By John Dailey
Hubert, North Carolina
I’m writing this on a legal pad from a rocking chair on my porch. The grind of chainsaws and drone of generators have replaced the howl of wind and hammer of rain. Everything is wet. Towels used to staunch leaky windows and doors hang over the railing but refuse to dry in the muggy heat. My pen’s tip tears at the humidity-damp paper I’m writing on. It’s our fifth day without power. The rain has finally stopped, so windows and doors are open as we hope for a breeze. A nine-volt emergency radio gives updates on passable roads and stores with gas and ice. We have water for washing, but need to boil it before drinking. Though the shower feels like heaven, the water isn’t off before my skin is coated again in a thin, oily layer of sweat.
I’m not complaining. We chose to stay. My wife and I, and our dog Max. Well, Max didn’t have a lot of say-so in the matter, but he definitely factored into the decision. It’s hard to evacuate with pets — not impossible — but more difficult, and Max doesn’t travel well.
Our home in Hubert, North Carolina, is midway between Morehead City and Wilmington, two of the locations hit hardest. For us, Flo came Thursday, September 13. The outer bands anyway, rain and wind that grew harder as the sun went down. We live 39 feet above sea level and 10 miles from the coast, so flooding wasn’t a factor. We knew if we weathered the storm, we’d be okay with bottled water, full gas tanks, and canned food to last a week. We were fortunate we could afford to stock up; many could not.
We watched the Weather Channel — damage and flooding in Morehead City and preparations and predictions in Wilmington — until the power went out around 9:30 pm. Then, the winds grew and the rain blew in sideways with enough strength to force its way through windowsills and doorjambs as I watched water spots grow on ceiling sheetrock. Our “Harry Potter hideout” in the closet under the stairs, supported by two load-bearing walls, held comforters and a battery-powered lantern. Our house is relatively new and built to withstand heavy storms. As the sleepless night wore on, over the sound of the wind we could hear thick limbs snapping and, once, the sucking sound a large tree makes when its root system gives up the fight with winds of 85 miles per hour.
I kept one eye towards my neighbor’s fence, one of those nylon panel things you can get from Lowe's or Home Depot. They look nice and are easy to install, but in heavy winds those panels become sails, catching and holding the wind until the screws that hold them in place give way and they are launched, like 40-pound pinwheels. Through the night, I’d occasionally catch the shadow of a section spinning across my lawn, and I would say a silent prayer it wouldn’t find its way through my window.
Eventually, day came. Not sun, really, but enough light filtered through the clouds to allow for a cursory survey of damage. Neighbors ventured outside in rain coats and waders to check their homes, climbing rooftops to tie tarps with garden twine to cover where shingles had disappeared. We picked up the large debris, which could do more damage if the winds returned. We all checked on each other, offered to help, and meant it.
All five families on my street stayed. The storm continued into Saturday. It’s now Tuesday, and this is the first I’ve seen of the sun. My shed needs a new roof, and we’ll make an insurance claim, but we were lucky. Our first attempts to leave our neighborhood had ended when we saw tree trunks over roadways and abandoned cars sitting in flooded roads, where streams surged into rivers and power poles snapped at the waist cast lines into water.
We stayed because we wanted to be here for the after. Because my wife wouldn’t have been able to sleep not knowing if our home survived (now, she just can’t sleep because of the heat). But what we’ve seen in the aftermath of this tragedy is the best of eastern North Carolina: a Dollar Store manager asking police not to press charges against those taking things they needed, neighbors helping neighbors, volunteers arriving with supplies, homes being opened to those who lost theirs, restaurants cooking on propane and offering free food to the hungry and to the first responders, rescue workers and power company employees who have been on duty for days, Marines from Camp Lejeune launching amphibious vehicles to rescue those in flood waters.
It will take time for waters to recede, for those who evacuated to make it back and assess damage. It will take us time to get back to normal, but as I drive around roadways now passable and talk to folks getting by and helping others, I’m certain our community isn't broken. We’ll rebuild and return stronger than before and, at least for a while, we’ll all show our best side to others — regardless of party, or religion, or belief. For a chance to see and to be a part of that, I’m glad we stayed.
It has been a week since I wrote the words above. A long week, but only a week. In that time my life has pretty much returned to normal. We have power now, and AC. Max has finally settled down. We were incredibly fortunate. I had the opportunity to drive down toward Wilmington today. Just a few days ago the route was impassable. Some streets are still underwater. Along roadways, curbs are piled high with refuse as people dig through the aftermath: branches and logs, sheetrock and carpet, furniture and mattresses and stuffed animals that can’t be salvaged because the flood waters carried sewage and hog waste and coal ash.
Some still haven’t been able to return home. Others are left homeless. Damage to some low-rent apartments exposed asbestos and mold, which has led to mandatory evictions. In some cases, whole apartment buildings have been given 24 hours to vacate. Many of these same folks are in the service industry and have been without work for two weeks. They have no means to find another place. Volunteers and rescue personnel from out of town have packed the hotels, and the shelters that are still open are at max capacity.
There are still many incredible people doing wonderful things, but more help is needed. For those who can help, I suggest the link below. The website is a central information source for frontline resource & support mobilization and lists charities, volunteer opportunities, and needed supplies. A Just Florence Recovery is focused on providing relief to marginalized communities and those that need it most.