'Tough choices' for Burgaw residents after Florence

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Rising floodwaters from the Northeast Cape Fear River caused significant damage in the Pender County community

BURGAW — When Connie Pickett returned to her Pender County home next to Sandhill AME Church, she located the family photos, began separating the flood-damaged glossy paper and saving what she could.

“I literally got pictures on my phone, trying to snap what I could before the water actually washed the faces completely away. They’re all blurred, and you might have a face there and the person beside them is gone,” said Pickett, standing Thursday on the stairs of her Whitestocking Road home.

In the days following Florence, Burgaw residents have found themselves often leaning on volunteers and, more often than not, each other to muck out houses, provide necessary supplies and help each other through. Now, with homes ripped down to their studs, some residents’ thoughts are turned toward what happens next.

‘Tough choices’

Pickett, for instance, filed her Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claim 19 years to the day that her application from Hurricane Floyd was accepted. Every day, she returns to the home to pick through things and consider her options — including elevating the home as high as 15 feet.

“It’s just tough choices we all have to make,” Pickett said, “and we’ve really been thinking about — OK, you’re going to get older and you’ve got to go up all of these steps, and then you don’t ever know when it’s going to flood again.”

Pickett, her husband and their three daughters moved into the home, which is elevated 4 feet, in 1997. They suffered 3 feet of flood damage after 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, rebuilt, and then had 6 1/2 feet of flooding inside during Hurricane Florence.

“I’ve met Fran, and I’ve met Fran’s son or husband, Floyd, and now I’ve met Fran’s daughter, Florence,” Pickett said, “and I want to meet no more of her people.”

‘You won’t be alone’

Nine miles away, and on the other side of the Northeast Cape Fear River, Tina Ereddia is living in an RV as a team led by Eric Harvey clears flooded flooring and insulation from her Old Blakes Bridge Road home.

Ereddia and her husband returned to the home, where they live with Ereddia’s 74-year-old mother, on Oct. 5. Ereddia’s husband, Spencer, immediately had to return to work, which is also the family’s source of health insurance, leaving Ereddia to clear what items she could from the water-logged home.

“It was horrible,” Ereddia said. “I stood in there, and I was standing alone, and I recognized nothing, but I realized everything.”

At some point, Ereddia decided that the things she was throwing away wouldn’t — couldn’t — matter. So items like generations of family bibles went on the curbside with as little a second thought as Ereddia could muster.

Then Eric Harvey, who is officially Pender County’s information technology director but has morphed into a sort of roving disaster-response coordinator, drove up her driveway.

“He said, ‘You won’t be alone no more,’ and I haven’t been alone one day since he showed up,” Ereddia said.

Harvey, a Marine Corps veteran, has called on his experience to bring in Marines from Camp Johnson to provide dozens of extra sets of hands, and he’s also coordinated with Wilmington nonprofit Good Works to bring more people to the area.

So far, Harvey and the groups he’s cobbled together have worked on 20 homes.

“We feel like we’re in their world,” Harvey said. “I’m not the homeowner, I’m not them, but I feel like I can carry a piece of the pain with them, and if I can help them, if I can lift them up, encourage them to do whatever I can to get to resources to them, I can kind of bring a clarity to some folks.”

‘We have nothing’

Ereddia said her worldview has been shifted by the lack of aid she’s received from friends and neighbors, who she said often drive by without so much as waving. A woman she just met offered up her washer and dryer, but she said longtime friends haven’t checked on her.

“It’s coming from strangers, the things that are happening,” Ereddia said. “The donations are coming out of people’s cupboards, they’re coming out of their closets.”

Well-meaning questions such as “What do you need?” and “Are you OK?” bother Ereddia.

“Are you kidding? Would you be OK? It’s just we’re so programmed to ask those questions. … We need to slow down, we need to to listen, we need to communicate, we need to help each other,” Ereddia said. “Don’t ask someone what they need — we have nothing. Take them a casserole.”

Still, there are bright spots among the muck and the mold. When workers cleared Ereddia’s attic, which largely remained undamaged, for instance, they found her grandfather’s family Bible, which everyone had thought was lost during Hurricane Floyd.

And her Marine Corps-veteran husband’s dress blues, wrapped in dry cleaners’ plastic, remained crisp and dry even as floodwaters rose around them.

“There’s things you learn to appreciate a lot more,” Ereddia said, “if you find something and it comes out beautiful, out of all the muck.”

As for what comes next, Ereddia’s 74-year-old mother is still in Georgia, waiting for her daughter and son-in-law to come to her.

A flood insurance bill of more than $3,000 is due in December, along with monthly $350 bills for wind and hail and homeowners’ insurance on a house that doesn’t have anyone living in it — and won’t for a long time. And Spencer and Tina are spending about $80 a day on gas cans.

“We’ve got to finish this up and get to some power quickly,” Ereddia said.

Then, the Ereddias can begin sorting through the options of what to apply for from FEMA, the U.S. Small Business Administration and anything else.

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.