'I Will Never Again Live Near Water'

Weeks after Hurricane Matthew, residents in Virginia still seeking help.

by Katherine Hafner, The Virginian-Pilot / November 3, 2016

(TNS) - Hannah Riley still feels anxious when she turns onto her former street.

"I'm having physical reactions" of trauma, she said.

Just a few weeks ago, as Hurricane Matthew swept through Hampton Roads, Va., Riley and her husband were driving home from a family birthday party in Portsmouth. When they entered their Pughsville neighborhood, neighbors rushed out to warn them of heavy flooding. Riley turned onto her street and found several feet of water engulfing her home.

"I literally fell to the ground," she said. "My husband swam through the garage" but wasn't able to save their undeveloped wedding photos from August.

"I will never again live near water," Riley said last week. "I don't even know what I'll do when it rains."

It's a sentiment echoed by other residents still reeling from the storm on John Street in Pughsville, in the northwestern tip of Western Branch by the Suffolk line. Neighbors don't know why the area that typically does not flood was hit so hard, though some point to drainage issues with a creek right behind the homes.

Household appliances and trash still litter front lawns as residents clear out items. A hefty pile of debris lies at the end of the street.

As they work to rebuild their lives, some residents feel few have been able to help.

Cynthia Hall, who is living in Suffolk after she had to leave her Pughsville home, came to City Council last week to voice her dismay at the city's response to the area's emergency.

"On Saturday, Oct. 8, at approximately 8 p.m., my entire life changed," Hall told the council. "I lost everything."

Four feet of water rushed into Hall's home, submerging her cars and leaving prized possessions – including her father's obituary and a video of her daughter's birth – floating in the garage.

"We have not gotten support from the city," Hall said.

Deputy City Manager Bob Geis said there are limits to what the city can do. Workers with the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency went to Pughsville a few days after the storm to assess damage, he said. They did not need to enter the homes because they could see the water mark feet above the ground, he added.

The city of Chesapeake declared a state of emergency on the Saturday during Hurricane Matthew. The state has since sent a report to President Barack Obama requesting a disaster declaration that would qualify certain cities including Chesapeake for federal aid, and officials are waiting to hear back.

Meanwhile, Hall is recovering from a respiratory infection after spending weeks clearing out everything she owned, "racing against the mold."

She and Riley are living with friends and family. They were renters in Pughsville and have handed their house keys back over to property management companies.

Down the street, Leah Luzunaris and her four children are still living on their second floor. They have to rebuild the first from floor to ceiling.

"I've never been impacted so deeply" by a weather event, said Luzunaris, who moved to the area about a decade ago with her husband, who's in the Navy. "I'm depleting my savings."

Luzunaris lived in a hotel for a few nights after the flooding. After moving back home, she spent her mornings rushing out to pick up fresh lunches for her kids to take to school, because they had no refrigerator.

"It's just been so much of an inconvenience, and a costly inconvenience at that," she said.

And because they aren't technically in a flood zone, they didn't buy flood insurance. Their home insurance won't cover the damage.

Many residents are still actively seeking help from both government and charity organizations.

"Everybody says, 'We're so sorry you're going through this, but...'" Riley said. "Stop telling me you're sorry and tell me what you're going to do."

She said they'd like guidance looking for new homes and any type of financial assistance they can get. Virginia Beach has offered housing assistance services for displaced residents. Geis said Chesapeake will open a disaster recovery center starting Thursday at the Chesapeake Human Services Department, located at 100 Outlaw St. just south of South Norfolk.

"We want to do everything we can to help that's moral, legal and ethical," Geis said. "The center is a first step." It will connect affected residents with legal services, nonprofits and more.

Hall has tried calling agencies such as the Red Cross, which she said told her they couldn't help as the area had not yet been declared a disaster.

Christy Carneal, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said in an email the organization received five requests for help from the Pughsville zip code. The Red Cross gave all five direct financial aid because they were assessed to have major damage, she said, and one of those homes was on John Street.

At the end of the street last week, John Harris was working on his daughter's home, putting up walls and sheetrock. Water had taken over Jenny's home, as high as the ceiling in the back and 2½ feet in other spots.

"We tore everything out" when mold set in, Harris said. We've "been working ever since the flood."

Riley said she's running out of gas money as she commutes twice a week to Virginia Commonwealth University for a graduate social work program. She lost her books in the flood.

"I wake up every day and think of something else I don't have," she said.

Residents question whether there's adequate drainage in the neighborhood, which backs up to Drum Point Creek.

"Something is happening differently," Luzunaris said. "We're coming up on a month and nothing has been done. It's time for some answers."

Geis said city staff just began taking a comprehensive look at Chesapeake's stormwater systems.

Hall said she wants to use her experience to help the city understand how it can best address similar situations in the future, maybe by serving on a task force.

"I want to be a part of the solution," she said. In Pughsville this time, "It was really about neighbors coming together, because we didn't have anyone else."

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