11/07/04 — Helping the folks in Haywood County

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Helping the folks in Haywood County

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on November 7, 2004 2:06 AM

HAYWOOD COUNTY -- Clouds block the stars and moonlight, and the mountains make a black ridge against the sky. Little can be seen beyond the headlights on the dirt driveway.

All week we had heard that leaves would be at their peak color, but as the group from Wayne Community College arrives at Camp New Life and bunks down for the night, we can't see our surroundings. The world is gray and black.

But when the Saturday morning light hits the trees, they ignite with yellows, reds and oranges. Burning bush warms the roadsides, and the drive into Clyde is like daytime fireworks.

It takes a while before we realize that sheets, clothes and papers are stuck among the tree branches. A child's doll lies atop the remnants of lawn furniture, wedged into a bridge support 15 feet above a mountain stream.

As a hawk spirals above us, the van drives past long rows of trailers and homes with their doors open and orange spray paint across their front facades. Trash is piled at the street, next to blooming roses and dahlias.

If this valley wasn't so alive, it would feel like a ghost town.

In September, western North Carolina took a one-two punch. Frances hit first, dropping up to 16 inches of rain Sept. 7-8. The storm wiped away roads and cut power to thousands. Then as people mopped up, Ivan arrived Sept. 17 with another foot of rain in some areas and 60 mph winds.

The mountains channeled that water. In mere hours, creeks and rivers burst out of their banks and wreaked havoc in people's lives. No North Carolinians died in the first storm, but Ivan killed a dozen, including five in Macon County who had been caught in a mudslide that destroyed 30 homes.

The water went down as fast as it came, and other storms, both real and political, have distracted the nation since then.

But many mountaineers are still digging out every day. Assisting them are several charitable and religious organizations, including the Baptist organizations that housed us Friday night and are feeding us breakfast this morning.

Although we are seven hours from Wayne County, we feel at home. We saw this type of flooding in 1999 with Hurricane Floyd and its sister storms.

"We were trying to think of a project for 'Make a Difference Day' (Oct. 23) that would unify the whole college, that everyone could take part in, and this just fit," says Tara L. Humphries, the college's public information officer.

In September Haywood Community College had four buildings flooded, including its entire continuing education department. Cars used by its basic law enforcement training program were swamped. Twenty-one Haywood students and nine college employees were affected.

Five years ago, 75 students received assistance from Wayne Community College's emergency fund.

"All community colleges are sisters, but we have an under-the-skin kind of kinship," Ms. Humphries says.

For weeks, 20 campus groups collected clothing, furniture, food, cleaning supplies, gadgets and gizmos, and, most important, money. What they didn't want, or weren't able, to carry, they sold at a yard sale.

One student club charged 50 cents apiece for people to sign a banner that reads "We love you, Haywood."

Students called area businesses for support. Private individuals gave $800 for the trip expenses.

We had come up the mountain with a packed 15-foot truck and more than $2,000 in cash, only to find out we were carrying a Band-Aid.

But no one's discouraged at breakfast as we're joined by groups from Cape Hatteras, Knightdale, Bear Creek and Greensboro. Fortified, half our group heads to Canton to sort through donated clothing at the Baptist Men's relief distribution center.

The rest of us go to Haywood's college to set up our own distribution center. The college has invited its people to take first crack.

Rinda Green, who works in career services, shows pictures of the flooding. Francis had dropped a trailer within a few feet of her home. Ivan took it away.

"It has not been seen since," she says. "It was just like some giant had picked it up and carried it off."

Don Apperson, who teaches auto upholstery, mills around outside the area where we've set up. "We had 20 inches of water in the house after the first storm and 30 inches after the second," says Apperson, the very image of a mountain man. "We lost a new heating system that we had just installed, about $3,000. Nearly everything was damaged. There's some antique furniture that I'm going to try to salvage, not much else."

He pauses. "We were really fortunate that we didn't sustain as much damage as some others," he says.

Other college personnel keep coming out and urging him to pick out some items, but he resists.

"You have some nice stuff in there. I am staying back because there are so many people who are worse off than I am," he says.

He finally relents and picks up a few items, including a hedge trimmer. He says, with a laugh, "It's not for me. It's for my wife."

Tamam Newman, a Haywood student, had three hours of warning to move everything she could to the top of her kitchen shelves. That's the only area that survived nine feet of water running through her home.

"Everything was covered with river splurge and sewage and set down wherever it ended up," she says. "Nothing was spared."

A single mom, she had spent most pre-flood days trying to balance work, her school, her son's school and extracurricular activities, she says. "You're racing around like crazy to try to keep on schedule.

"Then the next day, you're sleeping on your friend's floor, and all your belongings can fit in the back seat of a Honda Civic."

Many people have offered help, she says. "The generosity has been overwhelming. People have come from all over the country. It's just astounding."

But some holes cannot be filled.

"He can't be 4 years old again and making plaster handprints," she says, her hand stroking Sloan's hair. "And he had a whole room of boys' stuff -- dinosaurs. Yu-Gi-Oh cards. That's the hardest thing."

Jeanne Lankford, who works with mentally challenged students, had been in Myrtle Beach for a conference during Hurricane Francis. "Someone yelled out, 'Jeanne, your house is on TV!'" she recalls. "I looked at the TV and said, 'OK, there goes my life.'"

She laughs. "I've shed a lot of tears to get to where I can laugh."

She and her husband had just paid off their home; now they're starting over. They're having the house stripped down to the studs to get rid of the mold and mildew. "I try not to go by too often, it's too painful," she says.

"It's been so heart-breaking but so full of joy too. People are so good. You don't even know them, but they're so willing to give to you," she says.

As 2 p.m. rolls around, the Wayne Community College folks present the cash, checks and gift cards to Janice Gilliam, a Haywood Community College vice president.

"You've touched our hearts. You really have," Mrs. Gilliam says, and then she hugs each of us, even the reporter who had little to do with it. Sideswiped by karma, I guess.

Days later, the group is still basking in the afterglow.

"I've always volunteered -- it's what I do -- so I was going," said Tiffany Pope. "It was a good adventure. They invited us to come back and help rebuild homes, and I'd love to go."

"It was a good way for me to help out and make new friends," said Ann Wellington. "I think we had about the same amount of devastation, but we could at least move on. It seems to me that they don't have the same job opportunities."

"When we were working in the distribution center, I could feel God's love and power," said Megan Bullock. "There was stuff piled all the way up to the ceiling."

As for me, something Mrs. Lankford said keeps coming back.

"I would lose three houses just to make the friends that I have made, to see the angels that I have seen," she said.

Those types of memories put color in your cheeks.