AmeriCorps volunteers build new home for Columbus County family affected by hurricanes

By Ben Rappaport 

The thwacking of nail guns against wooden beams and the buzzing of a power saw cutting down planks created a cacophony of construction. 

Just off a dirt road outside the Columbus County town of Cerro Gordo, a group of young people built the foundation for what will soon become a tiny home. They worked on the project for three weeks as part of their service in AmeriCorps, a national volunteer organization. 

Get our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Once completed, the house will be donated to a Cerro Gordo family currently living in a damaged mobile home adjacent to the construction site, where the family has resided for several years. The goal is to provide a stable shelter for one family still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. 

The future homeowner declined to be interviewed by the Border Belt Independent, citing privacy concerns.

Volunteers are stepping up to fill the gaps as families continue to deal with the bureaucracy of disaster recovery. In partnership with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, eight AmeriCorps volunteers between the ages of 18 and 26 from all over the country came to Columbus County at the beginning of January through the National Civilian Community Corps, which focuses its efforts on climate change mitigation, building affordable housing and disaster response.

AmeriCorps team members, from left, Stephen Swain, Rachel McKay, Eli Wright and Sarah Baumann put muscle into one of the walls to make a precise fit. (Photo by Les High)

Sarah Baumann, the leader of the team hailing from Portland, Maine, said the tiny home project was impactful because it incorporates all three pillars the National Civilian Community Corps aims to address.    

“It’s been really awesome,” she said. “We’ve gotten to know the homeowner, and know all the intricate parts of their lives. I think it’s nice to connect more with the community here.”

For Cassidy Chambers, a fellow member of the team, the tiny home project is especially personal. She has lived in Leland since 2016, less than an hour’s drive from the work site, and has vivid memories of the devastation Florence left in her community. 

“I feel like I have more of a stake in what we’re doing,” Chambers said. “Being able to help someone here is like being able to help the friends I couldn’t help before.”

She said several of her friends lost homes in the storm, and others were forced into hotels for extended periods because of the damages.

A wall is erected at the new home. (Photo by Les High)

In Columbus County, nearly 23 inches of rain flooded the county seat of Whiteville during Hurricane Florence, leaving downtown businesses under 4 feet of water. In the Crusoe community, less than 40 miles east of Cerro Gordo, 116 Coast Guard floodwater rescues were performed.

North Carolina reported 42 fatalities due to the hurricane — including one in Columbus County — and damage estimates of $16.7 billion, according to the National Weather Service. An estimated 74,563 structures were flooded and 5,214 people were reportedly rescued from flooding. Nearly 140,000 people across the state registered for disaster assistance after the storm. 

ReBuild NC, the state government organization responsible for building and repairing homes damaged in natural disasters, has completed 1,690 projects as of last month. More than 2,700 projects, however, are still stranded in the system. Of those, 417 have work underway, 1,156 are under contract, and 1,206 are earlier in the process. The organization has been criticized for its slow processes and lack of accountability, with some reports showing the organization has wasted federal funding, NC Newsline reported.

While one tiny home in Columbus County is only a drop in the bucket of the widespread disaster recovery needed in southeastern North Carolina, its impact on the Cerro Gordo family moving in is life-changing.

In just three weeks the Americorps team built walls, laid the brickwork and set up the house to be close to completion. 

The tiny home is the first project of its kind for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh. Daniel Altenau, director of communications, said Columbus County was an appropriate area to test the idea given the budget and the family’s needs.

Eli Wright gives a fist bump to a teammate after they erected a wall for the house. (Photo by Les High)

While Catholic Charities disaster recovery projects typically focus on repairs, the damage to the existing mobile home was so extensive that it required a home replacement.

“There’s often a short period of time right after a hurricane hits that an area, like Columbus County, receives a lot of media attention,” said Rachel McKay, 20, an AmeriCorps volunteer. “But the reality is it often takes five or more years for things to return to normalcy for those affected.”

McKay has volunteered with several disaster recovery projects during her six months with AmeriCorps, including traveling to Maui, Hawaii, after wildfires ravaged the island last August.

Many families in southeastern North Carolina are still struggling with hurricane recovery, Altenau said.  

“Our goal as an agency is to help families get into safe and stable housing,” he said. “Many families are living in homes that are filled with mold, still have windows broken, still have the exterior walls with holes and damage to them.” 

Julia Lopez passes a timber to a teammate. (Photo by Les High)

Alongside government delays, organizations that assist in the immediate aftermath of disasters often do not have the grant funding to continue the work necessary to help every family, Altenau said.

This isn’t the first time Catholic Charities and AmeriCorps have teamed up for a disaster recovery project in the state. Last April, the two organizations partnered for a similar disaster recovery project in Wilmington. Altenau said the success of that project created a shared desire for future partnerships.

Prior to joining AmeriCorps last July, McKay said she had never held a drill or used a hammer, and she’d certainly never built an entire house. But at the construction site in Cerro Gordo, she directed others on the proper technique for using a nail gun. The work she’s done through AmeriCorps, McKay said, has helped her personal growth, and made an important community impact.

“As AmeriCorps, we do not decide what the community needs,” McKay said. “We listen to what the community wants us to do, and we serve them as best we can.”

Cassidy Chambers makes sure the timbers she’s carrying don’t swing around a hit someone in the head. (Photo by Les High)