KINGSTREE, S.C. - A world away from South Carolina's booming coastal resorts, hundreds of homes remain unrepaired in the county hardest hit by last year's floods. Now they're getting one last push of help.
A Christian group of about 1,500 carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other volunteers that formed in response to Hurricane Katrina is on its way to Williamsburg County, where flooding damaged 28 per cent of the homes badly enough to qualify for federal aid.
"We're coming here to rebuild homes and help their souls out too," said Steve Tybor III, the president and co-founder of Eight Days of Hope, which aims to fix 150 homes with mouldy walls, leaky roofs and holes in their flooring.
The volunteers are responding to a critical need. As wide-scale weather disasters become the new normal, rural communities like Williamsburg County are being left behind not so much by federal and state officials, but by the skilled workers they need to repair their homes. Most repairmen followed the money to urban areas, or to the next disaster.
The nearly two feet of rain that swamped the state last October caused the slow-flowing, tea-colored Black River to rise 18 feet in five days, cresting at double its flood stage, three feet above what anyone alive had ever seen.
Willette Thompson's mobile home still isn't right. The rain damaged her roof, there's mould in her walls, and the moisture created two holes in her floor that she covers with rugs and bottles of water. Federal disaster money paid for replacement flooring and a new front door, but they remain in boxes, unopened. The contractor she hired stopped returning her calls long ago.
County officials say many hundreds of the 3,349 homes that received Federal Emergency Management Agency money still aren't fixed.
Most of the homes that suffered the worst damage have been abandoned or demolished. But homes that weren't damaged beyond repair remain inhabited, even though they could be full of dangerous mould or safety hazards after water settled into drywall, roofs and foundations.
These people are the ones struggling to find help.
"You have to have a place to live," Thompson said. "But you do worry about what you can't see."
Williamsburg County suffered the worst damage of any South Carolina county by far. About 28 per cent of households qualified for federal aid, including more than a third of the mobile homes. No other county had more than 17 per cent of its homes damaged.
And Williamsburg was hurting for resources long before the disaster. The population is 65 per cent black and the median income is $16,000 below the South Carolina average, which is already near the bottom among U.S. states. The county covers three times the land of New York City, but it's too far from the interstate or the coast to attract repair companies.
In Richland County, which includes South Carolina's capital Columbia, only 5 per cent of homes received federal damage help, but that represents nearly twice as many homes as were damaged in Williamsburg County, guaranteeing steady pay for contractors and convenient work for volunteers.
Williamsburg did see its share of aid groups, but many packed up and left for West Virginia after June floods forced 8,800 people to seek FEMA help there. Many of the rest left last month, after flooding in Louisiana damaged more than 84,000 homes, Williamsburg County Emergency Management Division spokesman Jeff Singleton said.
The eight-day project organized by the Tupelo, Mississippi-based Eight Days of Hope is the charity's 12th such effort.
The charity's volunteers began arriving in Williamsburg and neighbouring Georgetown County two weeks early, scoping out which houses needed help, and what supplies and workers were needed for $425,000 in repairs, all paid for through donations of money, labour and materials.
The state is helping with a list of people in need. Local governments are relaxing licensing requirements for contractors and making building permits easier to get.
At Thompson's home, they filled a dozen sheets of paperwork, and took pictures as she peeled away rugs to show the damage. Todd Kandell also paused to pray with her, and they thanked to Lord for His provisions in good times and bad.
"We call it hope for a reason. I went to the first one after Katrina and on the way home, I suddenly realized how all the skills I have learned in my life were meant to help out people like this," said Kandell, who owns a siding company in Millersburg, Ohio.
In a few months, he figures he'll be back in Louisiana for more.
The recent flooding in Louisiana hit too close to home for Singleton. He worked 57 straight days after last year's deluge, and with his emergency management co-workers had to get creative. As donations poured in and people begged for help, they managed to convert a closed Firestone tire plant into a drive-right-in supplier of donated items.
The TV in the Williamsburg Emergency Management Office is almost always on The Weather Channel or the news, so when Singleton saw that Louisiana floodwaters had swamped all but the roofs of homes in August, he flashed back to those terrible days at home a year ago.
His boss, Tiffany Cooks, knew what they needed to do. They recruited some co-workers and carried buckets out to stoplights across the county, collecting nearly $5,000 in the late August heat for Louisiana flood aid.
"We got help," Singleton said. "And now they need it more than we do."
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