NCCU senior’s loss kickstarts recovery effort for Jacksonville school

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Even though she lost her childhood home during Hurricane Florence, one N.C. Central University student has turned her tragedy into recovery for others in her hometown.

Mass communication senior Alexis Owens lives in Jacksonville, N.C., a city in the southeastern part of the state that was hit hardest by Florence’s raging winds and waters. Before the storm made landfall, her mother, brother, and four-year-old daughter sought refuge in Maryland with other family members. Alexis’ family was safe from the hurricane, but her home was not nearly as fortunate.

The first things Alexis’ mother Stacey Owens-Howard saw upon the family’s return on Sept. 18 were loose shingles and tree branches scattered around the front yard.

The state of the house’s interior, on the other hand, made Owens-Howard feel “shock(ed) and numb.”

Unlike other houses in the areas whose damage was almost solely related to the region’s mass flooding, the shingles in the yard that had been ripped from the roof were only part of the problem that led to stagnant water and mold permeating the house’s floors and walls. According to Owens-Howard, the house was a “total loss” — all furniture, appliances, electronics and structural components of the home have to be removed and replaced.

“Normally, we don’t evacuate during Category 2 storms,” Owens-Howard explained. “But Alexis insisted that we leave.”

Despite her caution, Alexis herself was in denial when her mother told her the news. As a Residential Assistant, she had chosen to stay on campus and weather the storm when Florence was downgraded to a Category 2 from a 4.

“Since I wasn’t there to personally see the damage, I couldn’t believe our house was gone,” she said.

On top of the damage to her family home, Owens-Howard’s second home, the Zero to Eighteen Education Concepts Academy (ZECA) School of Arts and Technology, also saw significant damage following Hurricane Florence.

As the founder and director of the K-8 charter school, the first of its kind in Onslow County, Owens-Howard received reports from staff members concerning the safety of the school itself alongside that of ZECA’s faculty and students. 23 students and two staff members at the school suffered also lost the majority of their homes and belongings.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Dr. Toya Corbett sent out a university-wide email encouraging students to seek help from the university if needed as well as an form for students to send to their professors to excuse those who may not have been able to return to class due to complications following the storm. Alexis completed the form and reached out to her mentor Associate Director of University Scholars Christina Garrett for additional support.

What was supposed to be just lending a sympathetic ear came with an additional helping hand from Garrett, who also directs NCCU’s Cheatham-White Scholarship Program. Under Garrett’s guidance, NCCU’s current Cheatham-White cohort adopted ZECA and prepared to offer relief aid to students and the school itself after the storm’s physical aftereffects had fully subsided.

As for Alexis, who still plans to graduate next May, and her family, the first course of action is to find somewhere stable to live during the rebuilding process. She says that local officials have told residents that it will take between 3-6 months for southeastern N.C. to return to a near-normal state of being.

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