Weeks After Hurricane Florence, A Neighborhood Still Struggles

HAMPSTEAD, N.C. ― Before Hurricane Florence, Hampstead’s Cross Creek was a typical Pender County subdivision, filled with one- and two-story homes with nice yards.

There is a community soccer field at the entrance of the neighborhood, and Harrison Creek, which is usually more of an unassuming trickle of water at this time of year, curved around the back of the community and gave people a place to canoe or kayak. It’s a short drive to the beach and just a 25-minute drive from Wilmington.

But when Hurricane Florence barreled through the region and dropped 8 trillion gallons of rain, Harrison Creek overflowed, flooding 70 of the 250 homes in the community. Thirty more households were displaced by other storm-related damage.

Greg Lovell of Oakmont Drive said the storm itself “wasn’t too bad.” Eight trees fell in his yard, and people had to use chainsaws to cut escape routes out of the neighborhood as the eye of the hurricane passed. But days after the storm, waters continued to rise, and conditions worsened.

Lovell scoured the neighborhood for tow straps and managed to pull 33 cars, trucks and minivans away from the floodwater. He and others launched boats from their driveways to rescue neighbors trapped in their homes by the rising water. After four days, he and his neighbors turned to social media and personal contacts for more help ― help they still need nearly a month later.

Like many neighborhoods in the region, Cross Creek is still struggling with the damage. The electricity has been restored. Grocery stores and gas stations have returned to normal business. The schools will eventually reopen. But Hurricane Florence will be with them for months and years to come. And as of Tuesday, Hurricane Michael threatens to bring even more wind and rain to the region as it travels north.

Among the Cross Creek residents who lost their home are Amy Helms and her fiancé, William Arnold. The house has been gutted to the studs, after 7 feet of water flooded the garage and 4 feet of water stood in the house. A 10-foot pile of drywall and insulation, appliances and furniture separate the house from the road.

Despite it all, Helms said, “God has looked out for us.” They have flood insurance, and she said she believes that in “six months to a year, we can move back in.”

Arnold camped in the neighborhood soccer field for days, while Helms worked at the local fire station. The field soon filled up with tents, RVs and portable toilets as more people needed a place to go. The Coast Guard helped with some rescues, though residents said they didn’t see anyone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The initial days were hellish — inescapable heat, fear of leaving their campsites and flooded homes unattended, even deer carcasses floating in the floodwaters.

As the water receded and some people could move back into their homes, the soccer field became a donation center and makeshift kitchen where local restaurants, church groups and families serve meals to residents and volunteers.

Helms and Arnold relocated to a campground in nearby Sneed’s Ferry. Other displaced families fanned out to wherever they found places to stay.

A neighborhood soccer field in Hampstead has been converted into a donation center after Hurricane Florence.

The soccer field is now divided into various stations. There is a “Molly Maid” tent for housecleaning supplies, an “Ace Hardware” tent, a “Food Lion” tent and a “Petco” tent for dog and cat food. Coolers are filled with ice and cold drinks. Cases of water overflow from a tractor trailer. Three cargo containers and a racecar trailer are constantly reorganized with incoming donations.

Resident Sarah Robles, who recently relocated here from Long Island in New York, is running the soccer field donation center. She stepped into the role because of her willingness to issue directions. “Are you going to Pizza Hut?” she asked a neighbor. “Tell ’em it’s for the soccer field. They’ll work with you.”

Like most residents, Iris Derrick of Knollwood Drive did not have flood insurance. She estimated her total loss at $450,000.

“We weren’t in a flood zone,” she said. “We applied for FEMA, but you can’t count on that.”

“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Derrick. “Some are talking about walking away. I mean, how do you pay a mortgage, pay rent and float a loan to rebuild your house?”

Like many of her neighbors, she tries to spend little time dwelling on her situation and to think about others. Her family is among “the lucky ones,” she said. The Derricks found a rental property in Brunswick County and have been making the hour-and-a-half commute to check on their house regularly.

“Our neighbors were going to send their kids to college,” she said, “but now they don’t have a home.” 

She was grateful for the faith-based and community groups that have come in to help, like the Billy Graham Association, Samaritan’s Purse and Renovation Church. She mentioned the 16 teenagers from Myrtle Grove Church who worked for hours pulling “wet, stinky, nasty filth out of the freezers in my garage” and dragging it to the street.

Volunteers help sort incoming donations for families affected by Hurricane Florence in Hampstead.

Volunteers help sort incoming donations for families affected by Hurricane Florence in Hampstead.

Pockets of volunteers can be seen throughout Cross Creek. There are 40 to 50 volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian organization, who have come from different parts of the country to provide relief. Many of them worked in the aftermath of previous hurricanes like Irma, Sandy and Katrina, and they have become a family.

“We get paid love,” said Cindy Backer, a volunteer from Alabama, “and we get a free T-shirt.”

Billie Jo Hopkins, the mission director of Christian Fellowship Church in Elm City, North Carolina, and her husband loaded up vans and trailers with 4,200 pounds of water and 40 cases of Gatorade, along with other supplies because they saw a post on Facebook.

“The Lord just laid in on my heart,” she added.

“The sun might be out,” her husband said, “but the hurricane isn’t over.”

Ted Wilson of Cushing, Oklahoma, brought the Cimarron Baptist Association chainsaw team. They have been working in many neighborhoods around the Wilmington area and came to Cross Creek after people requested their help.

The people of Cross Creek expressed optimism about the future, despite the current circumstances.

Lovell isn’t giving up on his neighborhood. “I’ll send thousands and thousands of emails and Facebook posts,” he said. “My house didn’t get flooded or destroyed, but I’m not giving up. People — Christian or non-Christian — they have faith in their neighbor.”

“If you want to see something great happen,” he said, “it comes through pain.”

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