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Tyler Cooper had a pile of work he needed to tackle at his desk in John Deere’s Cary office on Tuesday, but he and some of his coworkers decided to spend the day doing housework instead.
They boarded a bus in the early morning and headed to the rural Whitestocking community outside Burgaw, a section of Pender County where the Cape Fear River ran 10 feet deep across the landscape during flooding from Hurricane Florence last September.
They climbed into coveralls, put on protective goggles and breathing masks, and crawled under a house to start yanking out insulation still damp from the flood.
“There were a lot of people impacted by the storm,” Cooper said, dragging out torn sheets of ruined yellow fluff. “I just wanted to help out.”
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Tens of thousands of homes across Eastern North Carolina were damaged by floodwaters from the storm, and five months later, many still have not been stripped to the studs so they can dry out and be rebuilt.
John Deere, the farm-equipment manufacturer based in Moline, Ill., recently gave a $250,000 grant to Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, which is distributing the money and $75,000 more in donations to Habitat branches in areas hit by the storm.
Habitat organized the trip to Pender County on Tuesday, one of four over the next couple of months that will allow volunteers to go out and work. In Pender, they joined forces with workers from Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, based in Wilmington.
For many, it was an eye-opening trip.
In the Whitestocking area, off N.C. 53 and just a short hop from Interstate 40, farm fields and drainage ditches are littered with debris that floated from people’s yards and houses. At the tree line, what looks like a shadow starting about 10 feet off the ground is really a high-water mark, a stain left by the rampant river.
Dozens of houses stand with their windows agape and their interior walls removed, so it’s possible to see straight through, making them look at first like one-dimensional paintings on a stage.
For Stephanie Kramer, that fits the whole surrealistic quality of her experience with the flood.
Kramer bought her house on a remote 28 acres outside Burgaw about a year before the hurricane hit, moving from New Jersey with a menagerie of animals and acquiring more once she got here. She knew the house had stayed dry during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and though predictions for flooding from Florence were worse, she hoped the water would come no higher than the front porch.
But after several days of 5-inch rainfall, she moved the chickens, goats, pigs, horses and other critters to a high spot in one of her back fields, and went to stay with a neighbor on higher ground.
When it was over, there had been more than 3 feet of water in her house.
With the help of family and friends, she has salvaged what she can and has been tearing down drywall and prying up warped oak floor boards. But for the house to really dry, she needed to get the insulation out from under the floor, and the previous owner had nailed plywood over it, so all of that has to be ripped down.
On Tuesday, some of the crew from John Deere and Habitat for Humanity shimmied under the house and started cutting and pulling.
“This is awesome,” Kramer said, delighted to have the help.
Like many others in the area, Kramer is living in a camper trailer on her land provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency while she figures out how to rebuild her home.
Steve Spain, executive director of Habitat Cape Fear, said flood victims have been dealt another blow with the U.S. government shutdown.
That has slowed the processing of FEMA aid and of loans from the Small Business Administration.