Nelson Unukandi watched from a shelter in Sanford as the first images of New Bern appeared on the television screens.
He came to the coastal North Carolina city two months ago as a refugee from the Congo and now watched as its streets and homes filled with water.
“I was watching on the news, the river how it’s flooding, the whole downtown was underwater,” he said. “I’ve never seen something like this.”
The 28-year-old said he has no idea when he can return. Ahead of the storm, he and other refugees were loaded onto buses, unsure where they were going, except away from the hurricane, he said. He ended up in Sanford and then Sunday came to UNC’s Friday Center, which had been opened to evacuees.
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“In Africa, this type of stuff never happens,” Unukandi said. “We can have big rains sometimes, but say a big area that’s flooded, I’ve never seen it. This is my first time seeing such a thing.”
The shelter, run by the American Red Cross, is one of two in the state that officials are sending people to as county shelters close, many of them in schools that are reopening. The other is in the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem.
There were 186 people at the Friday Center on Sunday afternoon, said Dianna Van Horn, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said. By Monday, however, the shelter had reached its 500-person capacity. With some people expected to leave, Van Horn said they were not turning anyone away.
Statewide, the number of people in shelters dropped from about 20,000 Thursday and Friday nights, to about 14,000 people in 146 shelters Sunday night, said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
The long-term plan for those who can’t return home includes exploring opening shelters at community colleges and speaking with federal officials about additional options.
Shelters in Wake, Durham, Orange and Johnston counties closed over the weekend and Monday. As Wake County closed its shelters on Sunday and Monday, about 879 people remained in their care.
Although Orange County closed two shelters on Sunday, county officials announced they would open a new shelter at the Department of Social Services Commons, at 113 Mayo St. in Hillsborough for displaced residents. The shelter will be open up to 72 hours and is pet friendly.
Cooper visits shelter
Gov. Roy Cooper toured the UNC shelter on Sunday, meeting evacuees and painting a grim picture for the longevity of the storm’s impact
“This is a storm that will not leave, and it’s very frustrating for all of us to continue to see rain being dumped across our state,” he said.
Cooper said shelters may be needed in the western part of the state as well, as mudslides and flooding becomes a possibility in the mountains.
At the Friday Center, cots were set up in two large rooms. Evacuees spent their time together in a large common area. Children petted a therapy dog and played with toy cars on hard plastic boxes stamped with the Red Cross logo.
Worried about flooding and losing power, Tracey Ouillette, 48, arrived Sunday morning with daughters Vanessa, 15, and Leila, 8, after the shelter at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill closed. This is their first hurricane, despite having moved from South Florida this year.
“Everything is new, and then we come upon the hurricane,” Ouillette said.
Cooper shook hands and posed for pictures with evacuees, some of them on the move since Wednesday, and listened to their stories. To each he gave what comfort he could, ending most with a “hang in there.”
“There was some despair in people’s voices about the fact that where they live was flooded,” Cooper said. “There was concern about some of the people who were still there.”
Cooper suggested harder flood-related conversations are down the road, noting that folks just this year returning to their homes after Matthew in 2016 are once again washed out. Certain flood-prone areas have been purchased by government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the past, and there may be more to come.
“We’re going to have to make some decisions about where we rebuild, what is bought out, mitigation,” he said. “Understand that [flooding] is something that could happen a lot, and we’ve got to be ready for it and prepare for it.”