Three months after Hurricane Florence stormed Onslow County, local businesses and organizations are still finding ways to help those in need.
Three months have passed since Hurricane Florence wrecked Onslow County, and while some have repaired roofs and replaced damaged items, others are still going through the recovery process.
And those in need have not been missed by the eyes of a caring local community.
Eastern North Carolina began feeling the effects of Hurricane Florence on Sept. 13 before she made landfall at Wrightsville Beach the next day. Once the storm hit land, ENC was pounded with 13-foot storm surges and nearly 30 inches of rain, which brought extreme flooding and damages. Wind gusts of up to 106 mph were reported at Cape Lookout, which downed trees and caused other damages in the area.
Some organizations, recognizing the breadth of Florence’s damages, took steps to take care of their customers, employees and longevity.
Marine Federal Credit Union, with the help of credit union Pen Air FCU, distributed $25,635 to its members. Pen Air raised the money and Jeff Clark, president of Marine Federal, said it only made sense to give that money back to its clients.
“Giving back to our community is the very fiber on which we are founded,” Clark said in a press release. “We’re not a stock based organization. We’re a cooperative which simply means we give back.”
Members were able to receive a portion of this donation by applying for aid through the credit union, and were given $250 if they qualified and had no obligation to pay it back, according to Trisha Scott, marketing manager for Marine Federal.
A total of 103 members participated in the program. One of the recipients, retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. James Heath from New Bern, said the money from the credit union was a true blessing to he and his wife, Sarah.
“It was a bright spot in all of the negative we experienced,” Heath said.
Heath, who now serves as the pastor for Church of God and Christ, said Sarah was still recovering from surgery after suffering an aneurysm in August when news of the hurricane came his way. The couple had planned to wait the storm out, but was forced to evacuate when storm surge began to flood their property on the Neuse River.
Heath said he and Sarah spent over 20 days displaced from their home as Florence passed through and recovery began afterward. They evacuated to Little Washington for the weekend of Sept. 15 and were able to return Sunday — but soon discovered mold forming in the house.
Sarah, who is a survivor of kidney and breast cancer, requires dialysis treatments. Heath said he did not want to risk his wife’s health by staying there, so they sought refuge on Cherry Point in another hotel room.
For her first set of treatments after the storm, Heath said he had to make several phone calls to ensure she would be able to receive them. And once she had her appointment, he felt the full weight of their situation.
“I got us some food, set hers in the microwave … and I realized I was so stressed I couldn’t even put my fork in my mouth,” Heath said.
Later, as they filled out forms with their insurance and were denied by FEMA during their first application, he said it was difficult to find the funding they needed to repair flooding damage to their garage and patio.
“Seeing them offer this and not making it (the application) like Fort Knox, makes me really proud to be part of this credit union,” Heath said. “It encourages my wife… and let her see that there are concerned citizens in our community.”
State and federal agencies, including FEMA and the Small Business Administration, set up camp in Onslow County and the surrounding areas to help people apply for disaster assistance. While FEMA extended its original deadline, the disaster recovery center will now be officially closing Thursday. The only center that will remain open in North Carolina is in Wilmington, according to FEMA media relations specialist Angela Bryd.
“Circumstances for each survivor are different, some have received assistance, some are still going through the process so it really does vary,” Bryd said.
If residents have not yet applied for FEMA or need to appeal, Bryd said it is imperative to meet the deadline by 5 p.m. Thursday. If that is not possible or residents can’t file in person, she said they can call the FEMA line at 1-800-621-3662 or apply online at disasterassistance.gov.
SBA workshops have also been set up in Onslow County, where the deadline to apply for physical disaster assistance is the same as FEMA. For capital loan assistance, which is geared toward businesses, the deadline is not until June 14, 2019.
Jacqueline Wu, public affairs specialist for the SBA, said citizens can apply for both FEMA assistance and SBA assistance, but it’s important to meet the deadline. Especially, she added, if additional damages were found following the initial hurricane recovery period and assistance or an appeal is needed. As long as applications are submitted by the Thursday deadline, Wu said applicants can appeal to FEMA or the SBA loan if they are denied.
Raquel Painter, executive director of the United Way of Onslow County, said while much of the physical haul is complete, like volunteer clean-up efforts, grant money is starting to come in for the services United Way supports, such as the Salvation Army. A total of $20,000 in grants will be distributed to 11 organizations, she added.
“We sat down with the agencies to discuss what the gaps are … and found a lot of residents are still displaced,” Painter said.
And ultimately, the problem with being displaced is that it quickly becomes very costly. Staying in a hotel without a full kitchen, Painter said, might mean more meals eaten out, and perhaps a longer commute to work. United Way is trying to make displacement less costly for residents with the distribution of hygiene supplies and other necessities.
Nearly three rooms at the United Way of Onslow County were full on Tuesday of donations of items including diapers, laundry soap, hygiene supplies and brand-new college apparel from the University of North Carolina.
Agencies supported by United Way, like Onslow Community Outreach, were also able to continue providing services after Florence thanks to the help of the public.
“The good thing about that is Florence didn’t affect those programs and all the citizens have been amazing in ensuring those programs go on,” Painter said.
For other organizations, hurricane recovery was more prevalent in the beginning, such as ONWASA. CEO Jeff Hudson said the utility service initially provided a lot of support in the form of water containers and then waiving late fees for those affected by the storm. More recently, however, he said employees came together to help each other for Christmas, starting a private collection.
Of the 125 people employed by ONWASA, he said seven total suffered severe or total losses to their homes.
“They (employees) decided to collect money for families suffering house damages so their kids could have something nice for Christmas,” Hudson said. “There was no public money involved.”
For some businesses, physical damages became a huge obstacle in the aftermath of Florence. In downtown Jacksonville, the Kettle Diner closed its doors the day before the hurricane — and has not been open since. General Manager Dawn Mitchell, who said the restaurant has been in its Marine Boulevard location for nearly 20 years, said it’s been an emotional process.
A Swansboro resident, Mitchell said she had to cut down on her trips to Jacksonville before repairs began at the restaurant because it was so hard to see her “home” at a near complete loss.
“It was really, really emotional to walk in here and see things the way they were,” Mitchell said. “The front was all caved in, and we had to gut a lot of stuff.”
But, once progress was made, which is a continuing process for the downtown restaurant, she said the focus became more about getting the diner reopened. While she could not offer a specific date for reopening due to the inspection process, she said the hope is to open before Christmas.
“I get messages every single day from the employees asking when it’s going to happen and the customers have been a blessing,” Mitchell said.
In fact, it was regular customers who performed some of the initial “damage assessments” by taking photos of the diner after the hurricane. To help with some of the costs and the cost of employees being out of work, T-shirt sales were organized by the diner as well. Mitchell said a second order is going out soon for those who missed the first round of shirts. She said many of the employees and servers are collecting unemployment until they can return to work.
Mitchell could not provide an estimate on costs to the diner, but said insurance did help curb some of the repair work. A good amount of the work, she said, involved bringing the eatery up to current code, which will be required for it to open again.
“It’s almost like we’re getting a new diner opened,” Mitchell said. “Between waiting for all our different inspections, we were able to do a lot of other work.”
Employees of the restaurant, including Mitchell, have been hard at this work every day, she said.
As far as the physical repairs go, Mitchell said things are moving along pretty well. The best way to help, she said, is to be ready to support the restaurant once it re-opens.
“Be ready, because it ain’t gonna be long from now,” Mitchell joked.
For residents in need, Painter said support in the form of donations of goods, funds and time are still needed. Tell-tale signs of repair are still prevalent throughout the county, from blue tarps to piles of storm debris.
“A lot of times you can’t see it … but we still have needs that need to be met,” Painter said. “A lot of funds through government programs have run out, and finding the funds to move out (if you’re displaced) is tough.”
Reporter Kelsey Stiglitz can be reached at 910-219-8453 or kstiglitz@JDNews.com.