'Invisible' damage widespread

Downed trees and household goods piled high at the street curb are, in many places, the only visible signs left of Hurricane Isabel's devastation.

BY PJ HELLER | SWAN QUARTER, N.C. | September 25, 2003

Downed trees and household goods piled high at the street curb are, in many places, the only visible signs left of Hurricane Isabel's devastation.

The worst damage is left unseen.

"Anytime flooding is the issue, once the water is gone the flood damage is invisible," said Barbara Tripp, executive director of the Marion Edwards Recovery Center Initiative (MERCI) in Goldsboro, N.C.

"It's the kind of damage that you just can't drive by and see," agreed the Rev. Bud Budzinski, chairman of the North Carolina United Methodist Church Disaster Response Team. "You have to stop and see it. Then you realize how bad the damage really is.

"It's easy to see (the damage) when the water is 3 feet high, but when the water's gone, you can't see what it's done inside these homes and businesses," he said.

In oceanfront communities such as Hatteras, N.C., or Willoughby Spit in Norfolk, Va., the power of the Isabel is clearly evident.

On Hatteras, many of the homes that remain standing now tilt at precarious angles; at least one home is up to its roof in water. Others remained battered shells. Where some houses once stood with glorious views of the ocean, the only thing that remains is an empty spot of sand-covered land.

On Willoughby Spit in Norfolk, Va., homes that front the ocean saw their foundations ripped out by the storm surge. Others had walls ripped away by the power of the Category 2 hurricane, which hit last Sept 18.

At one point, the storm was churning out in the Atlantic as a Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, packing winds of 160 mph. It weakened to a Category 2 before making landfall in North Carolina, which likely spared the region of greater destruction. Category 2 storms have winds from 96 to 110 mph.

Budzinski said he expected the majority of the estimated $1 billion in storm damages to be flood-related.

In North Carolina, the United Methodist Disaster Response Team has been handing out "flood buckets" filled with sponges, bleach, rubber gloves, facemasks and other cleaning item essentials.

Cleanup must start quickly in order to prevent more serious problems particularly health-related caused by mildew and mold, officials advised. The dark, dank and humid conditions being experienced in several areas make it ideal for mold growth.

To avoid that, residents "mucking out" their homes have already piled mounds of wet carpet, drywall, furniture, clothes and other household items at the curb.

"If you haven't got that done in a couple of weeks, then you're going to start having health issues and mold problems," Tripp warned. "It then gets harder to go in and clean it out."

With the flood damage not highly visible, Budzinski and Tripp agreed that it can often be difficult to show volunteers that assistance is needed. But both said there will be a need for people to help.

"We have to emphasize that the damage was flood damage and once the water goes down you really can't see the damage," Budzinski said. "You can see the mud. But once you go inside the homes and businesses, it's obvious how much damage there is."

"You just have to keep letting them know it's there," Tripped added. "The best way we found was just telling the story of the people who live in the houses . . . what they're having to go through. Even though you can't see the damage, this is what's happening in their life as a result of it.

"And the mold issue is a real major health problem," she said.

Tripp said much the same situation existed after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. One difference was that the floodwaters were deeper and the water was dirtier, leaving more visible water lines on walls.

"Still, after a couple of rains it began washing off and it wasn't that visible if you were just driving through," she recalled. 'You had a lot of people that said, 'Well, everything must be okay.' It's just one of the side effects of floods."

Tripp noted that attracting volunteers to help in cleanup efforts was often easier if there was structural rather than just water damage.

"It's a whole lot easier if a tree crashed through a roof for volunteers to say, 'I see the need, let me go help,'" she said. "Otherwise you really have to point it out (water damage) to them. Once they see it, it's fine, but as far as verbally getting the word out, it's just a lot harder."

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