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Families still struggling to recover two years after Hurricane Irene

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BAYBORO, N.C. -

It ravaged Eastern North Carolina for 18 hours. Its storm surge was up to 15 feet high and its winds were 85 miles per hour.

Now, two years later, the effects of Hurricane Irene still linger.

"We still have people who are out of their homes and are still hurting," says Melvin Alston, a Pamlico County resident and Hurricane Irene victim.

Alston evacuated his Merritt home when the category 1 hurricane made landfall. When he returned, flood waters had taken their toll.

"By the time I got back to the house to get everything torn out, the mold had rode all the way up the wall," he says.

Like countless other victims, Alston did not have insurance. His FEMA money went fast and his home is still unlivable.

"No, I didn't think it would take as long as it has, but it is a process," he says. "You've got to work toward something in order to get something."

After Hurricane Irene, more than 35,000 North Carolinians registered with FEMA for state and federal assistance.

Pamlico County Manager Tim Buck says most people in his area are back in their homes by now. But for dozens of others like Alston, challenges remain.  

9 On Your Side asked Buck why it's taking so long for people to recover.

"It's always resources," Buck says. "It's either not sufficient coverage on insurance, or some folks do not have insurance coverage. It's also working with FEMA to get as much resources and funds as you can. But in some cases, there's a gap there. A lack of insurance or resources causes problems because it does take money to rebuild. In some cases, it's very costly."

Buck says initial emergency funds are long gone. But last month FEMA approved a new $15 million federal Hazard Mitigation Grant for Pamlico County.

It will be distributed in three phases and will provide more than 100 homeowners with a government buyout so they can move outside of the flood plain. For 50 other families, it will provide money to elevate and protect their homes from future floodwaters.

It's a silver lining for those still struggling. But government red tape means delays.

"It could take six months to a year to actually complete the process," Buck says.

In this waiting game, Buck says faith-based volunteer organizations have become the backbone of the long-term recovery effort.

Baptist Men volunteers have remained a constant presence in Bayboro since the storm, offering food, repairs and fellowship.

"Baptist Men can't stay down here forever," says David Cameron, a volunteer. "But we're hoping that by the time we leave the community, many of the families will be able to move back into their homes. We also hope that by being able to one-on-one work with the families and the community, that we can show them that god loves them and that they're not forgotten."

But it's not just homes in Pamlico County that still need repairs two years after Hurricane Irene. Just down the road from Alston's battered home, members of a damaged church are still working and praying for a full recovery.

"It really, really hurt because we had put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into building this church," says Avis Squires, a member of the Zion Hill United Church of Christ in Whortsonsville. "And there was a lot of pride that went into having this church built. And then to see Mother Nature come in and really destroy the inside, it was heartbreaking."

After a three-foot storm surge inundated the sanctuary of the church, all that remained intact was a piano and two Bibles.

"The Bible is a hard book to destroy," says Rufus Greene, who has worshipped at Zion Hill for nearly eight decades.

"I just couldn't hardly believe it," Green says. "But then I thought, ‘God you are in charge' and I know that he wouldn't do anything wrong."

Seven months ago, his prayers were answered when general contractor Hank Williams and his wife, Bettie, volunteered to raise money and help the congregation rebuild. 

"I had one member tell me that he wanted to walk back in his church one more time before he had to walk up to Heaven and that touched me," Hank Williams says.

So far, they've received about $30,000 in donations to replace the roof, floors, walls and pews. There is still no heating or air conditioning, but there's an end in sight.  

"What gave me hope was the finishing of the floor and just how good this carpet looks in here," Squires says. "It gives me a lot of hope that the rest of the church will come together."

It's that unbreakable spirit that's helped so many weather the storm long after it's passed.

"It's hard to explain sometimes the way you feel in your heart," Greene says. "But then we got to pick up the pieces and keep on going because it's a bright day somewhere. A better day."

If you want to help with the relief effort, contact:

Bettie Williams at 252-745-4448.

Rev. Cliff Harvell of the United Methodist Disaster Recovery at 252-341-7008 or cliffharvell@nccumc.org.

Gerald Williams of the Baptist Men Disaster Recovery in Bayboro at (252) 745-4106.

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