A string of forlorn-looking Christmas lights dangles above the moldy, peeling clapboard on George and Frances Spruill's front porch in their flood-ravaged neighborhood.
A couple of miles across town, the Spruills sit in unfamiliar surroundings and check off a wish list that would make even the most Spartan Christmas dreams seem splendid by comparison: a shower curtain, a curtain rod, a pot in which to cook collard greens.
The Spruills are among hundreds of older adults in eastern North Carolina who, in their twilight years, face the challenge of starting over after their lives were turned upside-down in September by Hurricane Floyd, which caused the worst flooding in North Carolina history.
"The impact on older adults has been devastating," said Mary Bethel, a special assistant in the state Division of Aging. "Their lifetime of memories, experiences and collections in many cases is just gone."
In the 27 eastern North Carolina counties targeted by the Division of Aging for federal crisis counseling funds, there were more than 237,000 people over age 60 at the time of the 1990 census. In 17 of those counties, roughly one in four people over 60 was poor.
"What we have found out is that this flood has caused a large number of people to become dependent after many years of being independent," said Mark Hensley of the Upper Coastal Plain Area Agency on Aging in Rocky Mount, which serves some of the hardest-hit areas.
Hensley said many senior citizens have lost not only their homes and possessions, but also their sense of community.
"For an older person, this is particularly important, because familiarity with their surroundings is a key part to maintaining their independence," he said.
The Spruills, who are in their 70s and rely heavily on Social Security and Medicaid, are making do in a small, one-story apartment behind a rundown shopping center. They escaped their flooded home with little more than the clothes on their backs and spent time in four shelters before the Pitt County Council on Aging found them an apartment.
"It could have been worse," Spruill said, recalling how he and his wife were rescued by helicopter from the rising flood waters. "She was shaking. I was shaking a little bit, too."
State officials have received $78,000 in disaster funds from the Federal Administration on Aging and $71,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for crisis counseling and other help. Officials also have applied for an additional $330,000 from FEMA.
Many of those who were left homeless by the flooding are staying in hotels. Others are living with friends, relatives or neighbors, or in temporary trailer villages while waiting for apartment or rental home vacancies. Many families may wind up permanently caring for elderly relatives or be forced to consider institutional care.
In addition to shelter, public agencies have provided hundreds of elderly people with clothing, transportation, counseling, household goods and medical supplies. But officials fear that many other needy people may be reluctant to come forward.
"They grew up in the Depression, and it's sort of a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-type thing," Bethel said. "This is a generation with a resilience that our generation can only strive to achieve."
CAPTION: Linda Whitest walks through her damaged home in Princeville, N.C., after a flood caused by Hurricane Floyd.