Too much 'stuff' swamps NC town

BY SUSAN KIM | VANCEBORO, N.C. | February 9, 2000


VANCEBORO, N.C. (Feb. 9, 2000) -- Shoes started overrunning this

rural town shortly after Hurricane Floyd did. Now hundreds of pairs

of them sit in a flood relief warehouse in the middle of town.

Volunteers have arranged them by size in six 50-foot rows that are

four shoes deep. There are velvet shoes, pink vinyl shoes, men's

loafers, children's slippers shaped like animals. There are dyed

bridesmaid's pumps, high-top sneakers, and sensible boots.

Since the population in Vanceboro proper is about 800, each person

here could have more than two pairs, and there would still be enough

to for the next disaster.

For the volunteers working in the warehouse -- a former windshield

wiper factory -- there's a catch: all of the shoes have to be out by

the end of this month because the warehouse was donated for a limited

time. The second catch: there are twice as many rows of clothes than

there are shoes.

But, with volunteers working the kind of hours usually associated

with corporate executives, and with the hard lessons learned only by

going through a disaster firsthand, the Vanceboro Christian Help

Center is trying to meet a challenge that strikes after so many

disasters: too much 'stuff.'

Formed eight years ago, the ecumenical help center has suddenly had

to turn its focus from helping families in crisis to helping hundreds

of flood survivors.

Before Hurricane Floyd, in the winter months of December through

February, the center typically offered help -- food, clothing,

counseling, and referral services -- to about 60 families. Since

Hurricane Floyd hit in October, the center has offered various kinds

of assistance to more than 3,000 families.

Vanceboro was one of the towns that was not just flooded but utterly

submerged when Hurricane Floyd's rains swelled the Neuse River and

the Palmetto and Swift creeks.

When Floyd hit, residents were still harvesting their crops of soy

beans, corn, and cotton. The crops were ruined -- putting farmers

without crop insurance into dire straits -- and hundreds of migrant

workers were forced to pack up and leave in search of work.

To Connie Lewis, volunteering 60 hours a week at the center

coordinating casework for families in need, the floodwaters have

receded but the needs just keep rising, along with the piles of shoes

and clothing.

Lewis and other volunteers haven't slowed down a bit, but the process

of recovery has, at least from a flood survivor's perspective.

"Now people are on a waiting list of some kind or another. They have

more time now to think, more time to miss what they've lost. Now

they're no longer running, so it feels like to them like they've come

to a complete stop," she said.

Many people are waiting for contractors, for checks from the Federal

Emergency Management Agency, or simply for the passage of time and

enough work hours to ease their financial stress.

Flood survivors come to the center for food, information, appliances,

furniture, counseling, referrals, and even sometimes for shoes and

clothing. But Lewis said, at this point, many are just stopping by

for some reassurance. "They seem to come in as if to make sure

they're not being forgotten," she said.

For a town used to, at most, 12 inches of water that often

temporarily closed Streets Ferry Road, the 10 feet of water that hung

around for three weeks was beyond comprehension. People who weren't

flooded out were flooded in - trapped in their homes by water.

When 13 miles of River Road became impassable for days on end, people

missed workdays they couldn't afford to miss. The first recorded

Floyd-related death in Craven County was when a man was swept away

after trying to drive his pickup truck through water that was too

deep and too swift.

In Vanceboro -- where everybody knows everybody else and where

directions to someone's house might be "go to the collard patch and

turn left" -- such death and devastation draws people even closer

together.

It also draws sometimes unmanageable -- albeit well-intentioned --

compassion from outsiders. A day after the flood, an 18-wheeler full

of flood, water, shoes, and clothing arrived from New Bern, some 20

miles away. The National Guard helped distribute supplies to stranded

people. The next day, another 18-wheeler arrived from somewhere else.

The next day, another.

Then the waters started going down, but the clothes piled into a

mountain, then they outgrew 240 feet of rack space, and they're still

being sized and sorted by volunteers -- and the Christian Help Center

is evaluating new storage space.

But not all the memories are of sorting and organizing. Just before

Christmas, the back of the warehouse opened as a holiday store, where

children and families could walk through and pick out gifts. At that

time, donations became something special for flood survivors: new

toys, new blankets, and new dishes or appliances.

Now the Christian Help Center also coordinates volunteer work teams

who are helping survivors rebuild their homes. Lewis and the other

volunteers hope a grant comes through to allow them to hire a staff

person, and to lease some storage space.

"Right now we have no other choice but to make priorities in who we

help first," said Lewis. "We'd rather not have to do that."

Posted Feb. 9, 2000


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