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Life after Hurricane Florence in the eyes of James Sprunt student Jacob Cavenaugh

Standing in faith and being filled with hope is what is getting Jacob Cavenaugh, a network technology student at James Sprunt Community College, through this Christmas season.

This time of year, Jacob’s house should be bustling with activity from family get-togethers, the smell of cookies baking in the oven should greet you at the door, and lights from a Christmas tree usually beam brightly through the night. But this year, when you stand inside of Jacob’s now flooded home, the tale of an old Christmas story becomes eerily true of how not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. 

The home sits empty, as do most homes off of Hwy 41 in Wallace, NC. There is no activity at the home, no electricity, no running water, and no heat. There’s not a kitchen table to sit at, and there is not even a stove to bake cookies in. The Christmas decorations he and his family so cherished had to be tossed out, along with so many other belongings, on the side of the street. 

“We have shifted change in my home-style life, because my house was flooded… we had to tear out 4 feet of wall,” said Jacob as he stands inside of his home as it is undergoing the rebuilding process. “During Hurricane Florence I was in a state of shock that I would be going through this… this was way worse than Hurricane Floyd.” 

Jacob was just two years old when Hurricane Floyd hit, but he can still recall living in a FEMA trailer when he was a toddler. At that time, his family lived in a different home and when they rebuilt in another location, they thought they would never have to go through the rebuilding process again.

But in September, with the continuous rain pounding Eastern North Carolina from Hurricane Florence for days, and the incoming water flowing downstream, the Northeast Cape Fear River overflowed its banks from all directions and showed no mercy upon those in its path.

Although Jacob tries to put up a strong front, you can tell the worry and agony that Hurricane Florence has caused him and the burdens that lay upon his heart, not just for himself, but for his family and their home.

“There’s been a lot of change in my family, we are trying to pull it together, and not trying to be upset…. change is hard, but change can be a good thing,” said Jacob. “I thank God that I am still here, because God really blessed me and my family.” 

With so many uncertainties lying ahead of him, the world for Jacob, who is just 21-years old, has changed dramatically and has been extremely stressful for him to endure. 

“I had just started a part-time job at the Pink Supper House,” said Jacob, of a popular restaurant located on Hwy 41 in Wallace, NC, just a few miles from where he lived. “But now it’s gone because the flood waters got it too.”

Jacob, along with his mother and father, has had to relocate to Topsail Beach, almost 60 miles from where he used to live in Wallace. Although the thought of relocating to the beach would seem like a dream come true for many, for Jacob, it hasn’t been the easiest transition.

“We are still going through so much pain and suffering from the flooding, and I get so emotional being so far away from home,” said Jacob.

Jacob’s commute is now over 60 miles to his college classes in Kenansville, 120 miles round-trip, giving him less free time, especially in the dark months of winter where the days are shorter and the daylight less prevalent.

“It takes about an hour to get to school every day, one-way,” said Jacob, but he still has yet to miss a class.

“It has been a challenge being a student, but I have not complained,” said Jacob. “When we complain, we don’t often think about what we are doing to our family members, we are hurting ourselves more than other people…. And if we do that, we are not going to accomplish what we are supposed to in this tough season.”

Despite so many distractions from the Hurricane, and the burden of an hour commute, Jacob has not fallen behind in his school work but has excelled in his studies at James Sprunt. 

“Education is more important for jobs, for degrees,” said Jacob on his motivation for staying in school. “If you do not continue your education, you cannot go get a job in the technical field that you want to be in. It is more important to get your education, because it will help you pay your bills and support your family later on in life.”

While Jacob has always loved Topsail Beach, this is definitely not a vacation for him or his family. With so many displaced from the hurricane, finding alternative housing was not easy or affordable.

“It has been a financial hardship,” said Jacob’s father, Andy Cavenaugh, who serves as the department chair for arts and sciences at James Sprunt. “I have had to pull most of the money out of my pocket, FEMA only comes up with so much, and they’ve only paid me only one time. We are still making house payments, we have done some deferments, and now we have a rent payment for the place we are staying at in Topsail.” 

The beach rental is temporary and soon the family will have to find another temporary place to call home, as the unit had vacation reservations already in place for the Spring months from those visiting the island.

“It is strange that we are right here at the ocean and they did not have any flooding, but 60 miles inland, we had catastrophic flooding,” said Jacob’s mother, Ava Cavenaugh.  “It has been a blessing to be here in the rental unit. We hear of so many others who have less than we do, so we just take it a day at a time. We know we will have to leave soon… but for now everything seems to be working out ok.”

The beach rental had everything for the family to meet their immediate needs. Kitchen appliances, heat, internet access, a washer/dryer, a television, and three bedrooms with beds and mattresses already in place.

“I had a realtor that I had dealt with for over 20 years, and he contacted someone he knew, and she was willing to let us stay through the winter at Topsail,” said Jacob’s father. “It was one of the few rentals available that fit all of our needs.”

Ironically, Jacob says his family did not qualify for a FEMA trailer that could have been placed on their property. “They told us the damage in our house from the flooding was not severe enough to qualify for a trailer.”

Celebrating Christmas at the beach will be a definite break in traditions for the Cavenaugh family, who normally celebrate the holidays in Duplin County, but Jacob is thankful to still be alive and to be with his family. As he was talking with his mother, Jacob reminds everyone that the true meaning can be celebrated anywhere, no matter what your circumstances are.

“We are going to celebrate Christmas by the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ,” said Jacob. “I’m a Christian, I’m a follower. I don’t want to offend people at all…but this is what I believe… We are in a different place. We are at the beach and not out in the country… we are still trying to get used to things here, but we are going to go forward to a different scenario this Christmas with my family.”

Keeping a positive focus, Jacob and his parents are thankful to be celebrating the holidays together and realize that even though the ornaments on the Christmas tree may not be the ones from Christmases gone by, that breaking from tradition may be an opportunity to create new traditions for the future.  

“I have never been to the beach at Christmas before, so this Christmas will be different,” said Jacob. “So many in our family are displaced…I would rather be in my own house, but this is where I will be. We expect things to stay the same, but things can change unexpectedly like it did this year for me.”

Jacob would love nothing more than for life to go back to normal, but he realizes that will take time as his family starts the rebuilding process.

“I think the storms of the future are going to be worse,” said Jacob as he talks about the impacts of global warming and its impact on the climate. “But this is our home place, it is my childhood home, and that is why we will rebuild. We cannot control what the weather does.”

The family has received help from friends, neighbors, and even strangers in the effort to rebuild. Their love and generosity has helped get them through the hard times and have helped them with the healing process, leaving them forever grateful for all they have done.

“The Mennonites came and cleaned out the house. They stripped out the flooring, took the walls out and cleaned out the storage building, all in a day,” said Jacob’s mother, who also recalls a lady from Beulaville who stopped and prayed with her as she put stuff out by the road one day. “It was amazing that someone would do that, especially on that day. It was hard throwing everything out.”

Though the subflooring of the home has been put back in, there is still lots of work that needs to be done before the family can move back in. His mother says it will take months, maybe even years before the process is complete.

Through it all, however, Jacob says his family has been a source of strength for him.

“I applaud my family for being there for me…” said Jacob. “I want to be there for my family and for those living in fear since the flooding, that have been struggling in 2018… we can get through this, and we will get through this.”

Editor’s note: This perspective was originally published by James Sprunt Community College. It has been published 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.