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Millions seek refuge from Floyd

BY SUSAN KIM | NORTH AND SOUTH CAROLINA | September 16, 1999

NORTH AND SOUTH CAROLINA (Sept. 16, 1999) -- As the wind kicked up and the rain fell harder on Wednesday night, people left their homes and weathered Hurricane Floyd the best way they knew how -- together.

"Evacuees are just pouring in at this point," said firefighter Mike Coger on Wednesday night, who was managing a shelter at the Mayewood Middle School in Sumter County. "We seem to have everything in hand -- the food, the bedding. But we still need volunteers to come over to help keep people calm," he said.

Hurricane Floyd hit the North Carolina coast early Thursday, causing extensive flooding, power outages, and damage. President Clinton has declared North and South Carolina disaster areas along with Florida and Georiga.

Millions fled their homes and took refuge in schools, churches, and community facilities. Some shelters held scores of people and some held just a handful. Some had to be moved again as the flood waters rose waist high. But not many people would spend the night alone.

At St. Mathews Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston, three families gathered to wait out the night. "We've got our children, our dogs and cats, and we feel fairly secure," said the Rev. Ina Hoover, associate pastor.

Hoover and the other pastors called elderly members, shut-ins, and those who lived alone to make sure they weren't spending the night alone. "We checked on everyone, told them we'd be here, and we all brought food," she said.

"When we were at home, we were just constantly watching the reports on the television. Now we're taking a break from it. We'll look at the damages when it's over."

She added that listening to a constant stream of storm warnings was making the children nervous. "Between the families here, we have four children, 10 to 14 years old. They were getting pretty anxious at home. But now that we're here, they have something to do and someone to be with."

The Rev. Bill Neely, pastor at the Clover Presbyterian Church a few counties away, remembers riding out Hurricane Hugo in Charleston 10 years ago. "Times like this, you ought not to spend the night by yourself," he said, adding that he, too, checked with elderly people to make sure they were going to stay with friends or relatives.

"We also tried to get everybody out of mobile homes," he added. On Friday, Neely will travel with other members of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to survey damages in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, and plan a recovery.

Though Hurricane Floyd dwarfs many past storms in terms of size and strength, people in remained optimistic that their buildings are stronger and residents more prepared. For example, Charleston is a Project Impact community, meaning it was chosen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be part of a national initiative to build more disaster-resistant communities.

Charleston, which suffered from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and even bears scars from an earthquake in the late 1800s, has also fallen victim to a bevy of floods, tornadoes, and hazardous spills over the years. But through Project Impact, residents, businesses, and local officials have been working together to protect themselves and reduce risk.

Since 1988, FEMA has spent $20 billion to help repair and rebuild communities after disasters. Project Impact's goal is to erase the damage-repair-damage cycle by implementing preventative measures before disaster strikes.

Neely also pointed out that faith-based response groups have a larger network than ever before. "Over the years - after large-scale disasters like Hugo and Andrew - the faith-based groups started building bigger networks and they never lost those. Now it's easier to respond because a lot is already in place."

On Wednesday night the compact city - still reminiscent of the 1700s - waited anxiously, along with countless other cities throughout the Carolinas. Its historic iron gates were shut tight, its close-set buildings boarded up, and its courtyards, lanes, and gardens empty.

FEMA state liaisons are stationed at emergency operations centers in the Carolinas to provide advisory and technical services. In addition, FEMA has six disaster medical assistance teams and three medical support teams on alert.

As FEMA, churches, shelters, and faith-based groups take care of humans, the American Humane Association (AHA) is caring for animals displaced by the storm. AHA has already helped to relocate 42 animals from animal control in Walterboro, SC, and 75 from Glen County animal control in Brunswick, GA. "Normally, our emergency animal relief team is on the scene after a natural disaster to help rescue, treat and house animals," said Jack Sparks, director of communications. "But, with evacuations taking place all up and down the coast, we have been trying to help communities prepare for this storm."

But after community members did all they could, there was nothing to do but wait. "The winds are getting excessive, and it makes people nervous," said Joe Hendrix, an American Red Cross volunteer in Sumter County.

But at the Hillcrest Middle School on Wednesday night, people seemed to feel safe, said Steve Harness, a sheriff's deputy. "We're here for security purposes," he said. "When people are packed in close together, that increases the chances of people getting agitated or hot-tempered. But honestly, since yesterday afternoon, people have been in the best of spirits."

"The churches have called and offered to help, and I think people are feeling the best they can feel right now," he added.

At the Patriot Hall Recreation Center, another shelter, was housing 25 people -- but looking for more. "We've got plenty of room still," said Gary Mixon, recreation director. "Come on down."

Posted Sept. 16, 1999


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