By JAYMIE BAXLEY | The Pilot
VASS, N.C. — As Hurricane Florence lumbered toward eastern Moore County earlier this month, a familiar sense of dread washed over residents of Riverview Drive.
Nearly two years ago, part of the neighborhood was left underwater by Hurricane Mathew. In the days leading up to Florence, piles of flood-damaged furniture and wadded-up insulation were still visible in some yards.
But the piles were not visible in the immediate aftermath of Florence. Neither were the yards. Photographs of the flooded community on Sept. 16 show only flag poles and the shingled roofs of submerged houses jutting from the water.
After the floodwaters receded, many residents returned to find their homes uninhabitable. They began rummaging through their sodden possessions in search of items that could be salvaged, a task made all the more difficult by the overpowering stench of mold in the waterlogged buildings.
Riverview Drive is one of several roads in Vass where the risk of flooding is heightened by nearby streams that connect to Crains Creek, which swelled during the recent deluge. The flooding undid many of the costly home repairs that followed Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Multiple people in Vass, where the median household income is about $26,000, say they can’t afford to move and they don’t have the money to rebuild again.
“We lost everything we had twice,” said Steve Byrd, who has been staying with a family member since his home was flooded for the second time in two years.
The past few months have been difficult for Byrd. One of his fishing buddies died recently. Then his mother died.
His home on Creek Bend Drive, he said, had just become “comfortable” again after a series of Matthew-related repairs. He didn’t predict he would be standing in the parking lot of the Crains Creek Fire Department on Monday, waiting to receive a hot meal from the American Red Cross.
“I don’t want to say it can’t get worse, because I know it can,” Byrd said of his situation. “But I don’t see how it can get that much worse.”
Michelle Gagnon moved into the 100 block of Riverview Drive with her boyfriend shortly after Hurricane Matthew. Her home escaped that storm with no significant damage, but it wasn’t able to withstand Florence.
Torrential rains caused nearly 18 inches of water to pool inside Gagnon’s house, forcing the couple to move all their saturated furniture outside. Gagnon said she and her boyfriend have spent the past week trying to clean up the mess.
Sifting through stacks of personal belongings in her yard, Gagnon recalled how her home looked before it was desecrated by the storm.
“My home was beautiful,” she said. “It was my little piece of paradise.”
Gagnon said it was surreal to see her sanctuary overrun with floodwater. The 29-year-old had never been in a tropical storm’s path of destruction.
“It’s like one of those things you see on TV,” she said.
People in the neighborhood are helping to remove drenched carpet and sheets of drywall from the homes of fellow residents. Gagnon described Riverview Drive as the kind of place where every barbecue and birthday party comes with an open invitation for the community.
Gagnon said she is concerned about the financial strain the disaster has placed on her neighbors. The flood-damaged home next to hers was recently stripped to its frame, displacing the homeowners and their children.
“These are paycheck-to-paycheck people,” Gagnon said.
Catherine Graham, chairwoman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners, visited the neighborhood and other storm-affected pockets of Vass on Monday. During her tour of the town, Graham surveyed the damage and met with residents whose homes were flooded.
“I knocked on as many doors as I could,” she said. “I just wanted (the residents) to know that we had not forgotten about them.”
Seeing the extent of the storm’s destruction was an “eye-opener,” according to Graham.
“There’s a lot of massive cleanup to be done,” she said.
Graham said she was encouraged by the response from agencies like the Red Cross, which sent a three-person team from Alabama to prepare meals for flood victims. A church group from Mississippi deployed to the Crains Creek Fire Department to cook additional meals for residents.
Jon Rachels, a local community organizer, has established a collection site for building supplies and basic necessities near Mt. Pleasant Groceries on Lobelia Road. He also launched a fundraiser on Facebook to help displaced residents bounce back from Florence.
Rachels said he spent several months in Louisiana after the state was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. His experience there, he said, showed him how a natural disaster can be a crushing setback for people in low-income communities.
The difference, he said, is that the devastation wrought by Florence happened on a more manageable scale.
About 30 families here lost their homes in the storm. Helping those families get back on their feet, Rachels said, is “so possible and very easy” for Moore County, which ranks among the most economically well-off counties in the state.
The generosity of people in affluent parts of the Sandhills could turn the tide for struggling flood victims in Vass, according to Rachels.
“We’re calling on people to fight the good fight and help their neighbors,” he said. “Dig deep and take the tax write-off.”
Embattled Vass residents caught a much-needed break when Gov. Roy Cooper announced that Moore County was approved for financial assistance from FEMA on Monday.
The approval means uninsured homeowners in Vass are now eligible to receive money to pay for Florence-related repairs, but it’s not clear when the agency will begin writing checks.
Published: Sept. 25, 2018 on ThePilot.com and on Sept. 26 in the print edition of The Pilot.