Rural townspeople struggle in NC

BY SUSAN KIM | TRENTON, N.C. | October 11, 1999

TRENTON, N.C. - (Oct. 11, 1999) -- Residents in this town of some 500 people are demonstratively appreciative of volunteers who have

traveled here to help them clean out their homes.

But they're also full of frustrated questions: "Why does the Red

Cross seem to do more for the larger city nearby? Why does FEMA take

so long? When can the church volunteers come back? Why can't they

come sooner?"

There are no easy answers for people who have lost everything, have

done all they can, and are waiting for help from organizations that

are overtaxed and understaffed. The Rev. Billy Olsen, pastor at the

Trenton United Methodist Church, realized this as soon as the

floodwaters receded enough for him to walk door-to-door.

"It started with a few volunteers taking a walk and going to work,"

he said. Since then, Trenton has seen a steady stream of volunteers

-- 120 on Saturday alone.

But it's not even making a dent in this town, where it's easier to count who wasn't flooded that to count the number of homes that will have to be gu

tted before they can even be considered for rebuilding.

Olsen's own home was among the majority hit by floodwaters. "None of

us knew the water would rise like this," he said. "I woke up that

Friday morning and the Trent River and Mill Pond were meeting in the

middle of the road. At 11 o'clock that morning, the local fire

department banged on our door and took us out in a boat."

Trenton United Methodist Church also had a foot of water in the

fellowship building and six inches in the sanctuary. The church dates

back to 1791 and is on the National Historic Register.

Olsen has applied to the Duke Endowment, which supports rural

churches in North Carolina, for financial help in making church


But mostly he's concentrating on helping a town that feels like it's

been forgotten. A donations distribution center was established in

the church, after the ruined floor was ripped up, and Olsen began

coordinating volunteer teams by word of mouth.

Since then Trenton has been visited by volunteers from across North

Carolina, including a foreign exchange student from Belarus, who,

among the majority of Methodists present, proudly says, "Hey, I'm

Russian Orthodox."

Even among the good deeds of volunteers and the boost to survivors'

morale they bring, the donations center isn't without its own

frustration. Used clothing has begun to descend on the church, even

though response leaders put out the word from the beginning that

clothes weren't being accepted.

"We never wanted to collect clothes," said Olsen, "but somebody came

and dumped a whole load of them."

His wife, Elaine, who has been coordinating much of the donations,

throws her hands up: "Who let those clothes in here?!"

Walking out of the donations center, the flood damage is everywhere

-- but so is evidence that volunteers have been hard at work. At the

St. Matthews African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Hurricane Floyd

ripped off the steeple and inundated the church with water.

Volunteers have already ripped out ruined flooring, and the same

process is happening in scores of homes in this town.

But amid gestures of appreciation, the same conversation replays.

Clara Farrow, whose home was ruined by floodwaters then cleaned out

by herself with the help volunteers, said, "I appreciate what you've

done. Do you have any idea when they'll return?"

When he leaves volunteer sites Olsen says, "I always wish they could

have done more. I also wish that handling all the government response

stuff wasn't such slow going for people."

Still, Farrow expressed her appreciation for volunteers and for her

own family, which she said drew closer in the wake of Hurricane

Floyd. "The telephone is constantly ringing," she said. "My children

call a lot to check up on me. And my son, Gerald, who is over there

volunteering right here in my house, is like the Rock of Gibraltar to


"When people come into your house and help you, for no reason, when

they really don't have to, you just don't know what to say."

Volunteer Greg Jenks described an angry teenager who returned to his

home as volunteers were cleaning it out, wanting to know where his

posters were. "I hated that the volunteers had to hear that," he said.

But Olsen cautioned Jenks put the teen's anger into context. "When

you think about what people have been through here, you can

understand why they're angry."

Flood survivors Glatha and John Barber are angry so much as resigned.

"We've lived in our house for more than 36 years," said Glatha. "The

nearest place the Red Cross could find to set us up is in an

apartment 21 miles away."

The lack of housing, the extent of rebuilding necessary, and sheer

numbers of people in need of help are mind-boggling to survivors and

responders alike. "We're very thankful for the help," said Glatha. "I

don't know what we'd do without them. But we've still got a long way

to go."

"Really, at this point, I'd just like to sit back in a chair and go

to sleep," added John.

Posted October 11, 1999

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