HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — The flood waters of Tropical Storm Irma have washed a retired school teacher out of her home in Bluffton.
Susan Mixson Cleveland has a temporary place to stay in Estill, but very little else.
Former students and total strangers responded to pleas for help on the internet, hauling truckloads of damaged stuff from the low-lying home near All Joy Landing that Cleveland says has flooded three times in less than two years.
“It smelled horrid,” said Heidi Landau of Bluffton, a ringleader of the strangers who stepped in to help. She worked 14- and 15-hour days, took videos of volunteers and Cleveland to spread the word with the #HelpingSusan hash tag, and set up a You Caring page seeking donations.
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“She’s going to need a lot more help than I could do,” Landau said Monday. “The huge thing now is financial support and finding an apartment where she can stay.”
Cleveland, 65, told me, “I need someplace to live, and I need the flood insurance to pay what I am honestly due.”
She engaged an attorney following disagreements on insurance settlements offered after flooding in 2015 and then Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Cleveland said she did not accept the settlements, and could never afford to completely repair the house after earlier flooding. She has borrowed money against the house with a mortgage that runs another 23 years, leaving her today literally and figuratively underwater.
She bought the house more than 25 years ago with her late father, Allendale businessman Ed Mixson, known for his Carolina Diner before Interstate 95 sucked all the traffic off U.S. 301, and then the Village Inn Restaurant with home cooking worth a 100-mile drive.
It was a fishing shack, built on a slab in a low spot where water tends to gather and not move. Ed Mixson and friends loved to come to Bluffton to fish. The Mixsons owned another fishing cottage before this one, and Cleveland transferred the rustic wooden sign to keep the same name on the new one: “Chaos Acres.”
“When I got a divorce, I bought Daddy out to have a place to live, and I’ve added to it, piecemeal,” Cleveland said.
It’s a funky house in a funky neighborhood that has always helped Bluffton live up to its reputation as a state of mind.
The big, colorful wooden crabs on the exterior represent her love of eating crabs. “I’m like the crab queen of All Joy,” Cleveland said. “The fish are for Daddy. The lobster represents our family’s last big trip we made all together to Maine.”
People are amused — and fooled — by a sign by the front door saying “Steve Spurrier slept here.”
“In my dreams,” she said of the former University of South Carolina football coach. She bought the sign at the Bluffton Village Festival.
To say the Mixsons are die-hard Gamecock fans is an understatement. She laughs telling about the time they got home in the wee hours after USC lost a big game, and her Daddy found dead chickens hanging outside the restaurant.
Her Daddy moved to Chaos Acres when things got real chaotic. Cleveland added an apartment for her parents when her mother, Marlene Hart Mixson, got dementia. Her father cared for her, and enjoyed fishing and working part-time as a bank courier. Soon after her mother died in 2006, a doctor told her father to go sit in the cool waiting room as he told Cleveland he was starting down that same “long goodbye” of dementia. He was in the apartment another six years, and today Cleveland battles her own disabilities, much of it autoimmune issues, she said.
Cleveland said she left the house last week not expecting the outer band of a tropical storm to flood her home with two feet or more of water she called “toxic.” She has only a few changes of clothes. She kept her bedroom suite and “Mama’s kitchen table,” even though they are damaged. “I just couldn’t lose it,” she said.
Cleveland taught school for 39 years in what is now known as South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame,” where poor counties have poor schools, producing poor test scores and graduation rates.
She taught math in Allendale, Barnwell, Beaufort and Jasper counties, and others. For the last 17 years of her career, she taught in Hardeeville, saying that’s where she felt she was needed.
Cleveland was one of the few teachers to testify in the “Corridor of Shame” lawsuit — Abbeville County School District, et al. v. State of South Carolina — that took 20 years to reach a landmark ruling that the state has failed its poorest school districts.
Last week, one former student came from Orangeburg to help clean out the house.
Another posted on Facebook: “Soo, my seventh grade teacher wrote her phone number on the front of our math books when we were her students, years ago, and I was able to call her this morning because I memorized it. Please call me, ma’am!”
Cleveland said she’s been overwhelmed by kindness from Bluffton — and all of Beaufort County.
A Marine and his son showed up with a truck. An off-duty Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy worked a full, hot day along with his wife and young daughter in a safety mask. Another deputy came saying he had 30 minutes before his shift started and he had time to move three things.
The Hampton Inn & Suites at Sun City Hilton Head put her up for almost a week at no cost, “and treated me like it was the Magic Kingdom,” Cleveland said.
She said she hates to feel like a beggar in the streets. She said she’s practicing a lot of denial. But her mathematical mind flashes the numbers of income vs. mortgage and insurance payments. “I can add up numbers very quickly, and it’s monumental,” she said.
But she says in many ways she is much wealthier than she was a week ago.
A 32-year-old woman showed up at the house with four kids in an older car. She brought in two bottles of cleaner, two rolls of paper towels and two bottles of bleach. She went back to the car and returned, pressing something into Cleveland’s hand. It was a $20 bill, nine $1 bills and two quarters.
“It was every penny that child had,” Cleveland said. “I told her I could not take it. She said, ‘Ma’am, let me explain this to you. My children have been fed, my sheets are clean on my bed and my air conditioning is running. I could not go to sleep tonight knowing you didn’t take it.’
“You understand what I mean about this community,” Cleveland asked.
“Their hearts were beating when mine was broken. They transplanted a heart into my body — and it’s forever, too.”