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Thousands of homes in North Carolina have been destroyed by Hurricane Florence and the flooding that followed. For the elderly, who are often living on fixed incomes and can't afford repairs, a flood can quickly become an eviction notice. After water saturates their homes, they don't really have another option except to leave. NPR's Jason Beaubien has been reporting from Kinston, N.C., where the Neuse River flooded at near-record levels last week.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the days after a flood recedes, there's a scene that plays out repeatedly. You'll drive down a street, and it appears that house after house has gotten violently ill and vomited all of its waterlogged possessions out onto the lawn.
JERRY GRAY: Yeah. That's a bunch of stuff, isn't it?
BEAUBIEN: Seventy-five-year-old Jerry Gray (ph) is sitting in his front yard amidst what used to be his worldly goods on the south side of Kinston. Wet mattresses, broken furniture and soggy clothes are strewn behind him.
GRAY: I've been here 16 years. It's just heartbreaking, you know?
BEAUBIEN: Gray's small brick ranch is one of four houses next to a busy road leading out of Kinston. All of them are being gutted.
GRAY: There's all these people that just - the houses are all ruined. They're not coming back. And it's probably what I'll do because the inside is just - it's all full of water, mold, everything else you'd have to - I don't know.
BEAUBIEN: This was his wife, Hilda's (ph), house. They'd met 16 years ago on a blind date, and then in his words, shacked up.
GRAY: She always joked with me because she was 10 years older than me. And she always called herself the cougar. She was (laughter) - she was a good woman.
BEAUBIEN: Hilda died three years ago. Gray has kept this house as a shrine to the years that they'd had together. The puzzles Hilda did when she got cancer still hang on the wall. The roll top desk they found at a thrift shop is out on the lawn. Her car is in the driveway. Their fluffy brown poodle, Zoe (ph), chases him into the house.
GRAY: And you can feel...
GRAY: ...And see the water just as you step on that carpet. Zoe, come here.
BEAUBIEN: In the kitchen, a giant pickle jar still full of murky floodwater sits on the floor.
GRAY: My wife and I used to save pennies in a jar. (Laughter).
BEAUBIEN: After they both retired, he and Hilda repainted the house together. Hilda is everywhere in this house, and now Gray has to leave it. He didn't have flood insurance, and says there's no way he can fix this place.
GRAY: I never thought that I'd be, like, basically homeless, if you want to come down to it. But I never thought, never thought I'd be in this situation. And the book of life doesn't teach you how to handle this.
BEAUBIEN: It's tough to get into your mid-70s, Gray says, and no longer have your partner to lean on for help. He's sleeping temporarily at his stepson's house. He says at least he's still got their dog, Zoe, and, he adds, his faith in God. And Gray is not alone. At a subsidized senior housing building in Kinston, several residents say that it was Hurricane Matthew two years ago that drove them from their homes. Lawanda Warren (ph) grew up in Kinston.
LAWANDA WARREN: They have to go into senior citizen homes and rest homes and these assisted living homes, places where they didn't want to go.
BEAUBIEN: Warren works now for the state government, but she came home to Kinston this weekend with her food truck to feed people affected by the floods. She was giving away funnel cakes and hot dogs and popcorn to people in her old neighborhood by the Neuse River. Her family left just before Hurricane Fran hit in 1996.
WARREN: You know, the house that we lived in, no one ever lived in it after we lived there 'cause it got flooded out after we moved. So we were blessed to avoid it.
BEAUBIEN: But she says flooding from successive hurricanes, from Fran, to Floyd, to Matthew and now Florence, have forced older people out of this area.
WARREN: You know, they won't live out their days being able to hang clothes out on the line or sit on their front porch.
BEAUBIEN: These storms cause immediate physical damage, but she says they also have deep, lasting impacts on communities. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kinston, N.C.
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