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Nelson Unukandi watched from a shelter in Sanford as the first images of New Bern appeared on the television screens.
He came to the coastal North Carolina city two months ago as a refugee from the Congo and now watched as its streets and homes filled with water.
“I was watching on the news, the river how it’s flooding, the whole downtown was underwater,” he said. “I’ve never seen something like this.”
The 28-year-old said he has no idea when he can return. Ahead of the storm, he and other refugees were loaded onto buses, unsure where they were going, except away from the hurricane, he said. He ended up in Sanford and then Sunday came to UNC’s Friday Center, which had been opened to evacuees.
“In Africa, this type of stuff never happens,” Unukandi said of the flooding. “We can have big rains sometimes, but say a big area that’s flooded, I’ve never seen it. This is my first time seeing such a thing.”
Dianna Van Hon, assistant director of external relations for the American Red Cross, said her organization worked with the state and the university to open the shelter at the Friday Center to ease pressure on the counties that had been housing evacuees.
There were about 186 people at the UNC shelter Sunday afternoon, Van Horn said, but more evacuees arrived overnight and on Monday the shelter reached its 500-person capacity. With some people expected to leave, Van Horn said they were not turning anyone away.
The Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem is also being used for evacuees transferring from now closed county shelters. The long-term plan includes exploring opening additional shelters at community colleges, and state officials are speaking with federal officials to explore additional long-term housing options. Officials expect tens of thousands of homes to be damaged because of the storm.
Although Orange County closed two shelters on Sunday, county officials announced Monday that they would open a new shelter at the Department of Social Services Commons, located at 113 Mayo St. in Hillsborough for displaced residents. The shelter will be open up to 72 hours and is pet friendly.
Cooper visits shelter
Gov. Roy Cooper toured the UNC shelter on Sunday, meeting evacuees and painting a grim picture for the longevity of the storm’s impact
“This hurricane just won’t leave,” Cooper said, noting the slow-moving nature of the storm. “This is a storm that will not leave, and it’s very frustrating for all of us to continue to see rain being dumped across our state.”
Cooper said shelters may be needed in the western part of the state as well, as mudslides and flooding becomes a possibility in the mountains.
“This event is statewide,” Cooper said.
At the UNC shelter, dormitories filled with cots that have been set up in two large rooms. Evacuees spent their time together in a large common area. Children lavished a therapy dog with pets and played with toy cars on hard plastic boxes stamped with the Red Cross logo.
Cooper shook hands and posed for pictures with evacuees in the UNC shelter, listening to their stories, some who had been on the move since Wednesday. To each he gave what comfort he could, ending most with a “hang in there.”
“There was some despair in people’s voices about the fact that where they live was flooded,” Cooper said. “There was concern about some of the people who were still there.”
Cooper suggested harder flood-related conversations are down the road, that folks just this year returning to their homes after Matthew in 2016 are once again washed out. Certain flood-prone areas have been purchased by government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the past, and there may be more to come.
“We’re now seeing this water come even greater than it had before, that’s a frustrating thing,” Cooper said. “We’re going to have to make some decisions about where we rebuild, what is bought out, mitigation. Understand that (flooding) is something that could happen a lot and we’ve got to be ready for it and prepare for it.”
Those who want to help the evacuees, Van Horn said, could make a financial donation to the local organization of their choice, call their local chapter of the American Red Cross to check on what is needed, or stop by the UNC shelter and check on what folks need, Van Horn said.
When people come with specific needs at the Friday Center shelter, officials keep a list and work with local community to address those requests, she said.
Just donating items to the shelter without checking what is needed could result in challenges for shelter officials, such as figuring how to store unneeded items.
Tracey Ouillette, 48, came to the UNC shelter Sunday morning with her daughters Vanessa, 15, and Leila, 8, after the shelter at Smith Middle was closed.
This is the family’s first hurricane, despite moving from South Florida to Orange County earlier this year.
“Everything is new and then we come upon the hurricane,” Ouillette said, who said she came to the shelter over concerns of flooding and power outages.