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PLUS: Helping hands can be difficult
AND: Damage by the numbers
Recovering from a disaster:
Lessons from Hurricane Floyd

First in a four-part series: Dealing with disaster

Life in the aftermath of FloydPRINCEVILLE, 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 by Hurricane 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 loss.

"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 my life."

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.

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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 expense.

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 painful.

'Nothing's simple'
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 related story.)

"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 different days.

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 victims.

Waiting and praying
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 way.

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 credit problems.

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."

Communications breakdown
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.

Suspicious 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 feet quickly.

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.

Charles. R. Dew "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."
-- 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.

Sometimes it works
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 present.

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.

Related information:
Protecting yourself before and after disaster

-- Posted: Nov. 16, 1999


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