LUMBERTON, N.C. – Julius Peppers has signed so many autographs over the years, but never one quite like this.
“It was in my house when it flooded,” a woman shared as Peppers, who had just handed her a hot meal, took a hold of her Carolina Panthers visor to sign it. “It got water damaged, but it will work.”
Peppers, the Panthers’ future Hall of Fame defensive end, signed a handful of autographs and posed for a few pictures Tuesday, but this wasn’t some sort of promotional tour. All around him on his visit to hurricane-ravaged Robeson County – an impoverished area that reminded him of his hometown a couple of hours up the road – people were too busy fighting to pick up the pieces of their lives to gawk at an NFL star.
Peppers understood. And he wasn’t too busy to listen, to help, to take the time in the midst of football season to travel five hours roundtrip to see how he could assist in some small way those struggling in the wake of a second natural disaster in two years.
“Home is a couple of hours away, and it reminds me of Bailey a lot,” Peppers said, referencing his North Carolina hometown that was spared when Hurricane Florence tore through his home state three-plus weeks ago. “It hits home. It’s tough to see people in these situations. They’re just regular people who don’t have very much to fall back on, don’t have many resources.
“It’s one thing to write a check. That’s great, but it’s another thing to come out, be on the ground and actually see the devastation, see the effects with your own eyes.”
Peppers has written a check, one for $100,000 that helped launch the Julius Peppers Hurricane Relief Fund in conjunction with Foundation for the Carolinas. Teammate Cam Newton matched his gift, and contributions continue to come in. So much more is needed, as Peppers saw up close Tuesday.
“Are you a ballplayer?” 73-year-old Barbara McGirt asked Peppers as the two stood in the garage she converted into a bedroom to allow her to occupy the only home she’s ever known.
“Yes,” Peppers humbly answered.
“I thought so,” McGirt said.
McGirt’s house is a mess, but it’s not a complete loss. Volunteers, including members of the football and wrestling teams at nearby UNC Pembroke, helped tear out floors and the bottom few feet of the walls that were covered with water by the storm. Just a few houses down on Bryants Circle in the town of Maxton, McGirt’s daughter wasn’t as fortunate.
“We lost everything,” said Tonia McGirt, who hasn’t been allowed back in her house and might never be after asbestos was discovered when cleanup crews started pulling up her floor. “It flooded Sunday (when the hurricane hit on September 16), then it flooded again Tuesday. It’s been a nightmare.”
On another stretch of the street, in an area infamous for flooding, another house has already been condemned after water levels around it rose to more than five feet.
“So all of this was underwater?” a stunned Peppers asked as he surveyed the back of the property while one of his hosts for the day pointed out that the water would have been over her head.
Latricia Freeman, executive director of United Way of Robeson County, then directed Peppers to a house that sits behind the abandoned one. Electricity technically could be restored, but it hasn’t been because the house hasn’t yet passed inspection and it likely won’t any time soon - in part because there’s no electricity to power fans to dry it out.
“We were still assisting individuals recovering from Matthew when this hit,” Freeman said.
Two years ago Monday, Hurricane Matthew defied forecasters’ projections and blindsided Robeson County, crippling already economically challenged communities. The median annual income in Maxton is $17,000 a year. Bryants Circle qualifies as one of the nicer parts of town.
“It means a lot to have him come,” said Freeman, who spent the better part of the day educating Peppers on the realities facing the region. “A lot of people felt hopeless. A lot of people felt like they just didn’t have the will to do this again, to rebuild for a second time. I hope that it means a lot to our community to have someone who is a role model – who so many people look up – and that hopefully they see that people are willing to support them again. I hope that gives them the desire and drive to pick up and start over again.”
After spending the morning in Maxton, Peppers arrived in Lumberton just in time for lunch. Since the storm hit, Christian Aid Ministries has served meals in the Pine Street Activity Center parking lot to anyone in need. The outreach program has brought a new crew in from Ohio each week; last week they served about 7,000 meals for lunch and dinner.
“I’m thankful that I’m back now,” said Peppers, 38, who spent his first eight NFL seasons with the Panthers but then seven seasons elsewhere before returning in 2017. “I’m thankful that I wasn’t somewhere else where I wouldn’t be able to get down here.”
After lunch, Peppers headed to a neighborhood in Lumberton dealing with a double whammy. There’s no evidence of water anywhere on this unseasonably sultry October day, but when Hurricane Florence arrived, a canal behind Gregory Moore’s house raged and wreaked havoc.
Just like it did when Hurricane Matthew arrived.
“I was still in the process of putting stuff back in there from what I lost the first time, and then this storm comes and takes it all away, everything that I’ve got,” Moore said. “I lost everything I had in there – furniture, clothes, everything.”
But for a few minutes Tuesday, Moore was able to leave that all behind. He was at work when he got a call from a neighbor.
“They told me, ‘You need to come to your house,’” said Moore, who was then stunned to learn that Peppers had just pulled up on his street. “It’s like a dream. I was shocked when I got here. I had no idea he was going to be here.
“It’s a good thing. It takes my mind off of everything that has happened. It’s amazing.”
While the television cameras have mostly moved on from the hurricane, relief efforts continue. About 1,600 Robeson County residents took refuge in shelters the first couple of weeks after the storm, but the shelters closed last week. At least half those displaced will be housed in hotels for at least the next six months.
A group from Biltmore Baptist Church in Asheville is among those working to get people back in their homes as soon as possible. They arrived Monday to help Moore and others, and Tuesday they were joined by Peppers. As Moore watched with his three children, Peppers emerged from their home carrying a piece of flooring that had to be removed because of water damage. He carefully avoided debris dotting the front yard before adding it to a sprawling pile curbside.
“Seeing people having to get rid of their lifelong possessions because they’ve been damaged by water, it’s heartbreaking,” Peppers said. “I can’t even imagine going through something like this as a child. It would have been rough.”
Soon, the time comes for Peppers to head home, to get back in place for practice in Charlotte on Wednesday. He’ll be as focused as ever come kickoff Sunday, but he won’t soon forget what he witnessed Tuesday.
“It’s personal for me because it’s close to home. It’s personal, and I just wanted to lend a helping hand to someone in need,” Peppers said. “All the struggling and devastation is heartbreaking, and it makes me want to help even more.”