Features

Like a biblical plague

National | As North Carolina's floodwaters recede, revealing the extent of Hurricane Floyd-caused destruction, area churches offer their hearts-and their hands

Issue: "Gunpoint evangelist," Oct. 9, 1999

in Greenville, N.C. - Like many in North Carolina-like most meteorologists and reporters-Amir and Amy Zavala thought Hurricane Floyd was going to be something of a dud. Winds were slowing, the storm's eye was faltering, and their town was well inland. Still, Mr. Zavala's family in Honduras had been killed in a hurricane just last year, so they weren't taking any chances. When the firemen came to the door of their singlewide trailer asking them to evacuate, the Zavalas complied. Mrs. Zavala took one pair of pants and a dress. Mr. Zavala took two pants and two shirts. They grabbed the cat and locked up their home on Wednesday, Sept. 15, leaving all the rest of their possessions inside. They thought they'd be back on Thursday, after the winds subsided. Two weeks later, they still don't know what's left. Floyd's winds spared the piedmont region of North Carolina, but the rains took everyone by surprise. When a travel curfew was lifted on Friday, two days after Floyd's landfall, the Zavalas went back to the trailer park for more clothes. Not a chance: Their home was already three-quarters underwater. And still the rains fell-20 inches in all-swelling the Tar River to record levels. Four days later it reached its peak, and the Zavalas' trailer disappeared completely under more than 12 feet of dirty water. The river is receding now, but the Zavalas don't think they'll ever get back into their home. Inspectors have already condemned it, meaning they would need a permit to reenter. They've been told the trailer will be burned as soon as things dry out sufficiently. "Health hazard" is the official explanation. Mr. Zavala figures the contents of the trailer-mahogany furniture, a computer, synthesizer, equipment for Amy's sewing business-were worth about $20,000. Amy is more concerned about the things with sentimental value: Wedding pictures. Her flute. Her fine china, still packed away in boxes. None of it was insured. The Zavalas looked for renter's insurance when they moved to North Carolina just a month ago to teach at Greenville Christian Academy, but Hurricane Dennis was churning off the coast, so no one would agree to write the policy they needed. Before they reapplied, Floyd came ashore. Despite their heavy losses, the Zavalas consider themselves blessed. Rescue workers have already recovered 27 bodies from their trailer park-people who thought Floyd would be a dud, who didn't heed the evacuation order. The Zavalas, courtesy of a Christian woman who wanted to sell it, have moved into a big, sturdy frame house, and they don't have to pay rent until they get back on their feet. Greenville Christian Academy has provided them with food, clothes, and other necessities. And Christians in distant states, informed of their plight, have begun making donations to help the Zavalas put their lives back together. Such faith-based charity is helping the state recover more quickly from the kind of storm that happens only once every 500 years, according to weather experts. With some 18,000 square miles under flood conditions, the American Red Cross estimated it needed $25 million to assist victims. Across the region, churches have stepped in to offer critical assistance that may, because of the magnitude of the disaster, be slow in coming from government and professional relief organizations. The Zavalas' church, People's Baptist, is just one of many such examples. When youth pastor Steve Curry learned that 22 families in the congregation had lost nearly all they had in the storm, he thought of Hearts with Hands, a Western North Carolina-based ministry that People's had added to its monthly missions budget two years earlier. "We had no idea that we were going to need them," he says with a laugh. Hearts with Hands not only offered to help People's Baptist, but to make the church its distribution center for all of eastern North Carolina. Mr. Curry wasn't sure exactly what that meant until the trucks started arriving-one tractor-trailer after another, loaded with bottled water, bread, canned foods, toiletries, clothes, toys, bedding, and so on. Day after day they rolled in, eight in all. The church, which had never been in the disaster-relief business before, quickly converted its gym into a warehouse. It put out word via a local TV station that it needed forklifts to unload the trucks. Soon, three forklifts were in the parking lot. Pallet jacks couldn't roll their heavy loads across the gym's carpeted hallway, so the carpet was simply ripped up, leaving swirls of dull yellow glue on the concrete floor. Mr. Curry estimates that some 200,000 pounds of relief supplies were processed through the gym at Greenville Christian Academy. Fifty to 60 church volunteers showed up every day to help with the effort, sharing a single portable toilet in the parking lot until water service was restored in the city. "We wanted people in Greenville to know that we cared and that we did something," Mr. Curry says. "We put forth a gargantuan effort." That effort included preparing three hot meals a day for the 200 Red Cross volunteers staffing a huge shelter just down the road. The church also ferried meals across the Tar River by boat, helping to feed Highway Patrol officers who were cut off when the river swamped every bridge back into Greenville. By Sept. 28, things were slowly returning to normal at People's Baptist and Greenville Christian Academy. The National Guard stopped by to take the few remaining cartons of bread to areas that had yet to dry out. Hundreds of water bottles still littered the parking lot, and the carpet in the gym lobby had yet to be replaced, but Mr. Curry was happy with the effort his church had made. "As big as this disaster has been, and as much of a mark as it's going to leave on the history of this city, a church that didn't get involved is a church that's going to have to answer to God," Mr. Curry says. "But on a more human level, that's a church whose testimony is never going to recover. People would say, 'Oh, you're the church that didn't do anything to help anybody during the flood.' We weren't going to let that happen to us." Fifteen miles up the road, the crisis was still far from over. The Tar River continued to scrape the bottom of bridges that had been completely submerged a day or two earlier. Highway Patrol officers stood by, ready to close the bridges again as rain continued to fall in the area-another four inches altogether. The river's northern bank was nonexistent. Water stretched nearly half a mile north, toward the tiny town of Belvoir. The main road into Belvoir was passable, but orange-and-white barriers blocked most secondary roads with yellow signs reading "High Water." News photos or TV cameras cannot capture just how high the water was-and just what that meant to everyday life in Belvoir. House after house was still abandoned fully two weeks after the hurricane. As the waters slowly receded, building inspectors began the long process of evaluating the damage. Houses that had already been inspected were spray-painted with a big orange "X" on the front door; those that had been condemned got a box around the "X." The addition of a spray-painted date-9/28-made such a front door look strangely like a grave marker: a sideways cross, a date of death. "R.I.P." would not have seemed out of place. Hundreds of other houses were still days away from inspection. With no foundation or patio or front steps visible, they seemed to float on pools of still, black water. For weeks, millions of dead chickens and hogs have floated in that water as well, creating health hazards that will last far longer than the river's flood stage. Tap water is undrinkable. Tetanus shots are mandatory. And the smell is sickening: Entire counties reek of moldy carpet, dead animals, and sulfur. For those back in their homes by the end of September, the clean-up effort had just begun. Snakes and other animals flushed from their own homes were a real danger as residents unlocked their doors for the first time. Yards were scarred by evergreen trees that had fallen, the ground too soaked to support their shallow root systems. Yards also were filled with the flotsam and jetsam that had floated downstream: shoes, plastic, items of clothing. One tobacco warehouse near Belvoir had flooded, sending 500-pound bales of tobacco floating into gardens hundreds of yards away. And then there were the things that people put in their yards on purpose. Furniture. Mattresses. Appliances. For block after block, homeowners dragged every water-logged belonging to the curb, waiting for city trucks to come haul it away for incineration. Whole towns resembled a giant, sad yard sale. But no one was buying. Mildew was everywhere. It scarred every house with a greenish-black line, indicating the river's high-water mark. Inside the houses, too: "It spreads so fast you can almost see it climbing up the walls," according to one resident. Tiny frogs, the size of a fingernail, swarmed over rain-slickened sidewalks and lawns by the thousands. First a flood, then the frogs: plagues of almost biblical proportions. At the Belvoir Free Will Baptist Church, relief efforts were still in high gear. Actually, they'd been underway for only a few days. For a week prior to that, the church had been unreachable. When a few pieces of heavy construction equipment laden with relief supplies finally rumbled across the still-submerged bridges, Belvoir opened its doors as a food pantry and medical clinic. Three nurses, including the pastor's wife, administered almost 200 tetanus shots. Other volunteers delivered prescription drugs to elderly shut-ins-often by boat. "Participation by the churches was crucial," says Phil Ange, the pastor, who was clad in green nylon warm-up pants and mud-splattered moccasins that he says have not been dry for days. "The National Guard, Red Cross, North Carolina Forest Service, the Salvation Army-they all came out here looking for help. They could've never carried the load on their own." Judging from the activity in the fellowship hall-cum-food pantry, that was no exaggeration. Ten volunteers-mostly older women-moved among 13 tables groaning under the weight of donated food and other goods. They picked cans of vegetables, bottles of juice, and rolls of toilet paper from their respective cartons, creating ready-mixed boxes of survival goods for the families that stopped by constantly in search of help. Some of the donated goods seemed oddly out of place. "A good time, every time," proclaimed Styrofoam coffee cups from Harrah's Casino. "We've ministered to 250 families, at least," says Mr. Ange, sipping his coffee. "Many of them were outside our own church family. It's been a tremendous opportunity for witness. In this catastrophe, God has gotten people's attention." Then something grabs his attention. A tractor-trailer has just pulled in. More help from Hearts with Hands. Pastor Ange pushes wearily to his feet. The crisis is far from over. He expects a huge influx of needy families over the weekend, when two nearby shelters close, disgorging some 1,500 occupants. He'll be ready, though: A nearby Christian college is sending 35 students to help with the weekend's relief efforts. He makes himself a note to order 70 doses of tetanus vaccine for the newcomers. A good time, every time.

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