Looking for relief

As big as big government is, it still needs helpers

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1999," Dec. 18, 1999

Maybe we should wait a year or two to gain perspective. But for now, it's a pretty remarkable claim. Knowledgeable people are calling the September floods in North Carolina the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States.

Hearing that a few days ago, I went to see for myself. I had seen the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida and the wreckage of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in the Midwest. It was hard to believe something could be worse. But now I agree with the experts; this was very bad.

Officials say the costs of undoing the damage from Hurricane Floyd in the eastern Carolinas could pass $6 billion. For comparison's sake, remember that other recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods made headlines when they crossed the $1 billion threshold. If the cleanup and restoration were left to North Carolinians alone, the bill would be about $900 for every man, woman, and child in the state. If every American helped with the recovery, the bill would still be $22 per capita-an incredible sum for any disaster.

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So far, only about 10 percent of the $6 billion total for relief is in view. By last week, disaster officials said that more than 75,000 people had registered for a little more than $600 million in aid from state and federal sources. But if only 10 percent has been allocated in the 90 days when the suffering and drama have been most acute, everyone knows the rest will come incredibly slowly. Seasoned political observers say victims shouldn't expect the total from governmental sources ever to go beyond 20 or 30 percent.

Even if it does, though, government-sponsored recovery-big, splashy, and clumsy-will in the end be eclipsed by two other sources of funding and assistance. If the full $6 billion in recovery money is ever found, it's a safe bet the two biggest sources for relief funds will be what they usually are in such natural disasters: private charities and the victims themselves.

For a close-up picture, head for the tiny town of Princeville, which late last summer had a population of just over 2,100 people. Many were retirees, and all were black-for Princeville was first incorporated on the banks of the Tar River by freed slaves. For well over a century, Princeville has been the pride and joy of self-sufficient black families. Their lifestyle was modest-but it was their own.

All that ended on Sept. 17, when the 35-foot levee on the town's northwest side yielded to the raging Tar, a river far too small to hold Hurricane Floyd's 20 inches of rain throughout the region. Not a single home in Princeville survived; not a single store, gas station, school, or church is habitable today. The waterline in most buildings is a foot below the ceiling level; in some structures, it's even higher.

To the credit of various governmental agencies, most of the people of Princeville have places to live right now. A dozen miles away, just north of Rocky Mount, a massive village of more than 400 RVs and mobile homes has suddenly sprung up, and several thousand refugees temporarily call it home. I drove through it, and thanked God for a government that-even with all its bureaucracy-treats its people generously and humanely.

But back in Princeville, the only activity you notice on the streets are the vans and trucks and trailers from church groups all across the country. There were Southern Baptists and Mennonites and Christian Reformed and Lutherans. Hal Queen, a member of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in America in Charlotte, told me he had helped schedule more than 500 workers from related congregations over the last few weekends. United Methodists say they'll be there for the next five years.

Until now, the grim work facing such folks has been to complete the destruction that the flood started. The slimy task of carrying out soggy furniture, clothes, books, and appliances seems to be mostly completed. Not yet done is the enormous job of tearing up buckled hardwood floors and stripping away waterlogged sheetrock, right down to the studs. Sometimes damaged wiring and plumbing must also be ripped away. Only then can fumigation take place and reconstruction begin.

But when all of Princeville is done-all 600 homes, plus every single business establishment in town-less than five percent of all the devastated buildings in the region will have been addressed.

That's why, in the end, it will be the people themselves who shoulder the big losses. Salvaging a few scraps of still usable lumber for the deck he hopes he can rebuild if and when he gets a replacement modular home, Calvin Gunter told me he's probably lost $65,000 to the flood. At 49, he had paid his debts down to just over $13,000 before the flood. Now, he'll owe $80,000 or so. He got a check from the town for $250-but he knows most of the rest will come little by little as he puts the pieces together with his own hands. Mr. Gunter takes the flood as God's sober providence in his life. "What else can I do?" he says, lifting his eyes to the heavens from which all this devastation came. "He knows why He done this-and He could do it again if He wanted to." And he said it without a trace of resentment.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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