Hurricane Florence recovery more difficult for rural poor
Crystal Simmons broke into a smile and offered a loud thanks when she turned on the faucet in her kitchen sink Wednesday morning.
After two days without water, it had finally been restored following one of the most harrowing weekends she can remember
During Hurricane Florence, Simmons and her two children, who live in a small rental house on Old Wire Road in Marlboro County, lost water, power, telephone service and the road they depend on.
To compensate, they took sponge baths with bottled water, used a cellphone with spotty service and sat in the dark, using candles for light. When Old Wire Road collapsed in two places, Simmons drove an extra 20 minutes to reach her job as a night shift manager at the Hardee’s in Cheraw.
Simmons is among thousands of rural South Carolinians, many of them poor, who were hit hard by Hurricane Florence.
The storm took its toll on more affluent seaside communities, including Myrtle Beach. But its impact was worse for South Carolinians who live in places like Wallace, a tiny community near the Great Pee Dee River and the North Carolina border. Rather than evacuate to comfortable motels, many rural residents went to shelters as the storm punished their homes. Others stayed home, hoping the storm would pass.
This week, small frame houses and mobile homes sat flooded and battered across the Pee Dee, a sandy flat region of eastern South Carolina. Known for farming, stock car racing and deep swamps, the Pee Dee region also has plenty of poverty.
When a hurricane approaches Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island or Charleston “those people can just up and go,’’ Simmons said. “They can go to Florida or wherever they can go. (Then) they can collect insurance, pull up their carpet and redo their whole house.
“The average person, like me, can’t afford to do that.’’
Simmons, a 51-year-old single mother of two teenage children, said recovering from the storm will be a struggle. Her home was spared, but the extra 20 minutes that she now must drive to her job at Hardee’s will cost her extra money for gas. She also has had to buy a new cellphone because her home phone still isn’t working.
For someone earning $9 an hour, those expenses sting, she said.
“A storm, a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake — all natural disasters,” Simmons said. “I respect them because you never know how much force something has until you have actually lived through it.’’
Researchers at the Brookings Institute said this week that natural disasters have a particularly painful impact on the poor. Many are less able to withstand the economic shock, researchers Eleanor Krause and Richard Reeves wrote. Long after a big storm has passed, local poverty rates have a tendency to increase, the researchers said.
Even with federal disaster assistance, poorer communities still struggle, the institute said.
“Poor households affected by storm damage will likely confront the consequences for years to come,’’ Krause and Reeves wrote. “Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, residents whose homes flooded during the storm had lower credit scores and rates of home ownership than their neighbors who were spared the worst.’’
Jeremy Steen, a Marlboro County sheriff’s deputy who also operates the Wallace Water Co., said residents in his county are feeling the effects of Hurricane Florence more acutely than people who live in more affluent parts of South Carolina.
“Marlboro County is a low-income county,’’ Steen said. ”There’s not a lot of work here. Most of the industrial plants have closed.’’
Census statistics show Marlboro, with a population of less than 27,000, is among South Carolina’s 10 poorest counties.
Steen said many residents are retired and on fixed incomes, depending heavily on Social Security because they don’t have pensions to supplement their retirement income. Many struggle to pay their water bills. Now, they face the cost of repairing storm damage.
“They have to stretch what they have,’’ Steen said. “We try to work with them as best we can.’’
Simmons, who grew up in Charleston and moved to Wallace for its peaceful lifestyle, said she is hoping life soon returns to normal, now that Hurricane Florence is gone.
The local power company restored the electricity to Simmons’ home over the weekend and, on Wednesday, Wallace Water restored her drinking water.
It could be days before phone service is back and months before the state Department of Transportation fixes the two breaks in Old Wire Road.
But Simmons said she and her children will make it, even on their limited budget.
“I’m alive, and I’m grateful for life today,’’ Simmons said. “I could have been like (those) who died in this storm.’’