On a humid October morning in New Bern, Byun Serchom grabs a clothespin and searches for a warm spot on the deck outside of her mobile home.
With a flurry of activity around her, Serchom pulls soaking wet papers out of a sheet protector as the wet ink smudges across the thin plastic that once kept her documents safe from harm.
“I can’t believe you found these,” Serchom said, lifting her U.S. certificate of citizenship into the sunlight that soon turned the sodden mess into a more recognizable form. “I looked for them before the storm and couldn’t find them. They’re very important to me.”
Michael Van Scott, Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, Economic Development and Engagement, pulls up floor board at the home of New Bern resident Byun Serchom. Scott was part of an ECU volunteer team that helped remove debris from storm-damaged homes.
With a snap, the 34-year-old single mother of three hung her papers, a reminder of the home she built in New Bern over the last 16 years.
“Now, it’s all gone,” Serchom said. “I’m not going to lie, we lost a lot. I’ve never experienced anything like this. I don’t have a job to go to. My kids don’t have a school to go to. How are we supposed to handle these things?”
With her life turned upside down, Serchom reached out to one of the many disaster relief organizations operating in New Bern after Hurricane Florence. She connected with Baptists on Mission, a group of ministries in North Carolina that help Christians and non-Christians alike when disaster strikes.
After Hurricane Florence struck eastern North Carolina, East Carolina University teamed up with Baptists on Mission, offering debris removal and home cleanup volunteer opportunities for Pirates looking to help out their neighbors.
East Carolina Undaunted, the university’s Hurricane Florence community outreach team, connected with Baptists on Mission during the early stages of its hurricane relief efforts. ECU has sent teams to help New Bern residents, like Serchom, remove debris and household items damaged by floodwaters, preventing mold and other contaminants from settling in.
Volunteer teams have visited Craven County nearly every day since the storm passed through, helping victims like Serchom find a new sense of normal after more than 5,000 structures and 750 homes were destroyed by the storm.
“I don’t have insurance for it,” said Serchom, who paid off her home in 2015. “I don’t have a job because I had surgery last year. It just doesn’t feel real. It’s hard trying to resettle. Everything you have – the furniture, the bedding, all of it – you don’t expect to have to buy it again. Some of the furniture was less than a year old. Now it’s got to be thrown away.”
As the ECU team removed the siding and insulation from underneath her home, Serchom watched as soaked chunks of her floor were removed with a steel crowbar by a pair of volunteers.
“It feels like everything in your house is all gone,” she said. “It’s like a nightmare to me.”
Just 10 miles away, nestled in Fairfeld Harbour by the winding Neuse River, 60-year-old Meryl Crosbie flips through photos on her phone.
“Here’s a photo of mold that grew on my boots left in the garage,” Crosbie said. “Here’s photos of damage inside of the house. You can see the water line on the couch. Look at how high the water went up. There were 30-pound bags of cat litter floating away like it was nothing.”
Crosbie’s subdivision couldn’t be more different than Serchom’s mobile home community. A gated suburb with inlet access, Fairfeld Harbour is one of the more prominent retirement communities in eastern North Carolina.
Wanda Wynne, left, and Becky Gardner remove siding from a home in New Bern.
Crosbie and Serchom lived in two different worlds.
However, that all changed after Hurricane Florence.
Like Serchom, Crosbie has been forced to rebuild and recover. The hurricane was Crosbie’s first major storm since moving to New Bern four years ago.
“I’ve been through storms here before, but they didn’t do much,” Crosbie said. “I never thought about leaving during the storm. I was prepared; I thought I was ready for it. Then the garage started filling up. Later that night, water started coming through the vents. Twenty-two inches in the house and 6 feet of water in the garage. There I was on the phone with my sister just sloshing through water.”
Crosbie and her 18 cats – she runs a feral cat rescue and was fostering the animals until she found them a new home – were evacuated the next morning. With her home unsuitable for living, Crosbie, like Serchom, turned to Baptists on Mission and ECU. The ECU team that visited Crosbie’s home removed sections of her wall up to four feet high while also discarding appliances and furniture ruined by the storm.
“I’m not bitter about it,” Crosbie said. “It’s Mother Nature. What are you going to do about it?”
Sitting in her once-underwater garage with her arms folded across her chest, watching cleanup volunteers remove her belongings from the home she thought she’d enjoy her retirement in, Crosbie had a moment of reflection.
“I’ve always been a realist,” she said. “Sometimes you have to go through these sorts of things so you know what others are going through. You really need to live through this and walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s not how I imagined all this playing out, but I can certainly appreciate what other storm victims have gone through now.”
Back at the Baptists on Mission command center, groups of volunteers file in the front doors of Temple Church.
From American Red Cross vehicles being stuffed with supplies to trucks lining up to deposit tools and other cleanup materials, the center is buzzing with activity.
Despite the furious amount of work being done, New Bern site coordinator Jimmy Lawrence shared a message with ECU volunteers about their role in the recovery process.
“You’re their hope,” Lawrence said. “You’re going to be alongside families who have had everything destroyed. Every day these people return to their homes and there’s nothing there. Their neighbors aren’t there; their stuff’s not there; everything they knew, it’s no longer there.
“They’re at a low point,” he said, “but you’re showing them they’re not alone. You’re the ones that are helping them get back on their feet. You’re the ones helping them rebuild. You’re their hope.”
Lawrence said that the help volunteers and community members provide to storm victims is pivotal to the recovery process.
“Without community members lifting one another up, how can it rebuild?” he asked.
Crosbie agreed, reminding others not to be too proud in times of need.
“Some folks may have never had to deal with a problem on this scale before,” Crosbie said. “They’re too proud to ask to help. Everyone needs to understand that you can seek help. You’re deserving of assistance.”
Through its Hurricane Florence Recovery website, East Carolina Undaunted has connected ECU students, faculty, staff and community members with those in New Bern that have sought help. While volunteers are still needed, Crosbie said the response so far has been uplifting.
“I don’t know what I would have done without it,” she said.
ECU student Joseph Trese remove debris during a volunteer trip to New Bern.
Back at Serchom’s home, the ECU volunteer team winds down its day. The work on her home wasn’t completely finished – another team will have to finish up – but she was happy to have the company anyway.
“I’ve been thankful for the teams coming here,” Serchom said. “I thought I’d just leave the house, move and start looking for a new job. It was going to take years to even think about paying for a new home.”
Throwing a handful of debris in the pile scattered outside of her home, Serchom contemplates her future.
“God is with us,” she said. “Knowing that is a comfort for me and the kids. We can’t replace everything, but we’re still alive. We lost everything, but we still have God, family, and people like the ECU volunteers by our side. I hope that people realize whatever difficulty they face, they can still find hope.”
When asked how she plans to carry on with her family’s long-term recovery, Serchom said she’d do what she’d always done – turn to her neighbors.
“When I see other people from New Bern now, I feel like we’re really close,” she said. “We’ve gone through this shared experience; were there for each other and want to help each other. I feel like we’re not just neighbors, we’re family.”
Crosbie said she too plans to remain in New Bern.
“We’re not leaving town,” she said. “But, wherever I move next, I’m going to be just a little higher off the ground.”
For more information about how to help New Bern and other communities affected by Hurricane Florence, visit East Carolina Undaunted online at florencerecovery.ecu.edu or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.