Grandmother fills suitcase meant for Christmas trip with few belongings left after Florence

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A 71-year-old woman in Bladenboro has survived a long list of tragedies, but the toll from Hurricane Florence has been the most difficult.

“This has been the worst nightmare of my life,” said Veronica Gillespie, who is a retired nurse’s assistant and describes herself as a survivor.

Before Hurricane Florence, Gillespie lived through the death of her husband, medical scares, and surviving a drive-by-shooting into her house three months ago. She also helps care for her son who has COPD and congestive heart failure.

“I’ve had a lot of bad, tragic things happen to me before the storm, so I wasn’t prepared,” said Gillespie.

Now the grandmother must deal with the horror of losing her home and nearly all of her belongings to four feet of floodwater, made worse by sewage overflowing from the bathroom and spreading throughout the home.

“I lost all of my furniture, and most of my personal belongings are gone. All I have left is what I took out in a bag when I left to go to the shelter,” Gillespie said. “Really, there’s nothing left in there.”

One of her seven sons works for the U.S. military in Germany, and he gave his mother a suitcase for a trip to visit her grandchildren abroad this Christmas.

“He said, ‘Mom, if you get your bills paid and get it worked out, I’m going to give you a trip to visit me for Christmas,'” said Gillespie. “Now I can’t go. … I was looking forward to spending time with the three girls, but that’s it, that’s trashed.”

The suitcase, meant for the Christmas vacation to visit family in Germany, now contains her few personal belongings that remain after flooding damage.

With very little money in the bank, Gillespie is hoping FEMA and home insurance will provide relief, but she had little luck after Hurricane Matthew devastated her life in 2016.

She does have homeowners insurance, but isn’t sure what will be covered.

“I never really ever recovered from Matthew because I didn’t get enough funding,” said Gillespie. “I had homeowners insurance, but they didn’t really help me. The only thing I got out of Matthew was a roof, a brand new, beautiful roof, and that took all of my money.”

Her front yard is now filled with molding personal belongings covered by tarps. By the street is a large pile of ruined furniture.

“The chairs are all water-logged. It took three people to take one chair out,” said Gillespie.

The house had wall-to-wall carpet, and it all had to be removed because of the smell from the sewage and mold.

“It was a smell like you never smelled before,” said Gillespie. “The house is not safe. It’s got mold, and it’s got sewage residue.”

Walking room to room in the home, Gillespie explained the devastation in her bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and living room.

“I just really started re-doing my house from the last storm,” said Gillespie, gesturing to decorations and pictures in her bedroom, now almost empty.

During Florence, she and her son stayed in the shelter, but they felt compelled to leave after their health took a turn for the worse.

With few options, they parked the car in a parking lot, put the seats back, and slept there for two days.

“The wind is blowing and debris, what can you do?” Gillespie asked. “We’ve got nowhere to go. We put the blankets on, and I took my medicine, and I went to sleep, and I made it.”

Gillespie’s friends and church community have begun to rally around her. A friend helped fill her driveway with dirt after the storm washed it away.

“I know God has got a brighter future for me,” she said. “I’m 71 years old, blessed, and I plan to live a long time. I’m not giving up. This was just a stumbling block in my life.”

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