William Freshwater barely got out of his Camelot Village apartment with one of his prized possessions. But grabbing his guitar as he was rescued from the rising waters from Bolin Creek in Chapel Hill has helped him pass the time at the American Red Cross shelter at the Friday Center.
Freshwater is one of about 50 people remaining at the shelter until he can find another place to live. Most of those brought to Chapel Hill to escape the aftermath of Hurricane Florence have returned to their home counties, said Red Cross spokeswoman Dianna Van Horn.
The shelter, big enough for 500 people, almost filled up but never ran out of space. It will remain open until state officials determine they no longer need it, Van Horn said.
But much work remains for local, state and federal disaster workers.
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As people return to their home counties, they will be served locally and connected with Federal Emergency Management Agency case workers. FEMA is identifying people whose primary home was damaged and who qualify for assistance in Beaufort, Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Harnett, Hoke, Hyde, Johnston, Jones, Lee, Lenoir, Moore, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pender, Pitt, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Scotland, Wayne and Wilson counties.
Those eligible will be notified through an automated phone call, text message or email depending upon the method of communication they selected when they registered with FEMA for assistance.
Tuesday saw two more groups of evacuees leave Chapel Hill.
Eighteen people went back to Cumberland County, while six were destined for Jones County. Van Horn said the largest groups — from Craven and Onslow counties — left the shelter Monday. There were almost 200 people in the shelter Sunday, more than a week after the Florence hit North Carolina as Category 1 storm on Sept. 14.
Statewide, the number of people in shelters was about 1,750 Monday night in 27 shelters, said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. Last week there were about 20,000 in shelters in the state, he said.
Any remaining county-run shelters are transitioning to American Red Cross operation, Acree said.
Many of those remaining in shelters are not people displaced by Hurricane Florence. They are members of the local homeless community, Acree said. State officials will be working to transition them back to resources and homeless shelters in their local communities, he said.
James, a homeless man from Lumberton, said he’s been through this before. He was flooded out by Hurricane Matthew two years ago. He doesn’t know when he will get back to his hometown.
“They say it could be three weeks before the water is gone,” he said. “We were barely getting over Matthew and now we got slapped with Florence. If I could find out if my son and grand baby were all right, I’d be all right.”
He’s made phone calls but they’ve gone unanswered, he said.
‘All I have left’
Freshwater has been at the shelter for seven days but he doesn’t know where he will go next.
He went to bed Sunday night and awoke to find his apartment flooded Monday morning. He called 911 to be rescued and had to crawl out of his bedroom window gripping his six-string when they arrived. He’d stored it on a closet shelf.
“It’s about all I have left,” he said. “Playing my guitar gives me something to do.”
Freshwater brought his own distraction to the shelter, but others weren’t so fortunate.
Van Horn said the community really came together to offer mental diversions to people in the shelter. Someone brought in flowers for an impromptu flower arranging class last week. On another day, a group worked with people on jewelry making with beads and baubles. And Monday night they were treated to a ukelele jam by the UUkes from The Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Chapel Hill.
Melva Okun had stopped by earlier Monday to see if there was any entertainment scheduled for that night. There wasn’t. That’s when she put the call out to the UUkes. They usually get 10 or 15 people for their usual bi-weekly jams at the church, she said.
“We pulled it together in about 10 hours,” she said. “We had one of the largest turnouts we’ve ever had. There were 26 of us singing and playing spirituals and hymns and a lot of people sang along with us.”
Steve Smith said playing for the people in the shelter was a thrill.
“It was a bright spot,” he said. “We didn’t know what to expect, and how we would be received, but it really turned out well. One woman told us that it was the first time she’s felt her spirit lifted since she left home.”
Players from UNC women’s basketball team stopped by the shelter Tuesday and handed out blue and white pompoms and photos. The men’s team and cheerleaders visited previously, Van Horn said.
These diversions take some of the heartaches away, she said.
“It really makes a difference,” Van Horn said. “It gives them a break from thinking about what they’ve been through.”
Editor’s Note: The list of counties designated for Transitional Sheltering Assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been updated since Tuesday.