WILMINGTON, N.C. — Stephen Smith spent Sunday night sleeping in the stairwell of a parking garage as Florence continued to lash this city, days after the hurricane made landfall nearby. He hadn’t eaten for two days, and his feet ached from walking to and from the homeless shelter where he usually sleeps, to check whether it had reopened.
He had stayed in a hotel for three nights, but his money ran out. His preferred park bench at a nearby lake was covered with tree branches.
So he opted for the stairwell.
“I hope I don’t have to do that again tonight,” Smith said.
Florence, which struck the Carolinas as a Category 1 hurricane Friday and continues to breed tornadoes and floods on the East Coast, has taken a particularly harsh toll on North Carolina’s most vulnerable residents — tens of thousands of homeless, working poor and farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented. Homeless shelters have seen an influx of people who rode out the storm at emergency evacuation centers but now have nowhere to go.
Advocates for farmworkers said many did not know the storm was coming, because there were few warnings in Spanish, and stayed in crowded housing facilities with inadequate food and water. Others who went to shelters are nervous about leaving them, afraid they will be taken into custody by immigration agents.
“In eastern North Carolina, we don’t have Spanish media. There was almost no warning for a lot of farmworkers,” said Melissa Bailey Castillo, community outreach director for the Kinston Community Health Center in Kinston, N.C.
At least one camp of farmworkers who did not evacuate flooded, she said. Numerous farmworkers have needed rescue, and many have called emergency numbers because their insulin has run out or is not properly stored.
“They didn’t have enough information, and this was a really dangerous storm,” she said.
Some undocumented residents were concerned about going to shelters; advocates and others tried to balance fears and convince them that seeking safety was the top priority.
Justin Flores, vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said some people were worried about having to drive long distances to get to a shelter and feared being on the roads, where police could stop them and ask for identification.
Laura Garduño Garcia of the American Friends Service Committee said some people in the country illegally are afraid to leave shelters, for fear of being arrested by immigration authorities.
“Now that they’re in the shelter, a lot of them are like, ‘Is it safe to come out?’ ” she said.
In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said there will be “no immigration enforcement initiatives associated with evacuations or sheltering related to Florence, except in the event of a serious public safety threat.”
Flores said crises such as hurricanes highlight the challenges that low wages and poor housing conditions create for tobacco workers and other agricultural laborers in North Carolina. Many are now out of jobs because the storm did so much damage to crops, including tobacco and sweet potatoes.
“A storm like this really impacts our folks a little bit more,” Flores said.
There are at least 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program, and about 13,000 homeless residents, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
In Pemberton, N.C., police officers gave homeless people rides to the local shelters and conducted daily drives through public housing complexes, using a bullhorn to inform people about the coming deluge. Pamphlets were posted at every mobile-home park bearing information about the forecast and where to seek shelter. Officers checked in daily at a local senior home to make sure their generators were working and they had enough food.
On a drive through town to examine flooding “trouble spots,” Police Chief Ed Locklear noted that most of the public housing in Pembroke is in the low-lying north side of town. There, canals and underground systems that drain water into the nearby swamp are easily overwhelmed by downpours. Several officials said that these canals were still clogged with downed trees and debris from Hurricane Matthew — the town hadn’t had the resources to fix the problem earlier and only recently received recovery funding from the federal government.
Now Locklear cruised past a street to one of those housing complexes; it was partially submerged beneath what looked like a foot of muddy brown water. Sandbags rested against the homes’ front doors.
“These are places that always flood,” Locklear said. “And you can see we’re having problems already.”
Ninety refugees from Congo who were resettled in New Bern, N.C., are now staying in a shelter in Chapel Hill. The staff quickly reprinted signs in Swahili for them.
Dianna Van Horn, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said shelter staffers have no way of knowing who might be in the country illegally.
“The policy of the Red Cross is that we don’t check their documentation. We don’t look for that. We just don’t discriminate on where they might be coming from,” Van Horn said. “I know that sometimes people don’t come to shelters because they’re worried about that, and it’s hard to get the word out that we don’t discriminate against that and we don’t look for that.”
Brock Spivey, director of the Courtney McGinnis Graham Community Shelter in Florence, S.C., has seen an influx of homeless people as flooding threatened communities in northeastern part of the state. Many were displaced long before the storm and rode it out at emergency evacuation centers — but have nowhere else to go now that the storm is gone.
Easter Williams, 63, said she has been homeless since January, when she was evicted from her apartment. She had been staying at motels before the storm and has now found herself moving from shelter to shelter. Williams is diabetic and has high blood pressure, and she said she feared for her life as the storm closed in.
“I didn’t know where I was going to,” she said. A relative from out of state made some calls for her and told her about the community shelter.
“I never had to go through this before, being homeless,” Williams said, her voice shaking and her eyes watering. Finding a permanent home or apartment has been impossible, she said. “When I did try to get some place else, I was told I have to have a certain income and my credit was not good.”
Zezima reported from Washington. Phillips reported from Dillon County, S.C. Sarah Kaplan in Pembroke, Pat Sullivan in Wilmington and Kirk Ross in Chapel Hill contributed to this report.