Although it’s been over a month since Arlence Little and her family’s home was lost to flooding from Hurricane Matthew, their lives are still very much in limbo.
Little and her four foster children are living with her friend just a couple houses down from their previous home, which has since been condemned. Little has asthma and said FEMA inspectors told her the mold would be too risky for her health.
Some houses in Little’s neighborhood suffered minimal damage compared to the rest of the town. The surrounding streets are lined with water-logged mattresses and piles of ruined belongings.
Little’s friend and the owner of the house where she’s staying is deaf and handicapped, which adds daily struggles to their already difficult situation. After trying to explain my presence in their home, Little went to get a small green notebook to communicate with her friend. She was visibly frustrated, asking him why he always makes things complicated.
When I visited, they had just had to put down one of their dogs the day before. Little’s daughter, a student at Patillo Middle School, was at basketball practice, and Little had just come from helping kids at the school. Tarboro High senior Sinia Campbell went to her room to take a FaceTime call — someone had just had a new baby. And Princeville Elementary fourth-grader Anthony Baldwin watched music videos with closed captioning on and read the lyrics, pacing back and forth in the kitchen, until Little told him to come back in the living room. Little said that Baldwin had been suspended for three days from school for getting in a fight.
“She hit me first,” Baldwin explained.
“You know never to hit a girl,” Campbell replied.
Being displaced from their home has been hard for Little and the four kids.
Little spends most of her time fulfilling her duties as president of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) at Princeville Elementary. She has recently helped Edgecombe County Schools staff with coordinating donated school supplies, clothes, food, and toiletries. They set up a place to collect and organize items at what was once a shopping mall in Tarboro since they ran out of room at the central office.
Little and her family don’t have many ties to the town of Princeville. They moved just a year ago from Delaware after losing their house in a fire. Having family in North Carolina, they were looking to buy some property in Middlesex, between Raleigh and Edgecombe County, and just happened to find a place in Princeville instead.
“I’m ready to get out of North Carolina,” Little said. Campbell and Baldwin agreed when I asked. They miss Delaware. She said if Middlesex doesn’t work out, they’re planning to return to Delaware. She insists on staying until Campbell graduates from high school, although she mentioned wanting to pack up the car and leave multiple times.
Campbell misses her old high school and wishes she could graduate from it. She said she was able to grab a good bit of her belongings before having to evacuate. Little was in Virginia that weekend, and Campbell was at home with her siblings.
“I was really scared,” she said. She grabbed her phone and clothes first.
Little spent 19 days in three different shelters after Hurricane Matthew — at Tarboro High, Martin Millennium Academy, and a daycare that opened their gym to displaced residents. The kids were with her in the shelters for 10 of those days before Little’s mom temporarily took them in.
Little’s experience in the shelters was a bit of a roller coaster — physically and emotionally. She said she was hospitalized multiple times and at first didn’t want to accept help from anyone. Frustrated and bitter about the unexpected tragedy, Little found herself closed-off and angry.
She said there was a moment when things changed. Little and her sister were in the parking lot of one of the shelters, going through donated clothes, talking with a woman they’d met in the shelter. Another woman, who neither of them knew, started noticeably staring at Little. Little was strangely affected by her presence and her gaze, and started crying. She soon found out that the woman was a reverend.
“She said to me, ‘Baby, you know what? Let your tears flow. The Lord sent me over here to come especially for you,'” Little said. “‘The Lord sent me here to say, it’s okay. It’s okay.'”
From that point on, Little swears her heart was opened and her mentality shifted. She said she has learned to view the situation as a learning experience.
“From day one to now, I’ve learned a whole lot,” Little said. “I’m a lot better with it. I’m on higher ground with it.”
Little said she’s met great people through the reverend from the day in the parking lot, and from working with the school system. That morning, she’d received a call telling her that a family wanted to “adopt” her children for Christmas.
“We’re just mainly taking it day by day,” she said.