“She said, ‘Hello’ and ‘I bet you guys are wondering who I am,’” said Disaster Response Team manager Hani Hamwi. Then she began to tell her story. She said, “This is my home.”
It will be a year next month since Hurricane Matthew hit the southeastern U.S., and the storm has long faded from most people’s minds. But hundreds of families still can’t go home, like the homeowner Hamwi met.
She told of being evacuated to Raleigh last October during the hurricane, and how she got a call saying her home was a total loss. She told them about the process of applying to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and talking to insurance adjusters, and the hardship of learning that she would not be able to repair her home with the funds she received.
She had contacted the Methodist church and in turn IRUSA ended up there, fixing up her house.
She cried, and the team cried.
And that right there is why IRUSA’s Disaster Response Team is working with interfaith partners in North Carolina to repair houses damaged by Hurricane Matthew and get families back home.
‘It Sat on North Carolina’
IRUSA’s team was already in North Carolina in October 2016 when Matthew was still wreaking its damage. Hamwi and his team had been following the storm’s path, and they knew they’d be needed there.
While the hurricane made landfall in Haiti, Hamwi was connect with partners to make sure emergency response efforts were underway there. Then it made landfall again in Florida, with predictably furious winds along the beaches. But Florida is used to hurricanes, and the preparations there mitigated the damage, Hamwi said. He was more worried about communities further along its path.
“In a hurricane, the first place it makes landfall, that place is the hardest hit by winds,” Hamwi said. “As it moves on it drops a lot of rain.”
He knew that the greater needs were likely to come further north as the winds calmed and flooding set in. Even though the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made its way up the coast, that didn’t mean the danger was over. And he was right.
“It sat on top of North Carolina,” Hamwi said. And the whole time it sat, it dumped water on the state.
So that’s where IRUSA’s team got to work. They arrived the first day — driving through water on the highway — while the rain fell and before the floodwaters rose. As the rivers overflowed their banks and families evacuated, IRUSA’s team staffed a Red Cross shelter for more than 900 evacuated people, bringing in bottled water and hygiene kits with necessities like soap and toothpaste.
After the initial emergency was over, Hamwi and his team returned home, but they knew the community still needed help getting back on their feet. So they found a way to help.
Living in Limbo, With Time Running Out
Some of the homes in Princeville, N.C., filled with up to 4-7 feet of water. The floodwaters recede quickly, but the damage they leave behind can take years to fix.
The waters push and pull furniture and belonging around a house like a huge child throwing a tantrum. As they recede, they leave layers of ruined belongings strewn over sopping rugs. Drywall and subflooring are soaked down to the house’s bones, and black mold grows where it can’t be seen. The house needs to be stripped back to the wooden beams and foundations, cleaned and treated, and completely refinished.
“When you walk into a house after all this time, it stinks,” Hamwi said. “We wear protective gear — face masks, gloves, we cover up because black mold is harmful. … Most of [the families] try and stay away from it. It must be very painful. There’s people that worked their entire lives to pay off the homes.”
Getting back home is a daunting prospect to many families. Some are still going through the processes with their insurance companies and government emergency assistance programs. But even when that’s over, in many cases, it’s not enough for repairs.
“They still need to come up with — some people 5 grand, and some 30 grand,” Hamwi said. “For a family in small-town North Carolina, that’s a lot of money to come up with.”
In the meantime, many families are living in tiny, temporary trailers that the government sometimes lends out in emergencies like this.
“It’s the most basic living space you could get next to a tent,” Hamwi said. “What I always say is that people like that live very similar to refugees, because these people lost everything. They lost their home, their bedroom, their bed, their blanket, their stuffed animals.”
And adding to the pressure, their time to stay there is running out — they’re getting gentle reminders from the government agency, telling them they need to get ready to leave the trailers.
Working Together to Get Families Home
Hamwi’s connections led him to a group that was starting to rebuild houses, one by one. It was the North Carolina Conference of United Methodists’ disaster response team.
IRUSA staff got to planning with the Methodist team, and in July, they went to North Carolina and learned how to repair houses — a new kind of work for IRUSA. The Methodist group taught them patiently.
First comes the demolition phase. They take out all of the furniture, drywall, kitchen cabinets, flooring, air conditioning ducts — everything that was flooded. They take the house back to its original beams.
Then it’s treated for mold, and then the reconstruction process begins. Flooring, air conditioning systems, plumbing and electrical systems are all reconstructed.
“And then the final phase is drywall, mudding, sanding, priming, painting, and putting in the final touches to get the families back into their homes,” Hamwi said.
Hamwi is proud to pass these skills along to teams of IRUSA volunteers now.
“This is growing the skill and capacity of the Muslim community to be able to respond in this manner,” he said. “Instead of just donating money or lending a smile and a supportive hug, we can also get our hands dirty and help someone get back into their home.”
Ties of History and Faith
Hamwi also glad to be able to serve this particular community in Princeville.
“Princeville is the first free black town in America,” he said. During the Civil War, escaping slaves would come up the river and stop in a place in town called Freedom Hill. “Many of the stopped there to pray and ended up staying there,” he said.
“To me, as a 501(c)(3) organization, one of our values is justice,” he said. “The history of this town is an embodiment of one of our values.”
And working together with interfaith partners to serve this town makes the work even more meaningful, he said.
IRUSA staff and volunteers will return for a week each month through the end of the year to repair as many houses as they can along with their interfaith partners.
During the August trip, the volunteer squad included a structural engineer, who was exactly the person they needed to guide them in repairing the house that needed structural improvements. Together, they were able to make this owner’s house better and stronger than it before the storm.
“Not only does she have a new family to help her rebuild her home, but she has a family to stand by her anytime she needs,” Hamwi said.
“I sincerely thank and app the Islamic Relief donors and volunteers who make this possible,” Hamwi said. “If a home was to cost $100,000 to be rebuild, homes are being rebuild for the cost of the supplies with volunteer labor. So two- thirds of the cost is saved. This work truly embodies how communities should come together. Muslims and Christians and people of all faiths came together and are working to help those who need someone to stand by them.”