For Chapel Hill's low-income residents, flooding is a constant reality
Kyrie and Michael Benton carry food and some of their waterlogged belongings through the grounds of Camelot Village apartments in Chapel Hill the morning of September 17, 2018. Chapel Hill had been seemingly spared the worst of Hurricane Florence but Sunday night into Monday morning saw a downpour of heavy rain that caused flash flooding around the Triangle. Camelot Village has seen flooding in the past but never to this degree, according to Kyrie and other residents of many years. "I lost everything in this flood," Kyrie said. Just as quickly as it flooded, the water began to recede late the same morning and early in the afternoon.
By the time he was able to open his blinds to alert the boat rescuing his neighbors, the water flooding Stuart Johnson’s apartment was knee-deep and quickly rising. A rescue worker pushed open the door, letting in even more brown water and pulled Johnson into the boat with four of his neighbors and a dog.
Johnson, a 53-year-old who receives government assistance to pay for rent, had prepared for flooding, stacking his television and microwave on top of his fridge, the highest point in his Camelot Village apartment. But no one had prepared him to come home days later to find his fridge toppled and all of his belongings destroyed and covered in mold.
“If they can’t put me in (an upstairs apartment), I need to find somewhere else to go,” Johnson said. “I’m sick, going back and forth to the doctor. I already have nerve damage, and my nerves won’t allow me to keep going through this.”
While hurricanes can't discriminate between communities based on income, their impacts disproportionately hit affordable and public housing.
In Chapel Hill, a large share of housing located on flood plains is locally or federally subsidized. That left low-income residents vulnerable to flooding during the heavy rainfall brought by Hurricane Florence.
“It’s a question of land value,” said William Rohe, director of the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies. “If an area is within a flood plain, it is going to be less valuable because people know that there is potential for flooding. You are more likely to see low-income people either buying that land and building on it, or developers buying that land and renting it to low-income people.”
Flooding in Camelot Village, an apartment complex in Chapel Hill that takes a federal housing voucher known as Section 8, is common and expected. Because of the complex’s position next to Bolin Creek, its residents were preemptively evacuated before Hurricane Florence was expected to hit on Sept. 13 and taken to the emergency shelter at Smith Middle School. The residents were allowed to return Sept. 15, when the worst of the storm seemed to have passed.
Chapel Hill was then hit by intense rain on Sunday, causing Bolin Creek to flood low-lying areas. By Monday morning, all Camelot Village residents were again in an emergency shelter, this time at the Friday Center. They were later moved to a shelter in Hillsborough to make room for evacuees coming from the coast.
Ridgefield Apartments, Brookwood Condominiums, Booker Creek Townhouse Apartments and Airport Gardens — a public housing community — were also evacuated because of flooding in the early hours of Sept. 17.
In total, 57 of 70 Camelot Village apartments were damaged due to Hurricane Florence. Orange County Human Services Manager Lindsey Shewmaker said the Red Cross is still assessing the financial impact of the damage.
“It’s going to be a pretty long process,” Shewmaker said.
Orange County is working with community partners to aid residents in the process of rebuilding their apartments. However, many residents are unsure about their future living arrangements.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Frankie Fuller, a 61-year-old Camelot Village resident. “I can’t stay there; (my apartment) is demolished. The only thing I might be able to save is my fishing box.”
In the chaos of the evacuation, Fuller lost his phone. As of Sept. 19, he had been unable to contact his daughter or the nurse that visits his apartment.
Fuller was unsure if he had flood insurance, and said he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to afford returning to his apartment.
Despite the recurrent flooding, most residents plan to stay because Camelot Village is one of the most affordable apartment complexes in Chapel Hill. For now, they’ll try to rebuild and recover; then, they’ll wait for the next storm.