flood waters. These families pay over $1600 per month in mortgage obligations and are paying for a temporary rental property, while contractors attempt to assess their damages. Many residents have not been allowed to enter or come near their properties because municipal governments have expressed safety concerns. Many volunteers comforted victims who were denied federal temporary housing funds and are attempting to live in mobile homes with disintegrating particle board flooring, no functioning wiring and roof and crawlspace damage. Put in the simplest terms, the need is great.
The Relief Fund efforts in NC
In response to the need, the NC REALTORS®’ Executive Committee generously donated $80,000 to NAR’s Relief Fund, NC REALTORS® members have begun matching the $80,000 commitment and NAR has specifically earmarked $300,000 from the Relief Fund for North Carolina victims.
So how does this work in practical terms to positively impact local residents who have been affected by Hurricane Matthew? The temporary housing grant awards up to $1,000 per qualified applicant, which can be utilized for mortgage payments, rent payments or temporary housing assistance for applicants demonstrating need.
NC REALTORS® and Homes4NC Impact
To give you a snapshot of NC REALTORS® activity since Matthew hit, here are some statistics.
Over 50 volunteers distributed applications to flooding victims. While man hours on the ground were countless, they volunteered for at least 19 days in Lumberton, Kinston, Greenville, New Bern and Fayetteville. NC REALTORS® estimates that at least 3200 residents were reached, two clothing drives were conducted and at least three trucks full of supplies were delivered to affected areas.
As of December 13, 2016, Homes4NC volunteers, including former Homes4NC President Phyllis Furr-St. Clair and NC REALTORS® staff, have been on the front line, working in conjunction with NAR’s REALTOR® Relief Fund, in this major undertaking. For St. Clair, assisting with REALTOR® Flood Relief efforts was a no-brainer, “I get personal satisfaction out of selling homes to people,” she said. “When people lose their homes, as many did with Hurricane Matthew, it takes a piece of you.”
To date, NC REALTORS® has approved $269,046.70 worth of requests for 273 applicants. NAR has provided funding of $204,790.30 for 208 applicants. Thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers, we continue to coordinate assistance efforts with NAR on behalf of flood victims. Of the applicants, we estimate that 25 percent are homeowners, 65 percent are renters and 10 percent own their property outright and seek temporary housing.
For Mayor Davis and the city of Lumberton, priority number one “is getting people back in their homes.” Unfortunately, Davis recognizes that hundreds — if not thousands — of Lumberton residents don’t have homes to return to due to the strongest hurricane to hit the United States in a decade. As of mid-December, hundreds of displaced Lumberton residents were still scattered across the region in hotels covered by FEMA vouchers, which are set to expire in early January. Other priorities for Davis and City officials include mitigating damage and locating Lumberton residents, “It’s critical for us to know where our residents are.” At the height of the storm’s aftermath, thousands of residents were forced to evacuate, and some left the region. Not all of them returned. Davis won’t rest until every resident is accounted for. Looking forward, Davis and other city officials are exploring long-term solutions with the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among other agencies, to prevent a disaster like this from happening again.
Homes4NC and NC REALTORS® will continue to field needs from impacted residents, as long as the need exists, and grant funding is available. NC REALTORS® members and staff continue to be involved in the hands-on long-term recovery of the impacted areas, including shaping state disaster planning efforts to managing local municipality Facebook recovery pages. NC REALTORS® have a long tradition of being involved in their local communities, and responding after Hurricane Matthew was just another day “on the job” and opportunity to show NC REALTORS® care.
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