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Hurricane Matthew: 6 Months later; Catholic Charities finds its niche helping families begin again


Sommer Taylor had just walked in the door from her overnight shift at a retail store. It was 6 a.m,. and her children, asleep in their room, would be up soon. She had news for them. A hurricane—Matthew—was on its way.

Originally from Oklahoma, the Taylors had only lived in North Carolina a few months. They knew about tornadoes but had never seen a hurricane. They visited news sites and social media and heeded the message: Evacuate.

“Everyone told us that Leland was in a low-lying area,” Mrs. Taylor, 30, said of the town where they lived in early October.

With a better-safe-than-sorry mentality, the family packed some bags and left their rented mobile home. They planned to stay two days in Raleigh. They stayed three. They planned on a 2.5-hour drive home. They found a 12-hour journey due to flooded roads. They hoped to return to the house they left. Instead, they found a mess.

“Literally, it stunk. I don’t know how to explain it,” Mrs. Taylor said of the smell in the mobile home.

That same odor was permeating other properties in central and eastern North Carolina, the main area impacted when Hurricane Matthew brushed past the shoreline Oct. 8, 2016.

The family tried to “stick it out,” but staying in their mobile home wasn’t an option. Mold was growing in the kids’ bedroom, Mrs. Taylor said, and the hot water heater had busted. Family photos and household tools were destroyed. The loss of electricity meant a loss of the food in the fridge. She and her husband, Shane, 33, threw away beds, stuffed animals and clothes.  

They moved into a motel. Looking back at the transition, Mrs. Taylor paused and said it was positive because it allowed her and her husband to get back to work. With two children not yet in school, the couple’s regular schedule was opposite shifts. She worked nights; he worked days.

Living in one room wasn’t ideal, but they were thankful for shelter. Meals sometimes came from the kitchen of a generous friend but often were prepared in a microwave in their room. The kids, ages 3 and 1 at the time, learned how to shower because there was no bathtub.

Motel living came with a cost beyond the daily rate, which tallied up to about $1,000 a month. Each morning when Mrs. Taylor came home from work, the kids inevitably woke up as soon as the door opened. She cared for them and awaited nap time, which—for her and the kids—arrived just after lunch. While there was no privacy at the motel, the close quarters equated to more time together as a family.

“We got to cuddle every night,” Mrs. Taylor smiled about her time with the kids. “We read a lot of books.”

The Taylors took life day by day and took a suggestion from an employer, who mentioned that they may want to contact Catholic Charities for assistance getting into more permanent housing. Catholic Charities responded.

“[Case worker] Patricia [Gutierrez] came out and visited us at the motel in November,” Mrs. Taylor said. “She asked if she could help with Christmas. I’d never had to ask before for help in my life.”

Catholic Charities linked the family with a tennis team that adopted them for Christmas and sent food, clothing and toys.

Representatives from Catholic Charities called every week to see what the family needed. “They knew Shane and I were sharing a car, so if there was anything we needed, they’d bring it out to me while he was at work. They brought it straight to the doorstep,” Mrs. Taylor said.

The family worked to recuperate the costs they incurred during the hurricane. And they faced a most important task: to find a home again. Catholic Charities had a list of apartments for them to go through, but the income and credit requirements were hard to meet.

“In many of the areas that were impacted, affordable housing was already a challenge before the hurricane,” Daniel Altenau, communications director for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, said. “Then the hurricane came through and damaged so many of the lower income areas.”

According to the N.C. Department of Public Safety, more than 1,700 families in the state were living in temporary housing in the wake of the hurricane. While some of those were homeowners who would be assisted by other means and other agencies, some were renters living on limited incomes.

It was with renters, like the Taylor family, that Catholic Charities found its niche.

“In response to Hurricane Matthew, we had the flexibility with our funds to say, ‘OK, what groups are falling through the cracks?’ We were able to identify that it was going to be a challenge for renters, and so we have been focusing on that,” Mr. Altenau said.

The challenge was, in part, about finances. “Putting together the paperwork to apply for an apartment and getting first month’s rent and a security deposit together … those one-time moving costs are high when you have spent your savings on just surviving for six months,” Mr. Altenau explained.

When the Taylors found an available apartment in March that fit their needs and budget, Catholic Charities helped with a financial gift to cover the deposit and first month’s rent. They also provided furniture and household supplies.

“While I know the family is appreciative for the ‘things and funds’ we provided them, they frequently express what it has meant to have someone to listen, someone to brainstorm with and someone to provide them with a little bit of hope,” Emilie Hart, regional director of Catholic Charities in the Cape Fear region, said.

For the Taylors, the six months in the motel were tough, but affirmed their faith.

“Shane and I supported each other. And he called his mom to talk. We cried and prayed; that’s about all we could have done,” Mrs. Taylor said. “We know there is a higher power who protects us. And people helped.”

Today from her apartment near Carolina Beach, Mrs. Taylor can reflect on the experience with Catholic Charities.

“They felt like friends,” she said. “If you need help, don’t be scared to ask. After you get over the first initial worrying about what others will think, it’s wonderful.”

The Taylor children—Cattelya, 4, and Shane, Junior, 2—have not only a yard to play in but a nearby coastline. They often walk to the beach, a short trip that takes them past the motel where they lived for months, and pick up seashells.

They keep the shells in a glass container at the house, and Catt loves to show off the acquisitions to visitors.  

“Catt … her smile and giggles are the just the cutest, and I’m sure they helped her parents stay sane when their situation was looking so grim after the storm,” Mrs. Hart said. “Recently, I made a home visit, and when I got out of my car, I could hear the kids playing outside. They were running around and making mud pies with their mom.  Just hearing and seeing that made me delighted and gave me hope about their future. It almost feels miraculous … housing is something so many of us take for granted.”

Hurricane Matthew, the last 6 months

Hurricane Matthew brushes the N.C. coastline Oct. 8, and brings record flooding to the state over the next week. Inland flooding, downed trees, road and highway closures take a toll on the state. Catholic Charities partners with other agencies to address immediate needs such as food, water, diapers and cleaning supplies.

Assisted by generous donations from parishes and individuals, Catholic Charities continues to offer goods and gift cards to those impacted. Five employees from Catholic Charities offices in other states visit the Diocese of Raleigh for two weeks to help with case work.

Catholic Charities helps families through the Christmas holiday and connects them with resources.

As FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance program, which provides short-term lodging assistance, begins to phase out, Catholic Charities sees a surge of clients looking for rental assistance.

Catholic Charities settles into the busy routine of helping families to find viable rental options. Tallies show that $1,044,330 has been raised to help Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Raleigh respond to the needs of those impacted by the hurricane. In addition to the gifts of those in the diocese, the faithful from the Diocese of Arlington, the Diocese of Charlotte, Catholic Charities U.S.A. and other sources supported the recovery effort and donated.  

Catholic Charites continues to offer long-term assistance. To date, the organization has served 1,650 individuals in North Carolina. “This is the slow recovery period. With a disaster like this, I have heard estimates of the recovery process for some families being four to five years,” Daniel Altenau said. “There’s much more need out there. We are grateful and excited to be able to help, but what we have raised will only sustain us for so long.”