Flood victims still adrift in North Carolina; 'There is a lot of work left to be done,' official says


TICK BITE, N.C. -- By the hardscrabble standards of eastern North Carolina, Herman Edwards had a spacious home. An ironworker, he welded two mobile homes together.

But the 76-year-old retiree is among tens of thousands of flood victims whose lives are still dangling six months after Hurricane Floyd ran ashore Sept. 16, 1999. They're grasping desperately for whatever permanence they've got left after North Carolina's most costly natural disaster flooded more than 60,000 homes -- leaving 24,000 destroyed or uninhabitable.

Floyd has been costly for Edwards. In addition to his home, which he is dismantling and turning into a storage building, he owns four mobile homes. Before the storm, he rented them to tenants for a combined $1,200 a month.

Edwards is now living temporarily in one of those trailers; the others are vacant. All are in the flood zone of swampy Contentnea Creek. Gone is the rental income, as well as the comfort of having lived in the same place since 1966.

"It knocked the wind out of you," said Edwards, a big man with a laugh as soft as his plaid flannel shirt. "You walk out every morning, and everything you worked all your life for is gone."

North Carolina's worst flooding is a lingering disaster, a nightmare for dozens of communities and towns where up to 20 inches of rain swelled rivers, creeks and swamps beyond the 100-year and, in some cases, the 500-year flood plain.

If the government succeeds in what would be the nation's biggest buyout of disaster-stricken homes, 8,000 structures in the flood plain would be demolished at a cost of $424 million.

Some municipalities are allowing people to return to their old homes, despite the government's warning about future flooding. Relief workers say some people, needing a place to sleep, are slipping into abandoned homes at night.

"It's a prime example of survival," said Warren Moore, a human services official with the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management.

On the other side of Contentnea Creek from Tick Bite, in Grifton, Police Chief Linwood Outlaw reports a rash of thefts from vacant houses.

The flooding turned Luke Miller, 83, into a rambling man. It ruined his house in Grifton, 75 miles southeast of Raleigh, but that doesn't stop him from sitting on the front porch. He wanders down the street to the mobile home that his daughter arranged for him.

Unfolding a metal chair, he sits in front of the trailer, drinking orange soda from a liter bottle, hoping the utility company will hook up his electricity so he can move in.

"I sit and look," said Miller, surrounded by trailers with blown-out windows and their furnishings turned topsy-turvy and crawling with mold. The breeze slaps a screen door open and shut in this abandoned neighborhood, where patches of yellow daffodils mark the lots where trailers were smashed and hauled away.

"These areas [that were] flooded are still ghost towns," said Eric Tolbert, director of the Division of Emergency Management. "There is a lot of work left to be done."

More than $4 billion in government and private disaster relief is pouring into eastern North Carolina.

Thousands of volunteers from across America have trekked here to help rebuild homes. But that enthusiasm is waning, along with the national publicity.

"When we talk to people outside of the area of devastation, they have forgotten that there are people down here without homes," said Billy Tarlton, 49. With his wife, Beadie, he runs the North Carolina Baptist Men's home-rebuilding effort in Grifton.

"Some people are still sleeping on floors, some outside," Tarlton said. "They just don't have a place to go."

White and brown poster board covers the walls of the Tarltons' office in Grifton's First Baptist Church. As victims apply for assistance, their names are added to the wallboards, listing more than 400 families seeking to have their homes rebuilt.

In quick and sometimes painful fashion, the list sums up the work to be done.

"238 Sheila Cannon. Tree crushed bathroom."

"208 Glendale Holmes. Gut if rebuildable."

"142 Mamie Edwards. Done moved in."

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