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Rural areas face long recovery

Driving to this rural and remote town, motorists pass a road sign welcoming them to Hyde County.

BY PJ HELLER | HYDE COUNTY, N.C. | October 1, 2003

"They prepared for the worst and it was even worse."

—Don Davenport

Driving to the rural and remote town of Swan Quarter, motorists pass a road sign welcoming them to Hyde County. The motto under the county name: "The road less traveled."

Now, in the wake of Hurricane Isabel that flooded nearly the whole town, residents here and in nearby Engelhard are hoping the county's motto won't prevent them from getting the disaster assistance they desperately need.

"These people are very self-sufficient people," said the Rev. Cliff Harvell, a United Methodist minister who is helping coordinate the recovery effort here for MERCI (the Marion Edwards Recovery Center Initiatives). "For that very reason, they don't get the help they deserve. They don't get the help like everybody else does. They never have. To some degree I think they have learned to live with it. They've had the short end of the stick many, many times."

After Hurricane Isabel, however, help began to arrive more quickly.

"It is getting traveled," said Interim County Manager Don Davenport. "At this point we're getting a lot of people from the outside to help. And we have neighbors helping neighbors.

"I'm proud and glad that from the first day after the storm, the effort has been here and is here now," Harvell said. "I'm hoping it will stay here instead of arriving after everybody else has been taken care of."

Davenport said groups such as The Salvation Army and MERCI (part of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church) have promised "they're here for the long term."

MERCI is an outgrowth of Disaster Recovery Ministries from Hurricane Floyd. That former group had played a big part in Hyde County's recovery from Hurricane Floyd.

Because of those previous efforts, MERCI and Harvell were asked to coordinate the volunteer efforts and needs assessment in the county. Much of the work right now entails tree removal, cleaning out flooded homes and helping people work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross to secure temporary housing, he said.

Harvell said he already has had faith-based volunteer teams in from Michigan, Alabama and Kentucky and has been fielding calls from others throughout the U.S., offering assistance. Faith-based groups, including the North Carolina Baptist Men, Christian Reformed Church and local churches, have been lending a hand with cleanup efforts.

While help is on the way for those affected by Isabel, many county residents still have not recovered from Hurricane Floyd, which struck with savage intensity in 1999.

"Floyd was four years ago and we haven't recovered yet," Davenport said. "This (Isabel) will make it an even longer process."

At the Providence United Methodist Church, for example, members had held their first official Sunday service in a renovated sanctuary which had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Floyd just five days before Isabel roared ashore as a Category 2 hurricane.

"We had redone everything," said the Rev. Ken Davenport. "Everything had been painted, new carpet, new pulpit area, new wainscoting. . ."

The cost to repair the damages from Floyd to the small red brick church came to $140,000, Davenport estimated. Repairs for damage from Isabel are expected to run another $40,000 to $45,000, he said.

"It took from the time of Floyd until now to get it done and everyone was very happy to be back," Davenport said, surveying the flood damage in the church caused by Isabel. "Now we have to go through it again."

The same holds true for Swan Quarter and Engelhard residents.

Immediately after Isabel hit, some residents talked about moving out of Hyde County, most of which sits in a flood plain, rather than face another storm, County Manager Davenport said.

"They prepared for the worst and it was even worse," he said. "You can't help but feel depressed."

Although damage assessments are still ongoing, Davenport said between 400 and 500 homes suffered some type of flood damage, with another 509 damaged by the wind. Among other buildings that were heavily damaged was the Swan Quarter Presbyterian Church.

Most residents, primarily fishermen and farmers who eke out a living, did not have flood insurance, Davenport said. There are indications that many also did not have homeowners insurance.

After Floyd, FEMA and the state wanted to buy out homes and move the residents out of the flood plain. The residents refused.

"It would have wound up decimating the county," Davenport said. "We would cease to exist."

He noted that 80 homes in the county were elevated after Hurricane Floyd and that Isabel damaged none of those homes.

"We have a strong feeling here that elevation is the correct type of mitigation," Davenport said.

Barbara Tripp, executive director for MERCI, agreed.

"They need to elevate the homes," Tripp said. "That's the only answer that's going to save people wanting to remain in that town."

She added that the cost to elevate the homes in the county could be problematic.

Hyde County government also took a major hit from Isabel, with the storm flooding nearly every office. Isabel also knocked out communications at the emergency operations center when it hit Sept. 18.

"County government is limping at this point," Davenport said.

He said the biggest need right now was for money and for volunteers to help clean up homes damaged by floodwaters "to make sure they're safe and sanitary."

"The magnitude of the disaster has diluted some of the help we would have gotten," Davenport said.

Harvell, who worked on Hurricane Floyd recovery efforts elsewhere in the state, said recovery efforts in Hyde County could go on for as long as two years, assuming funds were available.

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