ROCKY MOUNT, NC — The gymnasium at Nash Central High School is quiet and almost empty. Row upon row of green cots line the floor.
It’s a far cry from Saturday night, when more than 100 people, 17 dogs and six cats hunkered down here to escape Hurricane Matthew. But few remained at the makeshift shelter by Monday afternoon. Most had made other temporary housing arrangements with friends or family.
Not Toshica Medley and her 14-year-old son, Javares Dawes. They are two of just five people still there. They lost everything in the flood. And they’ve got nowhere else to go.
But at the shelter, they’re not alone. A small group of volunteers and city and county workers watch over them, trying to help them feel more comfortable on a cold floor. The evacuees and volunteers have formed something of a bond, however temporary, forged out of the watery mess that Matthew created in eastern North Carolina.
The mom and son
Although there are plenty of empty cots available, Medley and Javares sit on one together, leaning on each other for support.
“I guess I’m just on a prayer and a wing right now,” says Medley, who has no family nearby whom she and Javares can stay with. “I don’t have no idea what I’m gonna do. What’s next?”
They arrived at the shelter Sunday, chased out of their apartment complex by the rapidly rising Tar River, which flows right behind their home. Medley says she couldn’t believe how fast the swollen Tar, fed by Matthew’s heavy rains, reached her doorstep.
Medley didn’t think it was that bad at first, but then Javares pointed out that the water had quickly reached cars in the parking lot.
It took just an hour.
A firefighter knocked on their door and told them the river might reach 29 feet high, so they needed to leave. They grabbed a few personal items and walked out. Medley knows she’s lost everything. She called the supermarket that sits near her apartment complex and asked someone there just how high the water got.
“She told me the only thing that you could see was the top of the buildings,” she says.
She’s thankful both for the shelter and the people there who are working hard to keep her and her son comfortable, but words fail her as she contemplates the tough road of recovery ahead.
“You just don’t, you just don’t …” she tries to say several times before stopping herself.
Matthew the monster
The shelter at Nash Central is just one of almost 80 that’s opened up in eastern North Carolina since Hurricane Matthew marched through over the weekend. The storm — with its 100+ mph winds and torrential rains — wreaked havoc from Raleigh to the Outer Banks. Creeks turned into raging rivers. Power lines were downed. Roads destroyed. People on their rooftops left waiting for rescue.
And it’s nowhere near being over. Matthew may have flamed out somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, but its effects are still being felt, with forecasters warning of more “catastrophic flooding” in North Carolina as residents brace for swollen rivers to top their banks in the next few days.
Shelters like the one at Nash Central won’t be shutting down anytime soon.
The nurse and the interpreter
Some of the people working the shelter are Nash County employees. Although they were sent there to help as part of their jobs, they don’t consider this a work requirement as much as a mission.
Lorie Perry, a nurse from the Nash County Department of Health, is tasked with caring for the physical needs of those in the shelter, but she thinks the job requires more than that.
“Right now we don’t do a lot of nursing, I think we do a lot more ministering,” Perry says. “Their basic needs is food and shelter but it’s also someone’s who’s going to listen and care because a lot of them don’t have anywhere to go. Don’t have any family; lost everything. So to me the most important thing is just loving on them.”
Perry says the volunteers and other workers — including a police officer, an interpreter and social worker — have adopted a saying — “it takes a village” — as something of a motto and a guide as they care for folks at the shelter, some who are suffering through some of the worst days of their lives.
“Whether it’s a social worker, whether it’s a pastor, it doesn’t matter,” Perry says. “We’re all working for the same purpose and that is to take care of these human beings. This is not about us. This is about them.”
The interpreter the county sent to the shelter, Alana Trejo, was much in demand Saturday night. Several of the people who came there Saturday were Spanish speakers, but none of the workers or volunteers speaks the language. One of the volunteers, Dorothy Rich, says having Trejo there to help facilitate communication with the families was a godsend.
“It makes me feel good to be helping somebody,” says Trejo, who also directed evacuees to disaster resources available from the county and organizations like the Red Cross.
The Rev. Carlyle Hall arrived at the shelter Monday to offer something to those who have lost so much.
He desperately wants to provide the people staying there some hope, so he gives them what he considers the greatest weapon against despair — the power of prayer. He said he introduced himself to the evacuees and asked them how they wanted him to pray for them.
“It really breaks your heart wondering how folks are going to recover from such loss,” Hall says. “I think it does people a lot of good to know that someone is at least praying for them.”
Hall, the pastor of Castalia Baptist Church in nearby Castalia, chats with another volunteer about securing some items people may need, not just at the shelter in Nash Central High School, but at some of the other shelters in the county. The needs are great, but Hall has experience in meeting them.
“Just doing what I know to do,” he says.
A way forward?
As for Medley and Javares, they will stay in the shelter for the next several nights, trying to figure out a way forward.
“I don’t know what’s next, because we literally have nowhere to go,” she says. “You just don’t plan for stuff like this. You don’t plan on not having your house. You don’t plan on being homeless. I’ve never been homeless in my life. What do you do when you’re homeless?”