In September 2018 Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina. The devastation, both emotional and financial, was massive. More than 80 John Deere employees from two North Carolina locations assisted Habitat for Humanity in cleanup and repair efforts. The volunteer events took place at four residential locations in January and February. This story documents two of those projects.
It has been five months since Hurricane Florence battered and flooded North Carolina’s eastern coastline. It’s been five months since water levels topped stop signs — climbing more than 7 feet — leaving homeowners with the headache and heartache of sorting out and sorting through.
Today, the scenery feels post-apocalyptic. But there are glimpses of organized chaos that line the roadways. There are piles of discarded memories atop ruined clothing, furniture, insulation, and children’s toys.
Florence shredded homes after dumping 40 inches of rain in less than 48 hours, turning fragments of dry wall into cake batter.
Posted signs announce: “Keep Out,” “No Trespassing,” and “Private Property.” They are as common on every home as a doorbell or mailbox.
What is perhaps most haunting is the silence. With nearly every home empty in the small, rural town of Burgaw, there is no traffic along Whitestocking Road. The wind pushes the tops of pine trees while the Carolina wren interrupts the quiet with song.
It has been a few months since the hurricane, yet Burgaw’s barren landscape still looks like Florence arrived yesterday. And, for the thousands of homeowners, it still is.
But there is hope.
Rebuilding and Reclaiming
About 25 miles to the south in Wilmington, North Carolina, there is plenty of noise, including power saws buzzing, hammers pounding, shovels tearing at shingles, and people laughing. Florence’s impact here was similar. The hurricane’s bite was nearly 300 miles wide, devastating the state. To Florence it didn’t matter if you were rural and small or urban and developing – the smack to the face had the same sting.
But on this day in mid-February, nearly 40 John Deere employees from the company’s Turf Care facilities in Fuquay-Varina and Cary, North Carolina, are volunteering their time and muscle to get a family back into its home. John Deere and the John Deere Foundation are working with Habitat for Humanity and its local Wake County chapter to speed up the process of restoring normalcy at multiple locations in North Carolina.
The Wilmington home needs a new roof after a tree crashed through it during the hurricane, creating a skylight between the laundry room and kitchen.
Before work commences in early morning, Habitat’s Corey Rand outlines the day’s goals. The mood is reserved, but if there is one thing the Deere employees understand it is purposeful work — and it doesn’t take long for the corner lot in this modest neighborhood to quickly resemble the precision of an assembly line.
It will take even less time for the volunteers to appreciate the impact that events like this can make on those doing the work as well as those benefitting from it.
All in the Family
“It’s amazing to see what can be done when we all come together,” said Lisa McCrimmon, a 17-year Turf Care employee. “We have a wonderful family at John Deere.”
Family was the theme of the day, no matter whom you asked.
“We are a family,” Andrea Cole, a 19-year Deere employee, stressed. “For our family to help this family get back in their home a little sooner means a lot.”
As the new roof is being put on the tiny two-bedroom home on Middlesex Road, next-door neighbor Edgar Gobenciong uses a wheelbarrow to transport load after load of debris from his home to a dumpster at the edge of his property. Gobenciong stops occasionally to watch, leaning against a shovel and catching his breath.
“How do I get that?” Gobenciong asks, pointing to the group of Deere employees constantly on the move. “I mean, what is going on? I need that.” He pauses and observes. “It is a really good thing you’re doing.”
What side of the property line you happen to be standing on is not lost on those doing the work.
“It does feel good,” said Jim McLean, a 15-year Deere employee. “It’s great we can do this, that the company supports this. To provide help when people need it – well, that’s how it should be.”
Back in Burgaw
Stephanie Kramer bought her home not for how it looked, but because of where it sat. The property is 25 acres of mixed landscape. The space allows her to keep horses, potbelly pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, and three dogs.
Kramer said the storm’s suddenness caught her off guard. One of Hurricane Florence’s worst attributes was its speed. Most think of hurricanes blowing through the towns they destroy. But it’s the water that’s worse than the wind.
As Florence kept getting downgraded, from a Category 4 to a Category 1 hurricane, its momentum slowed. Then it stalled. With the push from the wind reduced, the rain piled up. Areas that had never flooded were suddenly submerged, including almost all of Kramer’s 25 acres. Luckily for her, she had a patch of high ground that served as a refuge for her animals.
“I never thought I’d have a potbelly pig in a kayak, but that happened,” she said.
The drama of a hurricane brings national attention. Disasters such as Florence are good theater. But when the show’s over, everyone leaves, except for those who call the damaged land home.
“Everyone thinks that once the storm is over, everything is over,” Kramer said. “Honestly, that’s when the help is needed most. Even people in our area who are close by think that ‘Oh, it’s two months or three months or four months’ … they think things are back to normal, but they’re not. We still need help.”
Kramer now lives in a FEMA trailer, temporary housing until she can get her world right-side up. Working against her are labor shortages, money, and time. Because Kramer’s land had “never flooded,” she did not have flood insurance. That means she can’t throw money at her problems. All of the work falls on her. And it can take forever.
Her Habitat project involved employees from the Cary office getting under her home and tearing out insulation that was still wet. Their work required being in tight spaces, unscrewing large sheets of plywood, and then wrestling with moldy and muddy bundles of insulation.
“What John Deere did in a day would have taken me a month or more by myself,” Kramer said. “What that does for me, mentally especially, is so important. To come and help a stranger and show that kind of support is incredible.”
To the Deere volunteers, it didn’t matter where the homes of those they helped were or who was living in them. All they knew was the hurricane had affected them all.
“It’s important that I volunteer because it’s a part of everyone’s community – a disaster like this,” said Latoya Simmons, a 16-year Deere employee. “The John Deere family just wants to help.”
A natural disaster such as Florence can narrow demographics, turning many residents into have-nots. Research bears this out. Data collected over a 90-year period concludes that a natural disaster of significance such as Hurricane Florence can drive a wedge between economic classes.
According to Scientific American magazine, poverty increases by 1% in a county hit with disaster. The “haves” can more easily pick up and move out. The “have nots” often can’t afford that option and are left to start over.
This reality further amplifies the merits of such community organizations as Habitat for Humanity and the importance of volunteerism.
John Deere’s support for Hurricane Florence recovery goes beyond employees’ volunteer labor to help rebuild. The John Deere Foundation has approved a grant of $250,000 with another $130,000 on the way. Heather Hu, Habitat of Wake County’s senior vice president of resource development, said the Deere partnership is an impactful one.
“The John Deere Foundation’s recent grant for Hurricane Florence relief, along with busloads of amazing John Deere employee volunteers, allowed us to truly change the lives of those left in the aftermath of hurricane devastation,” she said. “Habitat Wake and the families we serve here, along with our coastal Habitat affiliates, are beyond grateful.”
More than 80 Deere employees worked with Habitat for Humanity in January and February, helping erase the aftereffects of a storm that caused $17 billion of damage in the state. The volunteers did whatever the homeowners needed help with. And when a busload of eager hands shows up, a lot can get done in a short amount of time.
“I don’t know where people would be without this kind of help,” Kramer said. “In some cases, there’s just not anyone else left to do it.”