Sara Lofte is convinced Florence left everything in her mobile home in Pollocksville, N.C., underwater, including the dining room set she bought Sept. 3.
“I never got to sit in it; you know, cook a nice meal and sit in it,” she said.
Instead, the 79-year-old was eating dinner Sunday evening at the University’s Friday Center, a facility east of campus serving as a shelter for Florence evacuees.
“I see where we live. It’s underwater,” she said pointing at the television screens. “I know the area.”
UNC is Lofte’s third stop since Wednesday, when she left her home to brave Florence in a community shelter in Jones County. As the storm’s path changed last week, she was sent to another one in Fayetteville, and when an evacuation order was issued Saturday, she hopped on a bus to Chapel Hill.
About 200 of Florence’s refugees have checked into the state shelter on campus — many hoping it’ll be their last stop before returning home.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced the “mass shelter” would open on campus Friday. The governor and Chancellor Carol Folt shook hands with the refugees and volunteers at the shelter Sunday afternoon.
“It’s important for us to have these safe places for people to come because they are making the life decision to leave their homes and evacuate instead of staying there,” Cooper said. “We know that these shelters are important because people need a safe place to come.”
The American Red Cross is running the shelter, with dozens of volunteers in different roles — including nurses, cooks and translators.
Students and members of the community won’t be able to help out at the shelter since Red Cross volunteers must pass a background check and undergo training before they can assist with disaster relief. Dan Halyburton, a Red Cross spokesperson stationed at the shelter, suggested local nonprofits.
Translators who speak Swahili are in high demand, Halyburton said. At least a handful of families who sought refuge in Chapel Hill are Congolese immigrants.
Céline Chibalonza packed lightly on Wednesday before leaving her apartment in New Bern. A single mother of three, she left her hometown in the DRC eight months ago escaping violence in the country.
“They told us to move, the people we met here in the United States, told us, ‘You’re supposed to leave. It’s very dangerous,’” Chibalonza said.
She was in a Sanford shelter before a school bus dropped her off Saturday night in Chapel Hill. She’s grateful her kids are out of harm’s way but already misses the comforts of her home.
“For us, refugees, and people from Africa, the most inconvenient part (has) been the food. We’re not used to these foods.”
Since she lives in a second-floor apartment with her three children, Chibalonza isn’t too worried about her belongings getting soaked but is unsure how she’ll pay next months bills, as she’ll probably miss a week of work.
“Here in America if you don’t pay, you’re out,” she said. “I don’t want to think about it now.”
Although the shelter originally opened up for coastal evacuees, anyone seeking refuge can register as an occupant, said Cheryl Kocurek, who handles information and planning for the shelter.
“From individual conversations, I understand most of them are here because their homes are flooded,” Kocurek said.
Bonnie Knight and her husband came from Wisconsin two weeks ago and slept in a tent at Holly Point Campground in Wake Forest until authorities evacuated the park last week.
The Knights, and other locals experiencing homelessness, hopped around county shelters until they closed Sunday at noon.
“I’m just grateful to have a roof over my head,” she said. “A tent is just a piece of fabric that protects you from the elements.”
The Friday Center will operate the shelter for as long as is needed and can hold up to 500 refugees, said Kocurek.
Although the University is collecting supplies for hurricane victims, the Red Cross is only taking monetary donations at the time.
“We’ve been blessed because we have all the supplies that we need, but most people here are going to need recovery assistance,” Kocurek said.
Lofte, who’s been a widow for more than a year, is counting on aid to get back on her feet after this week.
“Maybe I’ll get some help from the government to find a place to live,” she said. “It’ll be a long time before we can go back."
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