Three teams of volunteers distribute goods and information, help clean up

Special to the Gazette

By David Williamson, News Services

Broken mirrors and window panes reflecting slimy carpets; a coffee table; a wishing well and long johns dangling beyond reach from willow oak trees; houses resting in roadways; plasterboard walls the consistency of putty; muck-soaked, sodden family Bibles; school photos; China dolls; Disney videotapes; and thousands of other modest treasures now worthless in chest-high heaps.

Three-week-old dead fish on mattresses and similarly aged Tar River water shimmering from every trophy, kitchen cup, pot, pan and jelly jar; an all but overpowering miasma of mildew and mold odors; sopping-black Wonder bread; mosquitoes; and somber, masked men and women wading through and working in the abominable mess.

Cherry-red, spray-painted "Xs" on home after home after home meaning that no babies ever would be conceived and reared there again. No Christmas celebrations and no noisy birthday parties, many of the structures' only future growling bulldozers spewing their own diesel stench.

Blue skies belie devastation

Nearly exhausted volunteers, including Peace Corps veterans, hauled memories of those images and countless others back to Chapel Hill on Oct. 8 after a School of Public Health-sponsored day trip to Tarboro and Princeville, two eastern towns among those Hurricane Floyd hammered hardest. Although spared the most gruesome sights emergency crews dealt with during and after the storm -- flood victims and bloated animal carcasses -- no one who went will forget what they saw.

"The trip was a very valuable experience for our students, who saw a public health crisis one could not appreciate from just the classroom," said Rachel Stevens, deputy director of the School of Public Health's N.C. Institute for Public Health. "All the students I talked with were sorting their own feelings but valuing the experience."

Other participating public health faculty and staff included Dianne Ward, Lisa Katz, Donna Davis, Karl Umble and Zeke Graves. Others were Lynn Knauff of the medical school's International Training in Health program, and Hillel Koren of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Students, faculty and staff drank steaming coffee and ate apples and Nabs in the darkness while sorting themselves quietly at the Friday Center parking lot. A busload rolled out soon after 6:30 a.m. and headed east through a foggy Triangle dawn past pine trees, Raleigh and eventually cotton fields and tobacco stalks. Trying to lighten the mood, someone sang the first verse of 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

Three vans -- driven by Janet Porter, Bob Schreiner and Sarah Strunk of public health -- left about the same time for Duplin County.

Sunny, forget-me-not-blue skies on one of the prettiest autumn days so far belied what was to come. "Where's all the damage?" many thought. "This doesn't look too bad."

First stop was the county health department in Tarboro for the briefest of briefings. Area L AHEC director Janice Cutchin welcomed the group.

"Be careful of water moccasins in people's houses," said Harry Whitley, N.C. environmental specialist. "Use a broom handle to turn things over before you pick them up. Use your mask. Wear rubber gloves."

Boxes bearing Red Cross logos and others crammed with food, clothing and paper products filled rooms in some of the churches, such as Union Baptist, near where volunteers worked.

The Duplin County crew's job was to distribute fliers to remote houses with useful information in English and Spanish. Included were emergency telephone numbers and health and safety tips, such as the need to throw away all medicines, cosmetics, foods -- even canned goods -- and to get tetanus shots and boil well water.

On the ground

The Tarboro team cleaned out, but couldn't possibly clean, the downtown Just My Style Beauty Salon and two homes, one formerly inhabited by Kenneth Pittman and his family. Church vans from Greensboro, High Point, Union Grove and a dozen other towns attested to other volunteers who wanted to help and just showed up.

Although from the outside most flooded houses did not look ruined, looks were deceiving. Everything inside that could absorb water -- rugs, mattresses, books, etc. -- had sucked it up and was far heavier than its dry weight. Every loose item had to be hauled through the stinking wet and into the sunshine. Because sheet rock had turned almost to mush, earlier plans to scrub walls with detergent and then bleach solutions became something of a joke.

Moisture from perspiration impeded airflow through the masks. The work made normal spring cleaning seem fun. A few middle-aged backs tightened into knots under the heavy lifting. Renter Pittman and his son Kenneth Jr. showed up looking shell-shocked, and the boy forced a half-smile when we found a prized medallion he'd asked about. He said he and his family were moving to Raleigh.

By lunch time everyone was hot and ready for a break.

Volunteers sat in the grass, eating thoughtfully, drinking bottled water and resting against the Union Baptist wall. Some exchanged stories they'd heard about snakebites, people trapped and drowned in attics, airtight coffins rising from graves and floating around and getting mixed up. One woman said she and her farm family rescued 5,000 baby pigs with pontoon party boats.

After lunch, a smaller group hit the houses again, while others chose to bag and hand out groceries. Everybody worked hard.

Heading home

In mid-afternoon, volunteers re-boarded the bus for a tour of Tarboro and, across the Tar River, Princeville, much of which was under water for two weeks. Only emergency personnel, reporters and homeowners had been allowed in before then. Almost every house the bus passed bore the telltale "X," along with a notice that the dwelling was not fit for human habitation. People tried to stifle emotions.

"For me the trip was deeply meaningful because I was able to see firsthand how devastating the flood had been and talk with people who were affected by it," Ward said. "Princeville made me cry ... worrying about whether these folks could ever return to the place they called home. There, but for the grace of God, go I."

At first she thought the efforts were useless because nothing seemed salvageable, she said. Then she realized that the refuse was all the residents had left to pick through.

The last stop was to drop off more emergency fliers at a crowded new village of several hundred small trailers full of people on the outskirts of Rocky Mount. Then a ride back to Chapel Hill that felt something like a sports team riding back from a hard-fought defeat against an overwhelming opponent.

Several days later, a volunteer who asked not to be identified echoed what many undoubtedly thought.

"Probably a lot of us when we got home -- after we'd washed and evened out -- wanted to throw out or give away half of what's in our closets and rooms," she said. "I still feel that way. It's a combination of feelings. The reality that there's too much stuff and that sooner or later it will have to be emptied out wet or dry by family, friends or strangers and guilty feelings of having an abundance of what a lot of people in the east don't have anymore."

At least one Tarboro homeowner had salvaged part of his sense of humor, another volunteer recalled. A hand-painted sign in his front yard read, "Now Available for New Occupants."

Anyone wishing to contribute to flood victims in the Tarboro/Princeville area can send checks to Union Baptist Church Relief Fund, P.O. Box 121, or the Princeville Relief Fund, P.O. Box 560, both in Tarboro, N.C. 27886.

Greenville and Windsor say: 'Thank you, Carolina'

Following are excerpts from phone interviews with organizations that received services from University faculty, staff and students as part of the "Alternative Fall Break" bus trips for Hurricane Floyd relief.

"The University sent about 25 kids out to help us and in one word I can tell you they were terrific. They got here about 9:30 in the morning, broke up into five groups and dug right into what we call `rip and strip.' That means tearing down insulation and walls, ripping out carpet and floors, and throwing out contaminated furniture and household items. It takes about a day to do just one house so with your help we were able to do many over the two days. I don't know if the students could tell, but a lot of the people here whose homes they were working on are still in a state of shock. It's hard for them to throw out their own belongings that they treasure. That's why the kids' help was so important -- it had to be done. They accomplished a lot, didn't waste any time and were extremely caring. ... Our next phase will be to dry out and then rebuild. I hope you can come back."

-- Linda Walsh, director,Interfaith Disaster Recovery Center in Windsor

"We would've been hurting without that group! About 32 kids and adults came on Saturday [Oct. 16] and worked in our building, which is as big as a Wal-Mart. ...We get anywhere from 200 to 1,000 clients in a single day so we really needed the help. Your crew was great. They came ready and able."

-- Major Fred Carver, commanding officer,Salvation Army in Greenville

"We split the group into two teams. About 14 of them helped unload and sort 10 tractor-trailer loads of mattresses donated by Sealy. It was a big job to go through them by size and get them ready to distribute to the flood victims. The rest of the group assisted me in distributing over 26,000 gallons of water to the community. Because of Hurricane Irene, we opened for distribution at 10 a.m. on Sunday [Oct. 17]. By about 4:30 p.m. the waters started to rise again and roads were starting to close. We didn't want your group to get stranded so we had to get them on the bus and send them back. They were all so great; they even offered to stay. It's tough to get volunteers now. The community of Greenville is really getting burned out, so we really appreciated getting some fresh workers to help us out."

-- Tony Morace, co-chair for disaster services, American Red Cross in Greenville

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