'Most of us are lost’: Shelter residents forced to move again after warehouse declared unsafe

'Most of us are lost’: Shelter residents forced to move again after warehouse declared unsafe
More than 140 people who have been in a shelter since Hurricane Florence hit southeastern North Carolina last month will have to move twice in a matter of days, after local government rejected the use of a shelter location in Leland. (Source: WECT)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - More than 140 residents who have been out of their homes and in shelters since Hurricane Florence hit southeastern North Carolina last month have had to move between three shelters in about 24 hours.

Residents of New Hanover County were moved from John T. Hoggard High School to a warehouse in Leland and finally to either Christ the King Church on North College Road or Harbor United Methodist Church on Masonboro Loop Road.

The mix-up appears to be a miscommunication between The American Red Cross, Brunswick County officials, and people associated with the warehouse in Leland.

“I think they’re really unorganized. There’s a lot of miscommunication between not only each other, but also them and us," said Bridget Williams, who said she learned about the latest shelter transition from a friend who is also in the shelter.

“Most of us are lost... If we didn’t have our friends to tell us, we wouldn’t have known,” said Williams.

First Move: From a high school to a warehouse

This moving mix-up began when New Hanover County Schools needed to prepare the original shelter at Hoggard High School for its re-opening as an educational facility Thursday.

James Jarvis with the American Red Cross said the organization began looking for another shelter and learned about a warehouse on Mercantile Drive in Leland from a former board member. A person associated with the warehouse agreed to accept people in the building as a shelter, said Jarvis.

People began moving to the warehouse shelter at about 5 p.m. Tuesday, but Brunswick County officials said they were not notified until after the fact.

“No application for the use of this, or any other building, as a shelter were submitted to Brunswick County. The shelter was not authorized by any official of Brunswick County,” said Ann Hardy, county manager with Brunswick County.

“At no time, did my staff receive any professional courtesy prior to the transition of the individuals to the shelter,” said Hardy.

Brunswick County authorities provided WECT with copies of letters sent to the American Red Cross Wednesday. In one letter to the warehouse managers, Brunswick County Code Administration Director Michael Slate ordered an immediate evacuation of the warehouse after citing numerous state code violations, including an access door to the electrical room being removed due to excessive heat buildup, increased load on the heating, air and ventilation systems and an increased demand on existing bathroom facilities, among other things.

“There are multiple life safety legal violations with the use of this building to house people. In addition, the owner of the building was not aware that the shelter was being established,” said Hardy.

The American Red Cross, which is running the shelter, said it was told early Wednesday that it would not be allowed to use the space because it is zoned industrial.

Move Two: From a warehouse to churches

Residents got the news they would be moved again to a new shelter during lunch Wednesday, with buses arriving later that afternoon to move them to an as yet undetermined location.

Jarvis said the Red Cross worked with county officials to identify the two latest shelters.

Christ the King on North College Road is now the latest shelter for most of the residents, while those with functional needs or mobility issues are staying at Harbor United Methodist Church on Masonboro Loop Road.

These two shelters will remain open for the next 30 days with the possibility of being renewed, said Jarvis.

At about 6 p.m., two buses organized by the Red Cross arrived with people at Christ the King church for a hot meal. Others arrived through their own transportation

“A friend of mine, actually, that’s staying in the shelter also, she called me frantic, and just said, ‘Stephanie, I got a telephone call. They moved all of our stuff.’" explained Stephanie Faircloth, who has been living in shelters for more than two weeks.

“The Red Cross didn’t inform me, unfortunately. They had packed up our belongings, and that’s unfortunately how I found out,” said Faircloth, who wants Red Cross leaders to be more organized and communicate better with people in shelters.

Faircloth said she has no idea when she will be able to return to her home, which has flooding, black mold, and a tree through the roof.

“It’s very scary to be displaced. Number one from a hurricane. I do have to say, the New Hanover County employees were in charge at Hoggard High School. And they did a fantastic job. They made us feel comfortable, made us feel as homey as possible. It’s been very iffy with the Red Cross to be honest with you. I’ve felt displaced, again, all over again, since they’ve taken over and it’s just very sad. And I look around at my fellow human beings, and it just really disheartens me," said Faircloth.

Jason Broughton lost his home in Carolina Beach and has lived in shelters at Noble Middle School and Hoggard High before this warehouse in Leland. He was surprised to hear the news Wednesday. He did not hear the information that was reportedly shared during lunch.

“This is insane. This is crazy," Jason Broughton said. "This needs to be handled ahead of time. This needs to be figured out and taken care of. When you’re caring for human beings' lives, you need to get your stuff straight. That’s all there is too it. I’m not knocking what they’re doing, but they’re just not doing a good job. Whoever is in charge is not, not organizing their stuff.”

“We’re really sorry that we’re having to move these residents one more time," James Jarvis with the American Red Cross said. "That was certainly not our intention. We had an agreement with the property owner here. We had notified the proper authorities. But ultimately it comes down to a zoning issue and we understand that and we respect that.”

RAW: Interview with James Jarvis of the Red Cross

“We had been under the understanding that when you’re dealing with an emergency sheltering situation that there may be some leeway, but we now understand that’s not the case," Jarvis commented Wednesday.

In fact, Brunswick County Planning Director Kirstie Dixon did note in one correspondence to County Manager Ann Hardy that temporary emergency shelters are a permitted use in all zoning districts, but only during states of emergency. Brunswick County lifted its state of emergency Wednesday morning at 9:30. A county spokesperson says that decision was made only after consultation with FEMA. The federal agency advised that once rescue efforts are completed and the efforts have moved to recovery it is fine to lift a state of emergency, according to the county spokesperson.

Of the 142 residents staying in the shelters currently, 27 are children who are expected back at school in New Hanover County, when they re-open Thursday.

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