WILMINGTON, N.C. ― When the rust-colored water first poured into his seventh-floor apartment in Solomon Towers, a public housing project downtown, Leroy Mitchell frantically mopped up the murky water with towels and blankets, trying his best to ignore his chronic back pain.
But Hurricane Florence’s unrelenting rain was gushing in too hard and too fast.
“I had to sweep water and sit down and rest, sweep water and sit down and rest ― until I got it done,” Mitchell told HuffPost a couple of days after the storm had passed. “The next day, the water came right back in.”
“I just went through hell,” he said softly. “Wasn’t nobody going to help me. If I had a place to go, I would get out of here. I would really get out of here.”
Solomon Towers stands less than 1,000 feet from Cape Fear River in the now sought historic district of Wilmington. Named after Harry M. Solomon, who chaired the Wilmington Housing Authority for 25 years, the 11-story structure contains roughly 150 units, mostly studio apartments. Most of its low-income residents are disabled, elderly or both.
For those riding out the storm in Solomon Towers, the chaos that unfolded within the building’s characterless façade was as worrying as what was happening outside. Apartments on several floors of the north side of the tower flooded during the storm after driving rain came in through windows, balconies or ceilings. Air conditioners in some units stopped working. Anyone who didn’t live on the first floor was without power for days. And dozens of strangers seeking shelter from the streets camped out in the building for days, some causing mischief in the hallways, according to residents.
The mayhem, residents say, reveals how in times of crisis a city’s most vulnerable residents often suffer the most.
Mario Martini watched in utter disbelief as Florence’s rain for days surged through his windows and the sliding door leading to his balcony.
“This was all under the water ― the whole kitchen,” the 62-year-old said, pointing to several manhole-sized pools of water on his floor. Beyond his front door, the hallway, darkened by the power outage, had become an eerie corridor of anarchy.
Several residents on the second floor, including Martini, told HuffPost that strangers ran through halls, rang doorbells, covered peepholes and tried to break into apartments.
“We don’t have nobody down here to look after us,” said Latonia Bowser, who lives down the hall from Martini. “There are people running in and out of this building. We don’t know who is supposed to be here, who’s not supposed to be here.”
Bowser, along with several other residents whom HuffPost spoke to, said some of the structural and security problems could have been prevented if Wilmington Housing Authority had done more to prepare residents and the building for Hurricane Florence. They had urged the housing authority to take action to avoid water damage in the future.
Roof repairs, storm window installation and staffing increases (there were two security guards and no maintenance workers on the premises during Florence) could have gone a long way, according to Martini.
Instead, many residents say, Wilmington Housing Authority’s only storm preparation was to posting of fliers warning residents not to leave their windows or doors open ― or they would risk paying for any damage.
“They’re not doing any real maintenance,” Martini said of the Wilmington Housing Authority. “They’re coming and putting Band-Aids here and there.”
The housing authority vehemently disputed that characterization, CEO Katrina Redmon said.
“We did everything that we could do to prepare,” Redmon told HuffPost in a phone interview Monday. “All in all, that building held up extremely well with the length of this storm and the power of this storm.”
Up on the 11th floor, Debbie Williams and her neighbors on the north side of the building expected Florence’s pounding winds to shake the building ― but they weren’t prepared for the rainwater to tear through their ceilings.
“We thought it wasn’t going to get this bad,” Williams, 55, told HuffPost. Now she’s concerned mold from the water cascading down her walls and seeping into her floor will affect her respiratory illness. A putrid smell of something rotting choked the air inside the unit.
“We can’t stay up in here,” she said. “But I don’t have no other place to go.”
“I would like for Mayor [Bill] Saffo to just come and do a walk of the building and give us some suggestions on what to do,” Williams said. “We got elderly people up in here. We can’t live like this. I’m serious.”
Saffo’s office did not return HuffPost’s multiple requests for comment.
There were 35 Florence-related deaths in North Carolina ― two of which occurred in Wilmington when a tree fell on a house, killing a mother and her infant child. Several major roads to Wilmington were washed out, causing the city of nearly 120,000 to be cut off from the rest of the state for several days during the storm. Florence toppled several large trees at the base of Solomon Towers and in the surrounding neighborhood.
North Carolina state Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat, stopped by Solomon Towers last week to deliver hot meals and toiletries to residents in need. Butler, who lives just three blocks from Solomon Towers, said her house did not flood or suffer any major damage.
For Butler, visiting Solomon Towers in Florence’s aftermath highlighted the “stark contrast between surviving a storm like this with money” and without.
“It’s night and day,” she said. “I started thinking about my own budget. I know I spent $500 in preparation for this storm between food and reservations if I needed to evacuate. … If you have money, you can prepare, but it’s expensive. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you can’t afford to do that to the same degree ― if at all. And that’s very sad to me.”
Several Solomon Towers residents said they feel they’ve been forgotten by their community in the aftermath of Florence.
“I just want to be somewhere safe,” Williams said. “Who knows? This side of the building might want to cave in and somebody could get seriously hurt or die up in here. It’s just too much.”