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FEMA Sets Up Hurricane Relief HQ in Research Triangle Park

File photo of rising flood waters brought on by Hurricane Florence that threatened a building off highway 70 in Goldsboro, N.C., Sunday, Sep. 16, 2018.
Ben McKeown
File photo of rising flood waters brought on by Hurricane Florence that threatened a building off highway 70 in Goldsboro, N.C., Sunday, Sep. 16, 2018.

Inside FEMA's statewide headquarters, workers in khakis, collared shirts and ID badges type away at computers, and work phones.

Close to 100 cubicles are set up in a large room with ceilings more than 15-feet-high. There's the gentle hum of the printer, the occasional laugh, and even the sound of a throwback notification: "You've got mail."

That FEMA even has a statewide headquarters comes thanks to IBM, the software company with a long history in Research Triangle Park.

Governor Roy Cooper's office called to ask for space. And two days later, IBM provided both office and warehouse space in a six-month rental agreement that serves as the statewide response headquarters.

FEMA doesn't allow interviews inside the building, but FEMA spokesman John Mills chatted outside.

"Right now, we have more than a dozen disaster recovery centers set up in the hardest hit counties in eastern North Carolina,” Mills said. “We are listening directly to disaster survivors as they come in to these facilities."

Some survivors are skeptical the federal government will come through for them. Harriet Thompson lives on South 12th Street in Wilmington. One week after Florence passed through, her grandchildren were loading some of her ruined furniture onto a trailer.

Federal workers had already been through the neighborhood to check on homeowners. But she said she didn't yet know if FEMA would come through for her.

"I don't know. I never dealt with them before," Thompson said.

Still, she was happy to know someone already made contact.

"They came by and took pictures and chatted with me,” she said. “Said I would hear from them in about seven to ten days."

Thompson's neighborhood didn't feel the worst of Florence. Although she had damage, it was mostly from the storm itself, not from flooding. Mills said FEMA has already provided rental assistance to 14,000 people.

"People who are displaced from their homes because the damage is so severe that they're not able to live in their homes,” Mills said. “We've been able to provide some rental assistance, to help them rent a place to live temporarily, until they can determine their next steps."
In the coming weeks, storm victims will look to the federal government for help. And FEMA will be judged based on how it responds to those in need.

Jason deBruyn is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Digital News, a position he took in 2024. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016 as a reporter.
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