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Residents displaced by flood plead for a plan: 'We lost everything'

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Displaced residents arrived at a shelter set up by the state and the American Red Cross at the Police Athletic League of Wilmington

The temporary shelter at the Police Athletic League in Wilmington for residents displaced by Thursday's flood closes 8 p.m. Friday, according to the Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA). The City of Wilmington is reopening the William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center Emergency Shelter on North Madison Street at 9:30 p.m. Friday for those unable to arrange temporary housing.

    DEMA spokesman Jeff Sands says 50 people checked in to the temporary shelter at the PAL Thursday but had found accommodations by that evening. He says the shelter closed a few hours later and reopened Friday morning.
    The record flooding along the Brandywine Creek in Wilmington Thursday morning led to about 200 evacuations and water rescues. There were a handful of injuries, but Delaware avoided the death tolls of other northeastern states. 

    “I’ve been living here all my life,” said Durrell Dollard, a displaced resident of Northeast Wilmington. “In all my 48 years, I’ve never seen nothing this bad.”

    Credit Courtesy of Sidney Kellam's family
    The view from a rescue boat in Wilmington Thursday


    Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki declared a State of Emergency in the city Thursday evening. As of Friday morning, Delmarva Power reported seven outages in the city, affecting around 50 customers. 

    “The water came too fast,” said Sidney Kellam, another resident of Northeast Wilmington displaced by the flood. “It’s like something broke, and water just rushed back there.”

    Within hours of the flash flooding, the City, the state and the American Red Cross had established an emergency shelter at Wilmington’s Police Athletic League (PAL) on North Market Street. 

    State officials say the shelter will remain open until everyone staying there has found a safe place to go. Gov. John Carney initially mentioned the state’s hotel voucher program as one option. 

    But no plan for getting the displaced residents housed had been communicated to Kellam when he stood outside the shelter late Thursday afternoon. Kellam’s family lived on the first floor of Claymont Street Apartments, several blocks east of the creek and still inundated by what Kellam describes as a “tidal wave” of water. The family was rescued by boat. 

    “We lost our whole apartment, lost all our furniture, all our food,” Kellam said. “We lost everything.”  

    Climate change makes intense stormsmore likely and increases the amount of rain they bring. The Brandywine’s flooding Thursday was the most intense on record, but human-caused warming means similar events will likely happen again. 

    Kellam says he wasn’t thinking about climate change until Thursday’s flood—but now he doesn’t want to move back along the Brandywine Creek.   

    “I better get out of there. I don’t want to be there no more,” he said. “We can’t put nothing past it, Mother Nature. It do what it want to do.”

    Credit Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
    A flooded street in Northeast Wilmington as the water receded Thursday

    Kellam also worries his family’s apartment will be unlivable after the flood damage. He says his family does not have local relatives to stay with, and will need a voucher to stay in a hotel long-term. The family ended up paying for a hotel Thursday night.  

    “The City dropped the ball on this one,” said Dollard, who lost two cars in the flooding. “They should have been up on this.” 

    While the scale of flooding in Wilmington was unprecedented, the National Weather Service had warned of flash floods for days.

    At the PAL Thursday afternoon, Dollard was frustrated he hadn’t heard from city or state leadership about a plan to get people like him housed. 

    “We need to talk to somebody,” he said. “Nobody has been out here to talk to us about what’s going on, what’s the next step or anything. … This is ridiculous, man.”

    The displacements come amid an affordable housing shortage in Delaware and an increase in homelessness during the pandemic. 

    Dollard says he’s also worried about staying in a shelter during COVID. 

    The state Division of Public Health tested people for COVID-19 as they entered the emergency shelter and provided face masks. The local SPCA was on site Thursday to take pets, as they are not allowed in the shelter. 

    Those in need of help can call (302) 571-4900 8am-4pm all Labor Day weekend for help with emergency shelter, food replacement, food benefit replacement, and referrals for furniture, clothing and emergency needs.

    A "Disaster Reception Center" will open Tuesday, September 7, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at The Warehouse, 1121 Thatcher Street. City officials say representatives will be on site from agencies that can provide recovery resources for those impacted by the flood. 

    Correction: This story previously reported people stayed overnight at shelters in Wilmington.  DEMA confirmed late Friday that people did not stay overnight.


    Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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