On Wednesday, as Air Force One touched down at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, and taxied past the twisted scaffolding and shredded tarps of temporary airplane hangars, the federal government’s response to the aftermath of Hurricane Florence began in earnest. For President Donald Trump and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), this was a chance to rebound from their chaotic response to Hurricane Maria, last year. After that Category 4 hurricane devastated Puerto Rico, leaving most of the island without drinking water or electricity, the President lobbed rolls of paper towels to survivors at a church in San Juan; ten thousand containers of relief supplies were held up in the capital’s main port for days; eleven months passed before the power grid functioned—which happened only after Puerto Rico cancelled the contract of a small and inexperienced Montana electrical firm whose ties to the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, and Trump-campaign donors had raised concerns about insider dealing. Three thousand Puerto Ricans died from the storm, according to the revised government count based on an independent analysis done by the Milken Institute School of Public Health, at George Washington University.
Trump resurfaced these controversies as Florence approached, tweeting that his Administration had done “an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico” and that Democrats had inflated “6 to 18 deaths” to “make me look as bad as possible.” The mayor of San Juan responded that Trump was “delusional.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a Republican, said that he saw “no reason to dispute” Puerto Rico’s official death toll, but added, “Those are just the facts of what happens when a horrible hurricane hits an isolated place like an island.”
Inside one of Cherry Point’s cavernous aircraft hangars, the President sat at the center of a conference table, arranged between a row of TV cameras and a fighter jet. North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, its two senators, a congressman, two generals, the head of a major power company, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and the administrator of FEMA, William (Brock) Long, all assembled to brief the President on their efforts. “The job you’ve done has been incredible,” Trump told the officials. He paused at one point to ask a North Carolina official, “And how is Lake Norman, that area?” After receiving a positive report, he responded, “I love that area. I can’t tell you why, but I love that area.” The Trump National Golf Club is situated there. Trump then told Cooper, “This area has been very badly damaged, but we’ll get it up and working again, Governor, very quickly.”
After the news conference, Trump and his entourage convoyed twenty miles north, to New Bern, a city of twenty-nine thousand, where hundreds of people had been rescued from a ten-foot storm surge and flooding from the Neuse River. At Temple Baptist Church, the President handed out Styrofoam containers of hot dogs and peas to a drive-through line of cars, thanking people who said they had voted for him, and asking, “How’s your house?” Touring flood-ravaged neighborhoods, Trump stared in wonder at a yacht swept up on a lawn, and asked the homeowner, “Is this your boat?” On learning that it wasn’t, the President grinned and said, “At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.”
State and local officials in North Carolina have so far been complimentary of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Florence. “We’ve got a long road ahead,” Governor Cooper told Trump at the military base. “All of these federal agencies are going to have to help us in cutting red tape and making sure we can be smart about this rebuilding process.” Two years before, Hurricane Matthew had killed twenty-five people and damaged ninety-eight thousand homes across North Carolina. Afterward, the state was awarded grants totalling more than three hundred million dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but, as of August, 2018, almost none of the funds had been disbursed. Some of the towns devastated by Hurricane Matthew, such as Lumberton, North Carolina, had flooded as a result of Hurricane Florence before getting any substantial rebuilding help from FEMA.
That afternoon, as Trump helicoptered to view the damage in South Carolina, government teams were transitioning from rescue to rebuilding operations. Larry McAlister, a forty-six-year-old sergeant with the New York City Police Department, toured the same collapsed houses and curbside piles of flood-damaged drywall and carpet in New Bern that Trump had been shown. McAlister was in charge of one of fourteen FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces from across the nation that had been deployed to the area. According to the White House, thirty-eight hundred federal employees, including a thousand from FEMA, were participating in the response. “During the storm, we helped local officials perform swift-water rescues with boats and ropes,” McAlister said, adding that his team had saved thirty-eight people in a single day. They were still on standby, as the rain that Hurricane Florence had dumped upstate drained toward New Bern. But so far that afternoon McAlister had simply driven around and catalogued the damage for subsequent FEMA responders. “We’re just the tip of the spear,” he said.
McAlister stopped his truck in front of a flooded house, where a group of four people stood out front, surveying the damage. Michael Burke, an eighty-one-year-old retiree, his sixty-nine-year-old wife, Amy Burke, and their neighbors Jerry and Sally Antonellis, had all gone inland to escape the storm. They returned to find that the top floors of their houses, which are built on stilts, had survived, but their sheds and garages below had been reduced to scrap metal and broken wood; a riding lawnmower chained to a pillar had been swept away. McAlister asked if they needed any help. Michael thanked him. They were still waiting for their power to be turned back on, he said, but “we’re pretty resilient and fixing things ourselves.”
After McAlister and the rest of his team drove off, the conversation among the neighbors turned to what would happen next. “Our FEMA guy’s coming tomorrow to tally the damage,” Amy Burke said. “I’m so naïve about this process, anything FEMA does to help will be O.K. I wish I knew more about what will happen. We’re depending on rumors.”
“We’re just hoping they do a better job than with Maria,” Sally Antonellis said.
The Burkes took me across the road, to their house. A pontoon boat and a bay boat rested on top of a cluster of bushes, and their back deck, which had ripped off, now lay fifty yards from the house. “Still, we’re blessed to be able to go out on our front deck and see a fair amount of beauty,” Michael Burke said, looking across the road to the placid waters of the Neuse River. He hoped that the government wouldn’t take too long rebuilding the city, because “I don’t know if it’s guaranteed that I’ll still be here in ten years to enjoy it.” He added, “We’ve been paying taxes to FEMA for years, so hopefully they pay it back now.”
In downtown New Bern, at the Country Biscuit —“Real Food for Real Folks Since 1978”—John Harvey, a twenty-two-year-old waiter, was not optimistic about a fast government rebuild. “We’ll just have to take care of ourselves,” he said, “if we can expect what happened to Puerto Rico.” Outside, Louis Jones, a seventy-two-year-old man wearing socks but no shoes, had maneuvered his motorized wheelchair up to the restaurant’s drive-through window. “I’ve been through a damn lot of hurricanes,” he said. “The government gonna do what they gonna do. But we’re gonna do what we got to do ourselves.” On a nearby street, Emily Drake, thirty-five, and her seven-year-old daughter, Lainey, waved homemade signs that proclaimed, “New Bern Strong” and “Honk if You Love New Bern.” “I think it will be a slow recovery,” Drake said, “and most of it will come from inside.”
Elizabeth Thayer is a forty-year-old professional clarinetist who lives with her family on the outskirts of New Bern, in a community called Carolina Pines. Her husband, Paul, is an active-duty military service member and sustained a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. They have two children, eight and nine years old, one of whom has Asperger’s syndrome. Thayer was in Beaufort, South Carolina, with the kids, when the hurricane arrived; her husband, who was in New Bern, evacuated to Orlando, Florida. He was the first to return home this week. “It’s been hard to get a sense of the damages,” she told me. But on Monday, with the help of a neighbor who had stayed back in New Bern and taken photograph of her home, Thayer had applied for FEMA aid, citing wind, electrical, and water damage.
Her past hurricane experiences had not been easy. In 2011, Irene hit Carolina Pines badly. “And we got nothing from FEMA,” she said. “A neighbor got us a few cases of water. That was it. FEMA ignored people outside of municipalities, and those with property insurance. We couldn’t receive help. Not even the very basics.” She went on, optimistic about the response from Trump’s FEMA team. She described herself as a Trump supporter. “They’ve got a much better process in place now,” she said. “The woman I spoke with yesterday told me, ‘You call, we’ll make it happen. You’ll have childcare. Even if you don’t have printed receipts, we’ll take care of you.’ I’m taking her word on that.”
After returning to New Bern, Thayer went straight to the Food Lion and spent eighty dollars on groceries. “I haven’t been able to work much,” she said, “but we need supplies.” Next came Harris Teeter, for free ice and water. A final stop at Temple Baptist Church, where they’d heard food was being handed out, turned out to be fruitless. It was all gone.
A few hours later, we spoke again. Thayer’s FEMA aid request had been formally denied. “Harris Teeter has our back,” she said. “FEMA, not so much. I was told yesterday that they’d provide what we needed. And they won’t.” She went on, clearly upset. “On a scale of one to ten, I feel like a negative fourteen. My blood pressure has skyrocketed. I’m drinking tea right now, that helps some.”
She was worried, she said, about protesting too much. “My husband, he can’t do too much complaining about the federal government because it comes back down the chain of command to haunt him.” She continued, “But where can I get food? We can’t drive seventeen miles to New Bern to get dinner tonight. It’s too far and too expensive. The lady on the phone said, ‘Well, you can contact your local organizations. Try the American Red Cross. Salvation Army.’ She also said that if within thirty days your insurance cannot provide a supplement for you—and you can prove that—then they’d reopen my claim. But I can’t wait that long. I have non-sufficient funds in my checking account right now. We have almost no money left. It’s the 19th and we have to make it until payday, on the 30th.”
Reached a day later, on Thursday evening, Thayer had an eighteen-inch electric chainsaw in hand when she picked up her phone. Trees were down in her yard and the power hadn’t been restored.. “They’re price-gouging,” she said, referring to the tree specialists in the area. “So I decided I’ll just do it myself.” There was a problem with the blade, she said, fiddling with it. “I’m gonna try to re-set it when I get off with you. I have one left.”