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Some of the work had started before Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers arrived.
Peppers spent Tuesday, his day off from football, in Marlboro County, two hours east of Charlotte, helping United Way and Americorps volunteers muck and gut houses damaged by Hurricane Florence.
The storm made landfall near Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14, then lingered for days, dumping rain that caused widespread N.C. and S.C. flooding.
It was Peppers’ second trip to an affected area since beginning his relief fund last month in response to the storm, and donating an initial $100,000.
And it was emotional.
Volunteers in white hazard suits, thick boots and bright pink ventilators moved methodically around Robert Douglas Jr.’s house, dragging out water-damaged furniture and belongings infected with toxic mold.
More 4 feet up the yellow walls of the house was a murky, greenish-gray stain, signaling the height of the floodwater.
Douglas, 80, shuffled back and forth in front of the stain as he scanned the items being removed from the house, where he had lived since the 1950s.
He stooped over an old shoebox warped by the water and pulled out some photographs of his grandkids. He quietly unpeeled the ones that were stuck together.
He said he’d like to try to get the damaged pictures of his loved ones restored. He can’t see their faces anymore.
Douglas’ sister Helen Hayes, who lived next door, broke down and buried her face in a United Way volunteer’s shoulder as the ruined belongings were carried to the street.
Then Peppers walked up, pulling on an extra-large neon vest, silently took in the the scene. Volunteers from Lowe’s, in partnership with the Panthers, began to unload a large truck of supplies.
When people began to notice Peppers, a certain NFL hall of famer, an excited buzz filled the air. Some volunteers came over to meet Peppers, take photos, and offer gear for him to sign.
Hayes and Douglas, and some of their neighbors, wandered over to meet Peppers, too. Hayes gave Peppers a hug, and held on tight.
“It’s tough to find the words to say to someone who has lost everything,” Peppers told the Observer. “I can’t imagine how it feels.”
Douglas found some words, though.
“Dang! You’re tall!” he said, tilting his face up at Peppers and shaking his hand. “You play football?!”
He started to smile as Peppers laughed and nodded.
A little beacon of hope
As the group continued to work, news of Peppers’ arrival spread. Several cars rolled up and people poured out excitedly to meet Peppers.
“It’s tough (to see the damage) on the one hand,” Peppers said. “But on the other hand, when the help arrives … it gives them a little beacon of hope, some encouragement.
“People start smiling a little bit more, and spirits are lifting. I’m just happy that I’m in a position to be able to do that for these people.”
One man, in a weathered Philadelphia Eagles cap, razzed Peppers for the Panthers’ comeback victory in Philly on Sunday, in which Peppers had the game-sealing strip-sack. The man joked that when he saw it, he threw his television out the window.
Then, his tone turned more serious.
“I’m glad you came home,” he said.
Tied to the community
Peppers, 38, from Bailey, N.C., began his illustrious NFL career with the Panthers, then played for Chicago and Green Bay before returning to Charlotte for the 2017 season.
“(Peppers) is tied very much into this community as a whole,” said Kristine Solis, Americorp’s disaster response team’s public information officer.
Her collaboration with Peppers on Tuesday’s relief effort came together in less than two days. Her team of volunteers is stationed in Marlboro until Nov. 26, and Peppers and the Panthers reached out in hopes of helping them on Sunday.
“Having him here, and seeing that person, for all of us, it brings not only the survivors hope, but for us volunteering and spending so much time away from home,” she said. “It gives us that sense of, ‘We’re here for a good reason,’ and it gives us more strength to keep going and spread that hope and that light to other survivors’ homes after this.”
Solis’ team of Americorps volunteers includes people from Idaho, Montana, Washington, New Mexico and Iowa.
They live in a camp a few miles from the work sites and will work on more than 120 houses in their 45-day stay. And that’s only for the muck and gut process.
More help needed
Afterward, the team must find contractors to collaborate on the rebuilds quickly, Solis said, or risk the houses becoming condemned.
She is hopeful that Peppers’ presence and continued efforts to promote the relief process will remind people how much work is still left to do.
“Having someone local, who is that high up in the media, it brings the focus back to here,” she said. “The hurricane and the flooding hit some time ago, but there is still a lot of recovery needed to be done. So just bringing South Carolina back into that rotation, (in) that light, so that people can see that there’s still a process that needs to be done. There are still survivors who need assistance.”
Peppers said meeting those volunteers, along with the survivors, on Tuesday was educational.
“It’s humbling,” Peppers said. “And it also opens your eyes to the fact that there are people out here who literally, their mission and their purpose in life is to help others. And they come from places that are halfway across the country to come out and help people and towns that some of us haven’t even heard of before.
“It’s satisfying to know that there are people out there who are doing this full time, just good people out there who want to help…
“I think when you see that, when you’re a part of it, it just makes you more whole. And just a better being.”
Americorps assistance locations for Florence relief can be tracked on Twitter at @AdrtSCFlorence and contacted by email at email@example.com.