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Some Of The Problems That Hurricanes Bring Emerge Only After The Storm Leaves


Parts of the Carolinas are still trying to assess the damage from last month's Hurricane Florence, and now here comes Michael. The storm slammed into the Florida Panhandle today with gusts of 155 miles per hour. By the time Michael reaches the Carolinas tomorrow, it is expected to be downgraded to a tropical storm. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports from Wilmington, N.C., some of the problems a hurricane can bring only emerge weeks after the storm has passed.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: At the Market North apartment complex in Wilmington, U-Haul trucks line the streets. The apartment buildings here survived the storm intact, but the power was out for many days during heavy rain, and the units were damaged by mold. The roughly 500 residents are being told they have to vacate.

GARY MOORE: Moving on out.

GJELTEN: You're moving out.

MOORE: Yeah.

GJELTEN: Where are you going?

MOORE: I don't know yet.

GJELTEN: Gary Moore and his girlfriend are hauling their furniture out. Moore says they'll put it all in storage. He was planning to move in with his mother, but he just found out her apartment has been temporarily condemned as well. FEMA representatives are on the ground here. They can give the displaced tenants some rent money to get them started, but they can't find new housing for them. The apartment owner is giving each tenant a thousand dollars in cash. But Moore says that won't go far.

MOORE: Yeah, it's a real big problem. We ain't got nowhere to go yet. And they're not trying to help us. They tell us to go to FEMA. And FEMA is telling us that they're supposed to do it, and it's all like they're just giving us the runaround.

GJELTEN: Moore's girlfriend, Sara Sue King, sits in a chair by the front door, her head in her hands.

SARA SUE KING: I'm stressed out (laughter). I'm stressed. It's depressing.

GJELTEN: The Red Cross here says about 750 people in Wilmington need shelter now, not counting those living with friends or relatives. Churches that provided shelter want their facilities back. Schools that sheltered people are reopening. So the housing problem here is actually getting worse, not better; same with the economic situation. Some problems show up only after business owners assess their damage. Employees can be caught unprepared, like Toni Witherspoon. She worked at a gourmet market in downtown Wilmington.

TONI WITHERSPOON: We closed during the hurricane. We actually opened back up the Tuesday for the public after the hurricane. But we received a letter that they were going to be temporarily ceasing operations.

GJELTEN: So what looked like a promising situation suddenly turned to bleak.

WITHERSPOON: They didn't give us a date that they may possibly be opening, and they kind of gave us a very short notice - three days.

GJELTEN: Gabriel Robinson, who worked at a pub in downtown Wilmington, had a similar experience after the hurricane damaged his business.

GABRIEL ROBINSON: I came in for a few days to help with the cleanup process, but other than that, I have no idea about the work environment or what's going to happen with that.

GJELTEN: Neither business owner was available for comment. This day, Robinson has come to the offices of StepUp Wilmington, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged people find new employment. StepUp Wilmington's workload has doubled since the hurricane. Challenges like the one Robinson faces are not uncommon.

ROBINSON: It leaves me in a position where I don't know if I'm employed. I don't know when my next paycheck is coming.

GJELTEN: Small businesses are especially vulnerable to something like a hurricane. Jerry Coleman, who directs the Small Business Center at Cape Fear Community College here, says unless the business has insurance, a disaster can wipe it out.

JERRY COLEMAN: If you don't have the insurance, you're going to have a hard time recovering because you've lost that, you know, three or four weeks of income. Your employees are likely to have become displaced, and you can't get them back. So it delays your ability to open up your store or your restaurant or your business.

GJELTEN: FEMA famously estimates as many as 40 percent of small businesses will fail in the aftermath of a disaster like the one that hit North Carolina. Community leaders here hope to disprove that prediction, but it's too soon to tell. Whether it's with the economy or housing, some injury becomes apparent only as time goes by. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Wilmington, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUIET LIFE'S "RECORD TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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