By Connie Leinbach
Alicia Peel said it was one of the few times she’d seen Ivey Belch speechless after she told him he was among many honored recently with the Governor’s Medallion for Volunteer Service.
Belch, pastor of the Life Saving Church, is one of many islanders who helped at the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department daily after Hurricane Dorian struck Sept. 6, 2019.
He founded Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team (OIRRT), a nonprofit, long-term recovery group, working with Hyde County, North Carolina emergency management and multiple faith-based organizations to conduct the Dorian recovery effort.
“We’ve been leading the rebuild,” Belch said. “We’re still a growing organization, but we’ve got the foundation and we’ve gotten the training under fire, so to speak.”
The Governor’s Medallion is the third honor he’s received, following recognition in 2020 by the Ocracoke School Alumni Association and the 2020 Ocracoke School graduating class.
“So, it’s humbling,” he said. “I wasn’t doing it for recognition. It was just something that needed to be done. I was in a better position (after the Dorian flood) than a lot of people were.”
While it’s been almost three years since Dorian, 90% of the damage has been rebuilt, though rebuilding will continue until October.
While that may seem like a long time for recovery, it’s not on an island for which everything has to be brought in by ferry.
Moreover, a group like the OIRRT needs people who can work to prepare for the next major disaster hits, Belch said.
“If we were taught anything by Dorian, we’ve been taught we were very underprepared,” he said. “We’ve been blessed that we’ve had time to get back on our feet. We’ve had a two-year period of no storms.”
OIRRT has learned that paid staff is needed – to do casework, administrative work, such as applying for grants, and managing the materiel and numerous volunteer crews that have been essential in rebuilding the island, he said.
Right after Dorian, islanders stepped up to volunteer in a myriad of ways, but the OIRRT realized it needed ongoing paid help.
Staff salaries and reconstruction costs have been paid by two grants totaling $1.5 million awarded to Hyde County by the state Office of Management and Budget. The state made these grants after FEMA declined to award Ocracoke a private declaration of need that would have helped individual homeowners.
Along with mainly funding reconstruction costs, the grant pays for Peel, who is the administrative coordinator, Trish Davis, lead caseworker, and Jesse Spencer, who previously oversaw the travel trailer projects and now coordinates reconstruction logistics.
The OIRRT also obtained other private grants that solely funded reconstruction– the Outer Banks Community Foundation, Red Cross, the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Catholic Charities, Operation Blessing.
Belch believes OIRRT contributes to residents and to visitors, because having a plan and personnel in place for the next emergency will help the island get back to business sooner when the next major disaster occurs.
As the Dorian reconstruction nears a close, the group’s next major project is to construct a multi-use facility for the community. OIRRT wants to build bunk-house style volunteer housing attached to the Life Saving Church to double as a shelter in emergency situations.
OIRRT has been working to secure funding for this project since presenting it to the community via a grant request to the Occupancy Tax Board in 2021 and has been researching alternate grantors when its application to OTB was not selected for funding.
A bunk house would have been nice to have when a Boy Scout troop got stranded on the island Easter weekend, Belch said.
So, 12 youths plus adult chaperones bunked down inside the church.
After many volunteers and displaced survivors stayed at the church in the Dorian aftermath, the church installed three showers and a generator in anticipation of future emergency needs not limited to storm situations.
Having such a building could allow volunteer groups to come in with special projects, Belch said. It also could help families displaced by smaller scale emergencies, such as a house fire.
“Hurricane Dorian devastated our community,” Belch said, “and through that we learned what we lack in terms of preparedness. Creating a shelter for volunteers, storm survivors or anyone else in need is a massive missing component of Ocracoke’s long-term resilience.”
If OIRRT obtains the means to build a bunkhouse, Christian Aid Ministries (CAM), the Anabaptist group that provided Ocracoke with volunteer laborers from October 2020 to April, will come back to build it, Belch said. This would significantly reduce building costs.
The work still needed on remaining OIRRT cases is being completed by paid contractors.
Those wishing to donate to OIRRT’s volunteer housing and emergency shelter may visit http://www.oirrt.org/donate and select aid option in the drop-down menu.
The North Carolina Governor’s Volunteer Service Awards honor citizens who have shown concern and compassion for their neighbors by making a significant contribution to their community through volunteer service.
Point of disclosure: Connie Leinbach is the secretary of the OIRRT.