One Month, Two Hurricanes. Life In A Shelter Is The New Norm For Hundreds In NC.

Oct 15, 2018

Tammy Short and her family moved to Wilmington from Gastonia three weeks before Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina. She had landed a job at a tourist shop; her 25-year-old son had found work at a local diner. They were living at the Carolina Beach Campground while they figured out their next steps in their new city.

Hurricane Florence wiped all that away.

"At the campground, we lost our tents, we lost all our personal clothes, everything was just ruined," said Short who, along with her son, was laid off from her new job after the storm. "We have been at the shelter since September 16."

Never in my life have I seen something this bad. Just seeing all these families and kids being misplaced, it's heartbreaking. You wouldn't think you could lose so much. -Tammy Short

Short, her husband, their two adult children, and five-year-old granddaughter found a temporary roof over their heads with the Red Cross, moving to three different shelters in the Wilmington area in the last month. They’re currently among the 55 residents living at the Red Cross shelter inside the Harbor United Methodist Church, about eight miles north of the campgroup they had started to call home.

“Never in my life have I seen something this bad,” Short said. “Just seeing all these families and kids being misplaced, it’s heartbreaking. You wouldn’t think you could lose so much.”

About 500 people remain in 10 shelters across North Carolina and one in South Carolina since Florence’s landfall, according to Red Cross Spokesman Todd James. Overall, the Red Cross and community shelters have tracked 125,400 overnight stays since the September 14 storm.

“Sheltering is meant to be a short-term solution,”James said. “It’s not an indefinite period.”

For many families still in living shelters, housing insecurity was a way of life even before Florence hit, according to James. Many were homeless or lived in properties that have since been condemned. The Red Cross is working with FEMA and other local, state and federal agencies to help some of the most vulnerable residents get back on their feet.

Tammy Short sits under the food tent at the Red Cross shelter at the Harbor United Methodist Church in Wilmington on Sunday, October 15, 2018. Short and her family have lived in a shelter since September 16.
Credit Elizabeth Baier / WUNC

“This shelter has been open a month. These folks, a lot of them have been here for that entire time. And it is not a great situation,” James said. “Their home is a cot and a few feet around it and a tote to keep their belongings in. We do everything we can to keep them as comfortable as possible, but they want to get into a better situation and we want to get them there.”

Frustration And Stress Mount For Many Long-Term Shelter Residents

For many shelter residents, the frustration and stress of long-term housing instability was heightened last week when remnants of Hurricane Michael moved through the state. The shelter at the Harbor United church went on lockdown, as a preventative measure. Residents worried another storm would set them further back in their recovery.

 “We were all a little worried, because that’s not something we need right now, another natural disaster,” said Jordan Denoia, 21, who moved to Wilmington from Tabor City in August to work as a certified nursing assistant at a local nursing home.

Like Short, Denoia also lost her job a few days after Florence hit and has been at a Red Cross shelter since September 20. Before the storm, she was living in a homeless shelter.

Today, Denoia shares a dorm room with 24 other people inside the church. In her corner of the room, she has a queen-sized air mattress, a couple bags of clothes, and two plastic totes with personal belongings. She says hi to the kids walking down the hallway and has become friends with the other residents at the shelter.

“It’s like a little community here,” Denoia said. “It doesn’t even look shelter-like. It looks like we’re all camping out in here.”

Denoia tries to keep her situation in perspective. Since arriving at the shelter a month ago, she’s received donated clothes and toiletries, found a new job as a nursing assistant, and is submitting an application for an apartment rental this week.

The shelter at the church has a trailer out back with showers, portable toilets and a large food tent where volunteers serve meals, snacks and water. One of Denoia’s fellow shelter residents is almost always available to give her a ride to work. And she says the fact that she was homeless before the storm, in some ways, makes recovering from the storm a little easier.

“A lot of these people they’ve had their homes really destroyed and it’s a disaster for them. I’m actually one of the lucky ones because I didn’t actually have a home before the storm hit,” she said. “I know everything is going to be okay. It doesn’t seem that way right now, but everything will get back to normal.”