N.C. -- Charles R. Dew can carry what he didn't lose in the
flood: a set of work clothes, a framed Army discharge certificate
and little else.
The honorable discharge, wrinkled
but legible behind clouded glass, still hangs on a bedroom
wall in his house, where the water rose inside to the height
of a basketball hoop and stayed 12 days.
Two weeks after the September flood caused
Floyd, Dew returned to his home to find all the furniture
from his bedroom in the living room. The living-room furniture
was in the kitchen, where a light bulb in the ceiling fan
was filled with water. The soaked ceiling, burdened by drenched
insulation, had crashed to the floor. The house is a total
"I lost my job, I lost my business,
my home, my cars, my clothes," Dew says, ticking off
each item on the fingers of a hand. "But I got out with
Dew survived the flooding, a disaster
that will plunge his life into turmoil for months, maybe longer.
Every year, thousands of Americans like him share a similar
long journey to recovery from a tornado, earthquake, hurricane,
wildfire, flood or other calamity.
Six weeks into recovery, the story of
residents' efforts to cope with Hurricane Floyd bears similarities
to the aftermath of any disaster. Government programs help,
but not always to the satisfaction of residents who just want
their lives to return to normal quickly and with little out-of-pocket
Making things worse, some of the procedures
for getting government help can baffle the savviest of us.
Devastated people without phones or mail service are expected
to keep in contact with government officials. And glitches,
confusion, emotional fallout and rumors render recovery more
One source of confusion is the application for financial
aid. It's a loan form from the Small Business Administration.
Caseworkers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency say
that sometimes confused homeowners ignore the SBA documents,
believing that they are only for small-business owners.
But the SBA lends money to homeowners
and renters for some uninsured losses. And the SBA paperwork
doubles as an application for FEMA grants, which don't have
to be repaid. (See
"The applications are pretty simple,
but after you've been in a disaster nothing's simple,"
SBA spokesman W. Donald Waite says.
Agencies add to the confusion by sometimes
mailing checks separately from explanations of what the checks
are for. Sometimes checks and explanatory letters arrive on
Before checks are mailed, inspectors have
to look at the property. FEMA and SBA employ different inspectors
who sometimes visit on -- you guessed it -- different days.
None of this helps the moods of disaster
You can see it in people's eyes and hear it in their words:
despair, fear, bitterness, anger, recriminations. Anyone who
goes through a disaster can expect emotions to get in the
When people don't take action because
of depression, or are too distrustful of government to seek
help, their condition disables them as much as a broken arm
would, or a ruined car.
Take the example of James Harper, who
says he hasn't returned to his job at a steel mill because
he doesn't have a car. But a look in his eyes suggests that
he is so filled with despair that he can do little but get
out of bed in the morning.
He is staying just north of Rocky Mount,
where he, his wife and four daughters squeeze into a government-provided,
20-foot-long trailer -- one of 335 crammed practically wheel-to-wheel
amid cotton fields. These aren't mobile homes -- they are
trailers that you can pull with a pickup truck.
Residents of this makeshift village have
nowhere else to stay. There just aren't enough houses to go
around because so many were destroyed in the floods. Harper
says he and his wife were lucky enough to find a rental house
recently, but their application was turned down because of
Harper -- a man who lived in the South
Bronx for several years before fleeing back to his native
North Carolina -- is desperate to get out of the trailer village.
Eyeing idle neighbors with distaste, he says: "The only
problem I have with FEMA is I want them to inspect my house
so I can get out of here. I don't want to be here and my kids
don't want to be here and my wife don't want to be here."
But here they are, their exodus delayed
by a misunderstanding with a FEMA inspector. They were supposed
to meet at a firehouse 19 miles away in Tarboro, then drive
to the Harper family's rented house (they had moved into it
the day before the flood).
But as Harper tells it, he and the inspector
went to different firehouses. Harper set up another appointment,
but that inspector canceled and left when Hurricane Irene
threatened the east coast. Six weeks after losing his uninsured
1977 Ford Ranger pickup and the family's possessions in the
flood, he still awaits an inspection of the house they were
renting and its contents.
Watching listlessly over his two daughters
who aren't yet school age, Harper says, "All I can do
is wait and pray. That's all I can do right now."
One of the worst things about being displaced by a disaster
is the isolation. In the trailer village outside Rocky Mount,
none of the trailers has a phone.
Residents use banks of outdoor pay phones,
which makes it tough to receive calls. Mail is not delivered
to the trailers. Most residents hail from Princeville, and
their mail is delivered to the post office in Tarboro, the
nearest to their former homes. That post office is 19 miles
from the trailer village. It's quite a distance for people
who have lost uninsured cars.
Despite these difficulties, disaster refugees
are expected to keep in touch with government agencies and
to pick up and respond to documents in the mail.
"I was pushed out of town so far,
there was no way I could meet with a FEMA inspector,"
Princeville resident Milton Roberson says. He tries to hitch
a ride to the post office once a week.
Even people who are able to meet with
FEMA inspectors and deal with government agencies aren't necessarily
happy with the results. Some are angry with the government
or resigned to the idea that government won't help them.
This is what's going on with Dew. Six
weeks after the flooding, he still appears dazed. He is frustrated
and angry with the government and he feels sorry for himself.
of government help
He just wants things to return to the way they were before.
He is suspicious of government efforts to help.
"The flood has hurt us, but the federal
government's going to screw us," he says as he escorts
me through the remains of his house, with its collapsed ceiling
and exposed rafters. He scorns Bill Clinton's promise, during
a visit to Tarboro soon after the disaster, that the federal
government would do all it could to put people back on their
That promise, Dew says, "is like
taking a kid to the candy store and going up to the counter
and then saying, 'No, you can't have that candy.' You don't
do that to people."
Dew is annoyed that an SBA representative
came to his house and told him that the SBA would extend low-interest
loans to rebuild his house and his adjacent business, a car-repair
shop named Dew's Garage that his father founded in 1945.
Dew says he can't afford to repay a loan.
He says he needs a grant. If he doesn't get grants to repair
the house and the car-repair shop, he'll just have to walk
away from them, take a job somewhere and start his life anew.
somebody would just tell me, 'OK, Charles, here's a check
for $10,000,' I would tow this house away and put a trailer
-- Charles R. Dew
"What really bothers me is the government
can bomb these foreign countries, then pay to rebuild them,"
he says. "But they won't do the same for citizens of
this country who lost everything in a disaster."
SBA spokesman W. Donald Waite hears complaints
about foreign aid all the time. "I just tell them that's
a foreign policy matter and I don't have anything to do with
it," he says with a shrug.
Compounding Dew's frustration is the story of his son-in-law,
Ray Page, who has had an easier time dealing with the disaster.
The Pages bought a mobile home and moved
it onto Dew's property, 30 feet from his house, a week before
the flood. As they stepped into a boat to escape the rising
water that fateful morning, Page grabbed a fireproof ammunition
box containing vital papers.
His father had always told him to keep
his important papers in a place where he could grab them at
a moment's notice, and Page listened to his dad.
As the rescue boat floated so high above
a flooded highway that the occupants could reach up and touch
stoplights, Page wondered what the papers in the ammunition
box would tell him. Was he insured against floods?
That night, Page went through the papers
and discovered that, yes, the mobile home had flood coverage.
It would be replaced. An insurance adjuster inspected the
home as soon as the water subsided and wrote a check that
day. A FEMA inspector came out soon after, and the Pages received
a check two weeks later to help pay for a place to rent while
awaiting a replacement mobile home. The FEMA inspector did
not appraise Dew's house 10 yards away because Dew wasn't
Dew feels envious.
"FEMA -- after trying and trying,
I finally got them to come out last Friday and they inspected
the house," he says on a Wednesday six weeks after the
flood. "I haven't heard any more from them."
He says he doesn't need much. If he has
to, he will live like his daughter and son-in-law, who are
just starting out.
"If somebody would just tell me,
'OK, Charles, here's a check for $10,000,' I would tow this
house away and put a trailer here," Dew says, standing
inside his ruined three-bedroom house.
-- Posted: Nov. 16, 1999