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Faith after Florence

In the fellowship hall of Faison United Methodist Church, you can find stacks of diapers on tables, shoes lined up against the wall, and small bikes organized in a corner, along with an array of volunteers. Some of these volunteers are Boy Scouts, who abandoned their merit badge quest and are translating for local families in need. Others are kindergarten, third, and fourth grade teachers, folding and stacking donated gently used clothes.

The social worker at North Duplin Elementary, Kiandra Bowden, is on her phone fielding questions and communicating about the distribution center set up at Faison UMC. Meanwhile, Pastor Jabe Largen is floating around, helping where he can and sitting in on the preschool class also housed in the church. When asked how the distribution center came to be, Bowden tells us it started last year with a mentoring program. 

“We have developed a relationship … with the church and Pastor Jabe last year when we started a meal mentoring program. Once we found out that we couldn’t be in the school, I had nowhere to take my items. I just knew Pastor Jabe would help, so I emailed him and he immediately said absolutely.”

They have been in the fellowship hall since September 26, and as it stands, Duplin County schools are scheduled to go back October 9. That would make it just shy of four weeks that students have been out of school.

Free Will Baptist Church in Chinquapin, NC. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

“I think our families prepared as much as possible,” explains Bowden. “A lot of our families that we are helping here are those who are paid weekly, and if they don’t work, then they’re not getting paid. So a lot of them have used up all of their funds and everything that they had to be able to survive during the time that we had no water, no lights, no way to get anywhere … that is where most of the damage is faced.”

We heard these sentiments echoed by guidance school counselor Danielle Ficken. She said, “A lot of people that rely on field work this time of year probably aren’t going to be able to work.” Agriculture is a major industry in Duplin County, and with Florence, fields were flooded and crops ruined. Largen added, “Matthew may have had more wind and noticeable destruction, but Florence, it’s probably not as noticeable, but it’s drawn out longer, and it’s harder to get back to normal right now.”

Within three hours of opening the distribution center at UMC, all supplies were collected by families in need. Everyone we spoke with commented on the generosity of the community. Trista Davis, assistant principal of Duplin Elementary, said, “There’s only one way for us to react, and that is to band together, because if we stand alone, we’ll fall apart.” 

Largen believes the partnerships do not have to end after the water recedes and the houses are gutted. 

Nine miles down the road in Warsaw there is another relief operation going on. Volunteers hailing from Washington, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee joined with local volunteers from Clinton, Wallace, and others to roll up their sleeves and help with recovery efforts. The Eastern Baptist Association is housing over 40 volunteers and serving as a command center.

On site there are mobile showers and laundry units for visiting volunteers. The workers divide into teams based on need and experience and can be placed in the field or in support positions. Relief teams range from feeding teams, who make meals for volunteers around the clock, to chain saw teams, who break down trees, limbs, and anything else necessary at affected homes.

Richard Weeks, acting incident command director for the North Carolina Baptist on Mission Warsaw recovery site said, “With Hurricane Matthew we had 167 work orders. Right now we are up to 450 work orders with them still coming in, so we are estimating hitting 500 just in this location.” 

Linda Humston and Pauletta Sears are both chaplains who came down from Ohio and have been in Warsaw since Sunday. They are on the home assessment team, which goes into impacted homes and records damage. They have been on mud-out teams, admin teams, chaplain teams, and more.

Baptist churches from all over the state are not only donating goods and time but sending messages of thanks and hope on laundry and snack bags. In times like these, special touches and details help keep people fueled and faith alive. When asked about the similarities of this storm to Hurricane Matthew, Tammy Weeks, the ministry director for the Eastern Baptist Association said, “This one was more catastrophic. This one was more widespread. This one affected more people in the area than I’ve ever seen.” She believes it will take three to five years for recovery. 

Roadside in Chinquapin, NC. Caroline Parker/EducationNC
Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.