Like many areas across the city, New Bern’s downtown historic district suffered major damage from Hurricane Florence. Among those inundated by flood waters was one of the city's oldest surviving homes, one with a storied past that connects it to Richard Dobbs Spaight, North Carolina’s eight governor and signer of the U.S. Constitution.
Sitting in his house at 231 Change Street Monday, owner Ray Henderson watched as volunteer workers from Manassas, Va -based disaster relief group Christ in Action removed damaged plaster from the walls of the circa-1770 era home. Henderson said water crept up approximately 18 inches along its walls during Hurricane Florence, ruining much of the antique furniture and appliances in the home.
Henderson, a 97 year old New Bern native and WWII veteran, has lived at Riverpoint Crest Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in James City for the last several years and had the Change Street on the market to sale before the hurricane hit. He said during the approximately 40 years he lived there he never saw water come into the house.
“I’ve seen it come up some during a storm, but nothing like this,” he commented. “They raised the house up a couple of feet after Hurricane Ione (in 1955). They should have raised it up another few feet,” he joked.
According to the available history on the house, it was built by Colonel Joseph Leach as a wedding gift for his daughter, Mary Leach, prior to her marriage to Richard Dobbs Spaight, the eighth governor of North Carolina who also served as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution.
According to period accounts, Mary was among the first to dance with George Washington at a ball thrown in his honor at Tryon Palace in 1791.
After changing ownership several times, in the 1970s the home was restored and a two- story side addition was added. Much of the original house remains, including sections of the plain weatherboarding. Virgin pine lumber cut from the land where the house was built stretches 30 feet in length across the floor of the front entrance.
Henderson said he plans to have the house fully restored. He said he has already applied for FEMA funding assistance and has also consulted with a state historic restoration specialist for guidance on repairing the home.
Henderson said the restoration process will be aided immeasurably by the Christ in Action volunteer team, which worked last weekend and through Monday tearing out water damaged ductwork and insulation and removing damaged plasterboard rom the home.
Henderson’s former neighbor and friend, Nancy Hollows, said the disaster relief group has been able to do the work without damaging the home’s original baseboards and wainscoting.
“It’s amazing the work they’ve been able to do in here,” said Hollows. “It’s been such a blessing.”
Christ in Action volunteer David Beaulieu said the home at 231 Change Street had provided some unique challenges.
“This is an older house so we have to treat it a little bit differently. Normally when we gut a house it’s sheetrock and it comes off easier, but this is plaster so it makes a bigger mess.”
Beaulieu said the nearly four decade old organization consists of a small staff and volunteers that provides free disaster relief services across the country, from gutting and demolishing houses to tarping roofs and feeding local first responders.
“Right now we have a team in South Carolina and one in Florida. Typically we’ll come into town and find a church with a big parking lot that will host us, because we have our own showers, we have our own porta potties, we even have our own satellite dish,” said Beaulieu.
Christ in Action first gained recognition after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when they helped provide food for 5,000 construction workers repairing the Pentagon, he explained.
Beaulieu said the local Christ in Action team, which arrived in New Bern the Monday following Hurricane Florence, is scheduled to stay in the city through November 16.
“Typically we schedule to stay for a month. We could extend that but it depends on the workload,” he said.
According to Beaulieu, the Christ in Action staff keeps track of the man hours worked by its team members. Those numbers are then turned in to city or county officials to be submitted to FEMA for reimbursement.
“We don’t take the money, we give it back to the community to help them bounce back,” he commented.
Beaulieu said Christ in Action strives to provide more than just cleanup assistance following a disaster.
“Our heart is with these homeowners who have lost stuff and if we can instill some hope in them or help them adjust to a new normal, that’s what we want to do.”