When Hurricane Florence touched down near Wrightsville Beach in September, no one could have predicted what would take place in the coming days, weeks, and months. Two months later, the struggle is still real: financially, emotionally, and physically. It is a burden that nobody wanted, that nobody needed, and one that many never thought they would have to experience in their lifetime.
Take Kenneth Outlaw, a welding student at James Sprunt Community College, who lives two and a half miles from the Northeast Cape Fear River in Beulaville, North Carolina.
“In the five years that we lived here, we never had any flooding,” said Kenneth. “During Hurricane Matthew, we had eighteen inches of rain in the yard… we felt so grateful we survived with that little bit, but this time, it got us too.”
Kenneth’s home flooded, with some parts of his home taking in over 4 feet of water during the storm.
“It’s a modest home,” said Kenneth. “We wanted an older farmhouse. This was not exactly what we wanted, but it was the closest that we could find in our budget.”
And now that home sits empty, with most of what was inside being a complete loss.
“The majority of the stuff in here will probably go out to the curbside,” said Kenneth as he looks over what is left inside the house. “It is kind of hard to just throw everything you own out.”
The home, like so many on his street, sits in the dark without any electricity, making it even harder to get the rebuilding process started as daylight becomes less prevalent in the months ahead.
“We plan to rebuild,” said Kenneth. “We have no choice. We still have a mortgage, but it is going to take some time.”
Kenneth is receiving assistance from FEMA – what Kenneth calls a starting point – but it will not be enough to rebuild the house.“We were not in a flood zone, so we did not have flood insurance… It is either walk away with nothing or rebuild.
Before the storm hit, Kenneth was striving to make a better life for himself and his family.
“I leave at seven in the morning for school, I go straight from school to go to work second shift, and I normally get home around midnight,” said Kenneth. “But recently they’ve added two more hours to my shift, so now I get home around 2:00 a.m., and then back up at 6:00 a.m. to start all over again.”
With only four hours of sleep a day, and hours that do not allow any flexibility, it has made it even more challenging for Kenneth to focus on the priorities needed at home, but he says, “I’m getting there day-by-day.”
“We had a contractor come out to look at the house, I tried to get out of school early, but I still wasn’t able to meet with him, so my wife had to do that,” said Kenneth. “It’s been really hard.”
Despite those challenges, Kenneth has never once thought about dropping out of school.
“It’s my personal goal,” said Kenneth. “I’m a high school dropout. I dropped out of school in 1990. It took me 12 years to go back and get my GED after several failed attempts… there were always work, cost issues…. Anybody who is a high school dropout knows you struggle to make up for your mistakes….”
Since earning his GED, Kenneth has gone on to earn a certificate in welding technology from James Sprunt Community College, which he completed last May and is set to finish earning a diploma in welding in December.
“I have employment now….I am proving to myself that I can do it….I have to do it,” says Kenneth. “Welding… just seemed like the right path for me, there are good opportunities for welders. It is just always been something I wanted to know more about.”
Kenneth now lives in a camper that is parked in his back yard, along with his wife and two adult children – one of which who has special-needs.
It took several weeks after the Hurricane hit before Kenneth and his family were able to secure a camper, scraping together what money they could in order to meet the unexpected expense of finding temporary shelter.
“I don’t think we will be back in our house until after the first of the year, if then…even though we are in a camper, it is good to be back home.”
Standing outside of his now flooded home, Kenneth recalls the moments leading up to the Hurricane.
“I thought I had waited too long, that I wasn’t going to be able to leave,” said Kenneth as the wind and rain became stronger the night the hurricane hit.
“My family had already evacuated to Potters Hill… I tried to stay as long as I could so that we could keep the power on as long as possible, so that we wouldn’t lose everything in our freezer and refrigerator,” said Kenneth. “We had hoped that worst-case scenario would be that we would be without power for two-to-three days, that we could get back in, and that we wouldn’t lose everything.”
Unfortunately, they did lose everything.
After the storm made landfall, and the winds had died down, Kenneth set out to go assess the damage.
“I had taken my chainsaw with me because I knew that trees would be down, and I had to cut trees out of the road to make it back home” said Kenneth. “No water was at the house when I got there, but I knew that water was rising and that more was coming.”
Kenneth returned back to Potters Hill to be with his family and to wait out the rest of the storm as Hurricane Florence churned over Eastern North Carolina for days, bringing historic rainfall that shattered records.
As creeks became rivers and rivers became what looked like an endless sea of water, it was difficult to know what was taking place. With no electricity or internet service, communication was limited.
Many areas like Potters Hill, became islands, surrounded by water and cut off from the rest of the world. It was clear that you could not get into these areas and you could not get out, unless you had a boat. Kenneth spent time trying to call neighbors to find out was happening in his neighborhood. He finally made contact with one of them, and that’s when he learned the fate of his home.
“My neighbor across the road saw a post… on a fire department support page….they had come through here on a boat and taken a picture of our house flooded,” said Kenneth. “It was kind of a heart-breaking moment.”
“The first day we came back to see our house after the flood, we had to park down the road and walk in… “ said Kenneth. “The water was out of the house, but was still all around.”
Kenneth and his wife were able to salvage a few things – photos that were high up on the wall, medicine that was in the cabinet for his daughter, a few tools – but most of everything else had to be thrown out to the roadside: the furniture, the beds, the appliances. Everything that Kenneth and his wife had worked so hard for their whole life, gone in an instant.
“It is almost as if we are starting over as young kids again, starting out on our own,” said Kenneth.
“This hurts, but life goes on,” said Kenneth. “This storm has put everything in perspective for me… I was able to save my family and that is all that matters.”
Through it all Kenneth and his family have been grateful for the support received from area churches and the community – whether it was a hot meal, clothes, or cleaning supplies.
“My church was the first one to reach out to give us a helping hand,” said Kenneth. “They allowed us to stay in the parsonage after the flooding. Although my faith is a little shaken, it is not shattered. It is hard to lose your faith when you have so many nice people out there trying to help you, when they really don’t have to.”
“People are still suffering,” added Kenneth. “A lot of people do think this is over….but it’s not going away anytime soon.”
Kenneth Outlaw stands outside of his temporary home, a camper, that houses his family of four.
– Cheryl Hemric / James Sprunt Community College