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Floodwaters From Florence Hit Elderly Hard

Sep 24, 2018
Originally published on September 24, 2018 4:10 pm

In the days after a flood recedes, there's a scene that plays out repeatedly. House after house looks like it's gotten violently ill and vomited all of its waterlogged possessions out onto the lawn.

"It's just heartbreaking," Jerry Gray, 75, says while sitting in his front yard in Kinston, N.C. What used to be his worldly goods are strewn on the lawn around him — wet mattresses, broken furniture, soggy clothes.

"I've been here 16 years," Gray says with a sigh.

His small brick ranch is one of four houses next to a busy road leading out of Kinston. All of them are being gutted.

"There's all these people," he says, waving his arm toward the heap of furniture in his neighbor's front yard. "The houses are all ruined. They're not coming back."

The house behind him originally belonged to his wife, Hilda. They met 16 years ago on a blind date and then, in his words, "shacked up."

"She always joked with me because she was 10 years older than me, she always called herself the cougar," he laughs. "She was a good woman."

Hilda died three years ago. Gray has kept the house as a shrine to the years they'd had together. The puzzles Hilda did when she got cancer still hang on the wall. The rolltop desk they found at a thrift shop is out on the lawn. Her car is still in the driveway. As he stomps through the waterlogged carpet in his living room, her fluffy brown poodle, Zoe, chases him into the house.

In the kitchen, a giant pickle jar full of murky floodwater sits on the floor.

"My wife and I used to save pennies in that jar," he says.

After they both retired, he and Hilda repainted the house together. They worked together to replace the old windows with new vinyl ones.

Hilda is everywhere in the house. And now Gray has to leave it.

He didn't have flood insurance and says there's no way he can fix the place.

"I never thought I'd be basically homeless," he says. "I never thought I'd be in this situation. And the book of life doesn't teach you how to handle this."

Since Hurricane Florence hit, he has been sleeping at his stepson's house, but he says that that's just temporary.

"When you get to my age and you got nobody to lean back on, it is tough," he says. "But God will get us through it."

By us, he's referring to Zoe, the last pet he had with Hilda.

And Gray is not alone. In the wake of Hurricane Florence, thousands of homes in North Carolina have been destroyed. As of this weekend, more than 60,000 people had applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for damage from Florence.

For the elderly, a flood can turn into an eviction notice. They're often on fixed incomes and can't afford repairs. Lifting a waterlogged carpet out of their house may be physically challenging for them. So after having water pour into their homes, they're often left with few options other than to leave.

At a subsidized senior housing building in Kinston, several residents say that it was Hurricane Matthew two years ago that drove them from their homes.

Lawanda Warren, who grew up in Kinston, says these storms are incredibly hard on older people, especially if it means they have to leave a place where they've felt comfortable.

"They have to go into senior citizen homes or assisted living, places they didn't want to go," Warrren says.

Warren works for the state government, but she came home to Kinston this weekend with her food truck to feed people affected by the floods. She was giving away funnel cakes, hot dogs and popcorn to people in her old neighborhood by the Neuse River.

Her family left just before Hurricane Fran hit in 1996.

"The house that we lived in, nobody else ever lived in it [after Fran] because it got flooded out," she says.

Successive hurricanes from Fran to Floyd to Matthew and now Florence have destroyed some people's houses entirely or have done just enough damage to force vulnerable senior citizens out the door.

Warren says it's painful to watch.

"You know they want to live out their days being able to hang clothes out on the line or sit on their front porch," she says.

These storms cause immediate physical damage, she adds, but they also have deep, lasting impacts on communities.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thousands of homes in North Carolina have been destroyed by Hurricane Florence and the flooding that followed. For the elderly, who are often living on fixed incomes and can't afford repairs, a flood can quickly become an eviction notice. After water saturates their homes, they don't really have another option except to leave. NPR's Jason Beaubien has been reporting from Kinston, N.C., where the Neuse River flooded at near-record levels last week.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the days after a flood recedes, there's a scene that plays out repeatedly. You'll drive down a street, and it appears that house after house has gotten violently ill and vomited all of its waterlogged possessions out onto the lawn.

JERRY GRAY: Yeah. That's a bunch of stuff, isn't it?

BEAUBIEN: Seventy-five-year-old Jerry Gray (ph) is sitting in his front yard amidst what used to be his worldly goods on the south side of Kinston. Wet mattresses, broken furniture and soggy clothes are strewn behind him.

GRAY: I've been here 16 years. It's just heartbreaking, you know?

BEAUBIEN: Gray's small brick ranch is one of four houses next to a busy road leading out of Kinston. All of them are being gutted.

GRAY: There's all these people that just - the houses are all ruined. They're not coming back. And it's probably what I'll do because the inside is just - it's all full of water, mold, everything else you'd have to - I don't know.

BEAUBIEN: This was his wife, Hilda's (ph), house. They'd met 16 years ago on a blind date, and then in his words, shacked up.

GRAY: She always joked with me because she was 10 years older than me. And she always called herself the cougar. She was (laughter) - she was a good woman.

BEAUBIEN: Hilda died three years ago. Gray has kept this house as a shrine to the years that they'd had together. The puzzles Hilda did when she got cancer still hang on the wall. The roll top desk they found at a thrift shop is out on the lawn. Her car is in the driveway. Their fluffy brown poodle, Zoe (ph), chases him into the house.

GRAY: And you can feel...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

GRAY: ...And see the water just as you step on that carpet. Zoe, come here.

BEAUBIEN: In the kitchen, a giant pickle jar still full of murky floodwater sits on the floor.

GRAY: My wife and I used to save pennies in a jar. (Laughter).

BEAUBIEN: After they both retired, he and Hilda repainted the house together. Hilda is everywhere in this house, and now Gray has to leave it. He didn't have flood insurance, and says there's no way he can fix this place.

GRAY: I never thought that I'd be, like, basically homeless, if you want to come down to it. But I never thought, never thought I'd be in this situation. And the book of life doesn't teach you how to handle this.

BEAUBIEN: It's tough to get into your mid-70s, Gray says, and no longer have your partner to lean on for help. He's sleeping temporarily at his stepson's house. He says at least he's still got their dog, Zoe, and, he adds, his faith in God. And Gray is not alone. At a subsidized senior housing building in Kinston, several residents say that it was Hurricane Matthew two years ago that drove them from their homes. Lawanda Warren (ph) grew up in Kinston.

LAWANDA WARREN: They have to go into senior citizen homes and rest homes and these assisted living homes, places where they didn't want to go.

BEAUBIEN: Warren works now for the state government, but she came home to Kinston this weekend with her food truck to feed people affected by the floods. She was giving away funnel cakes and hot dogs and popcorn to people in her old neighborhood by the Neuse River. Her family left just before Hurricane Fran hit in 1996.

WARREN: You know, the house that we lived in, no one ever lived in it after we lived there 'cause it got flooded out after we moved. So we were blessed to avoid it.

BEAUBIEN: But she says flooding from successive hurricanes, from Fran, to Floyd, to Matthew and now Florence, have forced older people out of this area.

WARREN: You know, they won't live out their days being able to hang clothes out on the line or sit on their front porch.

BEAUBIEN: These storms cause immediate physical damage, but she says they also have deep, lasting impacts on communities. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kinston, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.