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Life after Hurricane Florence in the eyes of James Sprunt student, Amelia Bridges

The humanitarian crisis in Eastern North Carolina after Hurricane Florence continues to grow worse each day. Families are struggling to get by and are without the basic necessities that we so often take for granted, such as electricity, running water, shelter, and food.

Many like Amelia Bridges, a nursing student at James Sprunt Community College, are without a home and are preparing to live in tents, even as colder temperatures are starting to set in. As she says, “it is better than just being out on the street, although at times, that is what this feels like.”

Since the storm hit, housing has been a major problem for those dislocated from the storm. Rental units are few and far between. Hotels are booked from Wilmington to Raleigh, serving as temporary housing for the victims of Hurricane Florence. Prices have soared for rentals as well, putting the security of having a home out of reach for those who desperately need it.

Amelia Bridges stands in her new home, a four-person tent, which is pitched in the front yard of her condemned home.

“It’s been hard staying where I have been since the storm hit,” said Amelia. “I cannot find any hotel rooms available, there’s no place to rent, so I decided to spend money on a tent until something more permanent comes available … at least my family will be together. I am hoping to receive a FEMA trailer, but until then, the tent will be Plan B.”

As you make the drive to what used to be Amelia’s home, a place that she rented for years, you see a sight not often seen in the United States – streets lined with discarded personal belongings: clothes drenched in mud, molded furniture, broken doors, washing machines and freezers that can no longer be used, and mattresses that now are headed for the landfill. For miles, this is all that you see — mountains of trash. It is a constant reminder that the wrath of Hurricane Florence is still being felt all along Eastern North Carolina, more than a month after the storm hit.

Amelia resides in Burgaw, N.C., off of Hwy 53. Her home is located approximately 100 feet from the Cape Fear River, a home which she was quite fond of and loved very much.

“In the summer, this is a beautiful place to live, it is peaceful, I have loved living here…” said Amelia. “The river is within walking distance and it has beachy sand and it was always a great place to be, to go fishing, to have cookouts, to be with family, but now we don’t even have a place to call home.”

During Hurricane Matthew, Amelia’s house came within seven inches of being flooded out. She and her family had to be rescued by boat, but the home had been spared. This time around, however, they were not so lucky.

The place that Amelia and her family had called home for the last three years was completely submerged in water. She wasn’t even able to go back to see the damage until three weeks after the storm hit and the water had receded.

“I would come each week to see how close I could get, each week I would get a little closer to my house … I told my kids to pack clothes for a week, I never thought it would be this bad. I thought the worst case scenario would be that we would be without power for a few weeks, so I went and bought a generator.”

Being without electricity was not the worst case scenario, as she has learned.

As you walk towards Amelia’s house, you see a lovely home positioned in the shade of pine trees. You imagine what it would have been like taking in the fall breeze this time of year while sitting on the front porch, but today, as you enter the home, the smell of mold and mildew overtake you. The evidence of how powerful mother nature can be is seen in the way that her belongings have been shifted around in the house. The inside of the home looks like a scene out of a war zone. Walls are caving in and the roof is collapsing. The pressure and force of the flood waters has taken its toll on the home. Mold spores are growing rapidly and everything is covered in it.

The home has been condemned and Amelia and her family have lost everything.

“Despite whatever happens to you in life, you have to keep going,” said Amelia, who remains strong-minded and undeterred from the events that have taken place.  “I am not going to allow this Hurricane to distract me from reaching my goals. I’ve worked too hard to give up now.”

When asked how she is able to handle the pressures of work, school, and not having a home, she said, “It does get hard. For instance, today when I go into Walmart to pick up my tent and I see other people walking in Walmart buying things they can take home … It does hurt that when we go to Walmart, when we go places, we have nothing to bring back, we don’t have a place to bring it back to.”

Although the circumstances around Amelia Bridges are constantly changing since the hurricane hit, the one constant in her life has been her goals of becoming a nurse and finishing her degree.

The nursing program at James Sprunt is her “lifeline” as she calls it, and she is committed to not allowing anything – or anyone – get in the way of pursuing her dreams, not even a Hurricane.

“I told my family in advance of getting accepted in the nursing program that I cannot afford any distractions,” said Amelia. “But I never knew I would be dealing with this.”

Despite everything being a complete loss, there was one thing that she was determined to salvage — her nursing uniform.

“I went back inside the house to go look for it,” said Amelia. “When I found it, I took it to the laundry mat in Burgaw … I washed it and washed it and washed it. When we came back to school, I had clinicals that same Thursday … I knew nobody could expedite my uniform in time … thank God it is saved and it is pretty and white, just like nothing happened to it.”

Amelia sees the nursing program at James Sprunt as her second chance and that is one reason it is so important to her. It has become her motivation in the wake of the storm, and the ability to come to class each day has been a source of strength for her.

“My children, they see my motivation and everything I’m putting towards this, and I’m making it seem like everything is ok,” said Amelia, who is a single mom of two and also serves as the caregiver for her mother. “I have to be strong for all of us basically right now. If I am weak just imagine how my two children and my mother will feel. I take care of everything.”

Her children, Davion and Melizsa, are also students at James Sprunt Community College.

“They see my struggle and my hustle,” said Amelia. “I want them to continue their education, to be encouraged and finish their degrees. It is so important … Once I conquer this [Hurricane Florence] and finish my degree, I know I will be able to better my life for me and my family.”

Prior to moving to North Carolina, Amelia lived in Las Vegas and worked at a call center for DirecTV.

“One day, while on a call, I witnessed an accident outside my window that involved a child and his parents ” said Amelia. “It made me realize …what am I doing sitting here? I’m on this call with a lady who is talking about a couple of dollars on her bill, when here is this child that is possibly about to lose his parents, and he’s scared,” said Amelia.

Since that day, Amelia has been working towards her career in the medical field, first obtaining certification in phlebotomy, and now working towards a degree in nursing.

“I wanted to do something that was more rewarding,” said Amelia. “I want to actually help others … I know I need to do this with my life.”

Editor’s note: This perspective was originally published by James Sprunt Community College. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Cheryl Hemric

Cheryl Hemric is the public information officer at Robeson Community College. Hemric has worked in the North Carolina Community College System, promoting student success, for over 20 years. She is a proud graduate of a community college, holding an associates degree in advertising and graphic design, and loves to share the story of how education can changes lives and give people hope. She received her bachelor’s degree from Liberty University and her master’s degree in marketing from Southern New Hampshire University.