“But Baby, I’m doin’ better than most.”

Baby . . . honey . . . mama . . . papa . . . darlin’ . . . the colloquialisms that slip off the tongue so easily in our small Southern town now take on new meaning for me after Hurricane Matthew. Words that were once used in conversation to express hospitality and affection now reach deeper into the soul. In Lumberton, located in Robeson County, North Carolina, Southern slang mixes with cultural expressions from the local Native American (“Lumbee”) community and beyond to become its own special dialect. Visitors from “up North” seem taken aback by the language, often misinterpreting the greetings as disrespectful. We sometimes must explain to an irate customer that our cashier was not hitting on her husband by calling him “baby” or “darlin’”; around here her words are the epitome of graciousness and respect.

Matthew’s floodwaters are finally now receding after catching us by surprise, and   government and volunteer agencies mobilized appropriately. This past week the sprint continued – – – trying to meet the most urgent needs of shelter, food, water, and public health. Locally, we are now entering the marathon, assessing long-term needs and seeking to match resources (physical and financial) with need.

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Last week, my church family was busy throughout our area, helping “mud out” and remove salvageable belongings from damaged homes, delivering meals to those who need them, receiving and distributing donations, providing classrooms for a Mennonite Disaster Relief Team, and hosting social workers from the Department of Social Services as they reprocessed those currently receiving food stamps so that they could receive additional help following the widespread flooding after Matthew pillaged our area. Throughout the week, an estimated 4000+ families came through the doors of our activity building, which had a huge oak tree on one corner of the roof, looking for whatever help they could find.

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Donations of bottled water, canned foods, diapers, wipes, formula, and hygiene products were unloaded at our back door and distributed at our front door almost as quickly as they were received. Many, many volunteers – – – church members and non – – – worked tirelessly wherever they were needed. In many cases, it was hard to distinguish the helpers from those being served; we all were dealing at different levels with no running water, damaged property, interrupted businesses, etc., and despite best efforts, our countenances portrayed the fatigue.

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On Monday, my assignment was to greet and direct those in line outside, as only a few people at a time could enter the building. Fear and desperation was a common feature on the faces of those waiting. Black, white, Lumbee, and Hispanic stood in line together, suddenly united by disaster and need. These were folks for whom life had already dealt a hard blow; many had lost jobs over the years as industry and business retreated from our formerly vibrant, rural community. Many who stood in line did not qualify for the help DSS offered. They were the working poor – – – ineligible for government assistance but barely making ends meet before the storm. Alarm was evident in their eyes as they learned they could not apply for assistance. Then, dismay turned into a small bit relief, as a fellow volunteer and I explained that we had supplies for them. Some wanted to talk and share their stories; others did not. But they each quietly asked about help available and I was able to ask about their individual need.

“How are you?” I asked.

“How is your family?”

“Did you experience much damage where you live?”

Almost every time, a weary face looked back at me, described frightening experiences of escaping swift, dark floodwaters with nothing but their families and the clothes on their backs. Repeatedly, they expressed grief over homes and vehicles underwater, their appreciation for and the difficulty of living in shelters, or the challenge of squeezing twelve extra bodies into a home built for four, with limited resources and without running water.

And then it came.

“But Baby, I’m doin’ better than most,” they would say, citing another’s situation they perceived as more tragic. Their conversation then turned to me, and they would ask about my family, my home, my safety.

Their words poured over me like fresh water, quenching the need for comfort that we shared. Those being comforted became the comforters. I didn’t mind being called baby, or sweetheart, or even mama by these sweet strangers who were not only concerned for themselves but had compassion for others. They slowly passed by me and went into the building, appreciative of the supplies that others had donated for them. They only took what was essential, leaving items for others they knew needed them more.

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I’m seeing this strength of community everywhere these days. Locals who before might pass one another by are taking time to stop and check on one another. Strangers are embrace and encourage one another as they share their stories. When I went to the grocery store to purchase supplies (yes, some stores are open and receiving shipments, but those who had trouble affording necessities before the storm really cannot afford them now), I parked across from a car full of people of a different race than mine. Our glances caught when we got out of our cars, we shared sad smiles, and they asked if my family and I were doing okay. The woman hugged me as we walked into the store. I don’t know who they were, but it really doesn’t matter. It was another reminder that we are a community who cares about our neighbors.

Our county has received much bad press in the past, some well-earned and some not. I have told people over the years of the strength and pride that exists here and crosses racial barriers. It has never been better illustrated than in the past week. I’m sure there will continue to be small pockets of dissension and misbehavior among some, but I have not observed that this week. Instead I have seen glimpses of hope. What I have experienced is evidence that we are better together than apart, and that the true spirit of Lumberton and Robeson County residents is now being witnessed by fellow North Carolinians and our country.

And that, Baby, is a blessing.

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A Writer Without Words

Good writers are supposed to have words, and avoid anything that sounds sensational or exaggerated. For the past several days I’ve had a hard time coming up with appropriate words. And though the sentences that have finally begun to take shape in my mind are most certainly dramatic, when I look at the destruction and devastation that surrounds me in my hometown, I assure you the thoughts and observations shared are not over-dramatic in the least. They are true. They are painful.

Last week, our rural area in Southeastern North Carolina experienced some of the worst of Hurricane Matthew. As Matthew spun toward the coasts of the Carolinas, residents were urged to move inland to safety. Lumberton, where I live, has long been considered one of the “safe” areas; we are 90 miles from the coast, located conveniently on Interstate 95, and have plenty of hotels. What no one knew was that Matthew’s wrath would move inland, causing historic flooding of catastrophic proportion. The Lumber River, named for its essential contribution to the town’s early industries of turpentine and logging, was already 1 foot above flood stage due to thunderstorms the prior week. During Hurricane Matthew, the river rose an additional 12 feet above its swollen banks – – – 4 feet above its historic high – – – heaving it’s churning, dark waters beyond its boundaries. Levees and dams were compromised, leaving homes and businesses in and out of flood zones underwater. Many still are. Thousands had to be evacuated and hundreds rescued by air and boat. The scenes around me echo that of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, only our county is not as densely populated.

All around me are images that I would never expect to see in this peaceful, slow-paced community.

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The recreation center, where my husband and I had our first date and danced our first dance as teenagers while Mr. Bill Sapp walked around shining his flashlight on swaying couples, has been turned into a shelter and feeding station.

The Sunday school classrooms that my sons and their friends once sat in at First Baptist Church, Lumberton, now houses a Disaster Relief Team of 50+ gracious Mennonites who are serving 1100 hot meals a day. They will leave in a month and our church will house their clean-up team. Then their construction team.

The junior high school we attended is underwater, and my husband drove 8 miles down a county road yesterday with water on each side as far as he could see.

The sound of sirens and helicopters is a familiar one, as rescue and recovery continues. Who knows what carnage is yet to be discovered.

People are texting and flooding Facebook with messages trying to locate their loved ones. At least those who have a source for charging their phones are. I found myself calling a national hotline to try to locate an 84-year-old family friend who was in one of the hardest hit neighborhoods. It took four days before we were told she was safe.

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There is no running water in Lumberton. The town’s water plant is underwater and its infrastructure destroyed. We are told it may be a month before we have a water source. Our neighbors and even friends miles away somberly carry buckets to our swimming pool to retrieve water for flushing their toilets. Then they return the next day. We try to be lighthearted about our “pool water flushing ministry”, but it really is no joke. Conversations about personal waste and hygiene are commonplace; no one, including myself – – – a self-professed “germaphobe” – – – is concerned about what is socially appropriate conversation. We all pee. We all poop. We have to find a way to survive as hygienically as possible in a world with no running water. There is no shame in that.

The employees at my father’s nursing facility have cared for their patients without water for the past week, hand carrying buckets of water from a retaining pond to flush toilets and mop floors. Some of the employees lost everything – – – their homes, all of their possessions, yet they are there working and taking care of others whom they consider more vulnerable. Thankfully, a FEMA water tanker arrived today to provide much-needed assistance.

As I meet folks who have lost everything, I see the shock and hollowness in their eyes. We were one of the poorest counties in our state before this happened. What will become of us now? Those that have the means will rebuild, but what about those who had little means before? It is going to take all of us and many beyond our borders to help.

My husband and I operate 7 McDonald’s restaurants in this area. We realize that our organization is critical to the economy in an already struggling economic environment. We are struggling to get as many of our restaurants open as possible, as we know that this will provide hope for our neighbors and essential work for our “McFamily”. We are checking on our staff, trying to determine those most affected and meet needs as best we can. And those dear people so want to be back in business! My husband had tears in his eyes last night as he told me about one employee who was rescued from his home and one of the few possessions he saved was his work uniform, because he wanted to be able to come to work. His restaurant and fellow crew members are community for him; it is a place to belong, to contribute, to feel normal – – – at least for a little while.

Those who fared better than others are volunteering: working in shelters entertaining restless children, sorting donations of clothing and personal items that are flowing in, collecting items and shepherding affected families, listening to stories of inspiring rescues and devastating loss. FEMA, the National Guard, law enforcement officers, utility workers, The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, local clergy, the Mennonites and North Carolina Baptist Men, Tide’s Loads of Hope, and too many others to name are working tirelessly to rescue, feed, comfort, house, repair, and they are exhausted and saddened. I can see it in their eyes. I recognize the same look in my own.

In the parking lots of shopping centers that had already seen better days even before the storm, long lines of haggard residents form as bags of food and clean water are handed out. Matthew was no respecter of socioeconomic class, race, or communities. People young and old, African-American, White, Native American, Hispanic, stand next to one another awaiting any help that is available. These are proud, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people who find themselves in an unbelievable situation and are trying to do the best they can.

While the storm has not magically washed away pre-existing prejudices and tensions between those who have and those who have not, it has leveled the ground in terms of shared humanity. Somehow seeing one another in wrinkled, sweaty clothes with no makeup and hair that has not been washed in a week makes us more connected to one another. I and others do see pockets of hope among the devastation, and they spur us on during these trying days. I wonder if the devastation of Hurricane Matthew will bring us together and eventually create greater understanding among our diverse community. And yet, while I hope this, I also know that this storm could either bring out the very worst or the very best in us. I pray it is the latter.

Lord, hear my prayer.