ROCKY MOUNT, N.C.— Like many trailer parks around here, the King's Way in Little Easonburg sits in a serious flood zone. For this reason, neighbors Mae Powell, Marcella Smith, and Reathella Richardson find themselves gathered around a book of word-search puzzles at Englewood Baptist Church, waxing rhapsodic about the food.
"I ate more here than I ever ate at home," Mae says. "These people feed you so much."
Reathella mmms her agreement. "Almost suppertime, and I ain't hungry yet." Meals at Englewood come in many forms. The Red Cross delivers some prepared meals as well as cold staples; Chick-fil-A provided 40 sandwich combos at a steep discount; on Friday morning, Hardee's donated 55 sausage biscuits; the Westridge Grill brought gallons of sweet tea. Best of all was last night's dinner: a pulled-pork meal with trimmings donated by the Arlington Baptist Church down the way. (Arlington had planned a pig-pickin' fundraiser, canceled due to seriously inclement weather.)
I've spent the morning driving around with the Red Cross in Wilson, N.C., visiting shelters and makeshift command centers set up to house evacuees from Hurricane Irene. In between, I've tuned into WNCT 107.9, which is collecting reports, jokes, and grievances from across eastern Carolina. Betty in Elizabeth City gives thanks to God for such abundant deliverance from the forest fire in the Great Dismal Swamp. Earl in Greenville complains that "morons" have been joyriding pickup trucks through flood zones.
When not praising the food, Mae and her friends swap memories of hurricanes past. "The fire department came knocking on Thursday night," Raethella says. "They were comparing her to Hazel." She nods, remembering October 1954, when Hurricane Hazel coiled its way up the state. (She was 5.) "I guess that's what scared me."
Mae and Marcella, meanwhile, have spent the morning sweeping the floor and bringing food to those in wheelchairs. Mae has also kept busy playing babysitter for a lady who arrived at the shelter with two great-grandchildren in tow.
"They're napping right now," she says. "And I don't want to wake them up, but those kids need to run around. Else there's no way they're sleeping tonight."
The Raleigh Road Baptist Church—the main shelter in Wilson—isn't yet at capacity, but it hosted 160 people last night and took in another 20 this morning. The food situation is like the one at Englewood. The Pizza Inn on Raleigh Road donated 21 pies. A local coffeeshop brought doughnuts and doughnut holes. Today they cooked up 160 hot dogs. Brenda Pender, a volunteer coordinator at Wilson Red Cross, takes a phone inventory on dinner. "Mark it down," she calls with a measure of triumph, "175 chicken plates from Major Waller at the Salvation Army." As at Englewood, the vast majority of the crowd is Hispanic. There are also seven exchange students from Romania. Things are quiet, all things considered, but everyone's busy. Weather permitting, there will be a service tomorrow.
Gaby Alvarez, 17, is a junior at Beddingfield High School and a parishioner at this church, and today she finds herself acting as chief translator for the shelter. She signs in non-English-speakers (of which there are many) and fills the other usual roving-ambassadorial roles. She is unfazed by the job.
"We came from Palominos," she says, referring to a nearby trailer park that she evacuated with her mother around 5 p.m. last night. Palominos is also on a flood plain. "I brought my binder and my schoolbooks—you know, biology, geometry, English 3."
Less worldly kids play table tennis and pool, while the younger ones take advantage of the ample arts and crafts materials from the Sunday school. Gaby makes quick work out of her sign-in duties but allows herself one complaint about the shelter: "It's really boring."
The only person at the Wilson shelter who refuses to sleep indoors is the Rev. Hans Myors.
Myors spends six to 10 months of the year biking around the country on his touring recumbent bike, named "Alice," and since April has covered nearly 5,000 miles. Among his ballast on the trip is a sturdy REI tent that he has pitched, to the skepticism of the staff, in the rear courtyard of the building.