- Associated Press - Sunday, October 15, 2017

CURRIE, N.C. (AP) - The storm was over and Kristen Johnson had gotten through it. She thought.

The Monday after Hurricane Matthew drenched Pender County in October 2016, Johnson and her husband Wesley went to work in Wilmington as usual. Tuesday started just the same, but midday she got an alert on her phone: “evacuate immediately.” It wasn’t a mistake — the notification even listed the couple’s address on Canetuck Road.

“When we got here, the entire road was blue from blue lights, and the National Guard was out here. We pulled in the yard and they gave us less than two hours to throw whatever we could throw in our vehicles,” she remembered. “If somebody says, ‘You’ve got two hours to get out of a house you’ve lived in 25 years,’ what do you do?”

But the water was coming fast, the result of a statewide deluge finally arriving downriver. The Johnsons grabbed enough clothes to get through the work week and the family’s photo albums. Everything else was left to the mercy of the rising Black River.

“I was baptized in that river when I was 14, and that’s the same river that took my house,” Kristen said.

One year later, the Johnsons are staying on a Columbus County property owned by Kristen’s parents with their son Cody, who also lost his home to Matthew. Everything that didn’t fit in the couple’s cars was later piled into a soggy, 10-foot heap in the yard and carted away.

But for the home itself, things are — literally — looking up.

The single-story wooden house now sits atop a tall cinder-block foundation, a full 2.5 feet higher than the flood that invaded it a year ago. Volunteers have built the first of two staircases that will carry the Johnsons into their new, safer, home. The house’s skeleton of studs has been stripped of rot, just waiting for fresh walls.

The Johnsons are one of 26 families being helped through Matthew recovery by the Wilmington Baptist Association (WBA). Working with other faith groups and the Cape Fear United Way, the WBA has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Pender County’s displaced residents.

“We’ve been blessed: we’ve got two (homes) that have been elevated so far and we’ve got two we’re getting ready to elevate,” said Mike Moser, who’s directing the WBA’s Black River Rebuild effort. “Instead of waiting on FEMA, God’s provided enough so far.”

Moser said it takes about $35,000 to elevate a home, not including reconstruction, landscaping or new furniture and appliances. Standing inside the Johnson home recently with Kristen, he pointed out joists, sub-floor and ductwork placed by volunteer hands. Crews — including one from Pennsylvania — will come this month to rebuild the roof and screen porch that used to shelter the home.

Charities across the region have tirelessly fundraised for the Pender families. Pender Memorial Hospital President Ruth Glaser estimates her church, Burgaw Presbyterian, has raised $60,000.

“It was really something we were called to participate in,” she said. “You often don’t have so many denominations of churches coming together in such an incredible way.”

Of course local governments are also pushing to provide, but limited funds and federal bureaucracy slow that work.

Pender County Planning Director Kyle Breuer said in the Black River area the state identified 12 flooded properties the government can buy from owners, three it can rebuild and 19 it can elevate; the Johnsons’ home is not included in that 19. Breuer said none of that recovery work has begun, in part because of federal aid being rerouted to Florida and Texas following Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

“While we’re in this holding period, we’re going to be moving forward with our procurement process to retain the professional services and contracts necessary to execute the projects,” he said. “We do not want to be the organization holding anything up and once we get approval.”

While FEMA-eligible families wait, some in the Black River community are out of patience. Kristen said one of her neighbors decided not to return home.

“I think they were just shocked by the whole deal,” she said. “A lot of them have fixed their houses the best way they knew how, just trying to get back into them, because some people didn’t have anywhere to go.”

But people like the Johnsons, blessed by the generosity of strangers, have started helping with other properties.

The 200-year-old Bethlehem Baptist Church a mile from the Johnson home also was flooded by Matthew. The water swelled its wooden pews and washed over the graves of people who saw the Revolutionary War. For Kristen, who married Wesley there in a Christmas-time ceremony and whose father is the deacon, seeing the center of the community storm-ravaged was painful.

The Bethlehem congregation has always been resilient; Kristen said in the late 1700s members met beneath a tree to worship. Today, they’re holding service at a hunting lodge.

Pastor John McIntyre of Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church is heading up the Bethlehem rebuild, and the group has already made significant repairs. But Moser said even with the tremendous fundraising and upcoming FEMA funds, rural Pender County still needs aid.

“This area doesn’t have near the density of population that Lumberton or Fayetteville does,” he said. “If we’re not careful, it’s really easy for the money and the resources to be drained away.”


Information from: The StarNews, https://starnewsonline.com

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