So Florence turned out to be a real bitch of a hurricane.
And that bitch Florence apparently had an ax to grind with eastern North Carolina.
I wish we’d never met her.
Talk about close to home.
I’ve been running this blog for a while. It’s been through this and that iteration and stage and so forth. I’ve scrapped it all and started over a few times. And all the while I’ve deliberately been kind of fuzzy about where I live because, you know, safety and all.
But that bitch Florence has gone and changed me.
Now that New Bern, North Carolina has been all over the news, thanks but no thanks to Hurricane Florence, I guess this is a good time to tell you that’s where I’ve been holed up since August of 1989.
That’s 29 years and one month before Hurricane Florence forced her way into town.
I thought I was getting used to these things.
I’d been in town less than a month in September of ’89 when Hurricane Hugo was suddenly headed straight for us.
Prior to that I’d been living in Boston for a few years post-college, and my mother was ever so relieved I finally left that “big, unsafe city up north” and returned southward. But within a couple of months Hurricane Hugo was barreling right for eastern NC.
My mother was beside herself.
And I admit, I slept with my glasses on, a suitcase by the door, and a canoe tied up right outside.
Because other than when Hurricane Camille made a surprise trip inland and devastated the county right next to mine in 1969, hurricanes weren’t something I had to worry about growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Once Hugo decided to tear through Charleston then go all the way inland to Charlotte, of all places—some 300 miles from the coast, I quickly learned from my first hurricane experience in New Bern how unpredictable these damned things are.
Hurricanes are a fact of life near the coast.
New Bern was visited by Bertha in ’96, followed quickly by Fran, which caused a massive oak tree to engulf our house but not crush us only because of a branch that wedged into the earth and stopped the tree from falling any further. (Sorry if never told you that, Mom!)
There was Hurricane Dennis in ’99, Irene a month later, and Floyd that same season—what a year. Hurricane Matthew was just a couple of years ago and mega-destructive. My hurricane experience list goes on.
What I didn’t know back in ’89 was that I’d be living in hurricane territory for the next several decades of my life. I could have gone back home where it’s so beautiful that I’m nearly moved to tears when I’m there, but here I still am.
I didn’t know when I was in my twenties that I’d be living in a place that was flat, where there are no natural stones, and where there are swamps. I didn’t know that someday I, too, would know what it felt like for my ears to pop when I drove two hours west to Raleigh.
But I got used to it here.
I like the waterways, I like the swamps (hell, I love them, actually), I like the friendly people, I like small town living.
I seriously miss where I grew up, but like I’ve said before, I feel like Charlottesville is God’s hometown and New Bern is where God vacations. It’s nearly a toss-up for me now.
Hurricanes are damned squirrelly.
In the past thirty years, I’ve learned that with each potential hurricane we prepare.
We clear off our porches, tie down our porch swings, pick up loose stuff out of our yards, board up the windows if it’s looking really bad, and possibly evacuate if we live in the direct path of the storm.
And if we’re lucky it’s a regular old hurricane where some things get torn up, we lose some trees and big limbs, power goes out for a while, and we’re inconvenienced—if we’re lucky we’ve over-prepared.
Some storms just kind of wither away, some tear off in another direction altogether like Hugo did in ’89, some turn around and come back à la Hurricane Dennis in ’99. Some pick up speed, and some slow down. You just never know quite where they’ll land or what exactly they’ll do after that.
It was clear Florence would be different.
I never felt about a hurricane the way I did about Florence.
Florence was more massive than Hugo in ’89 and reportedly more threatening than Hazel was back in ’54. One friend who grew up in the area said he’d never evacuated for a hurricane, but he took the kids and the dogs and left for this one.
We were back and forth about it, though. It was the potential flooding that scared us, as Florence was huge and moving very slowly, causing the many waterways to rise and rise and rise well ahead of the storm itself.
We weren’t sure which would be worse, the storm surge or the flash flooding, or for that matter, what the difference even was between the two.
We also knew that after the fury of the hurricane itself had subsided, the waters would continue to rise in some areas, even in areas the hurricane had left alone earlier.
Forecasters downgraded Florence from a category 4 to a category 2 , so we knew that at least the winds would be less destructive. If it had been a category 4 on top of being enormous and slow, I don’t know what we’d have done. (Believe me, though, a Category 2 storm is nothing to take lightly.)
We obsessed over elevation maps and the constantly changing flood forecast, trying to decide if our home was in danger, trying to decide if we were in danger, trying to decide the extent to which our neighborhood would flood. Even before the hurricane had officially landed, downtown New Bern was already beginning to flood badly, so there was no telling what was getting ready to happen.
We worried about all of it, and that if we left we wouldn’t be able to get back easily.
And we worried about our 18-year-old dog.
But hell, at least we had the choice to stay or leave.
Loads of people didn’t.
Either they couldn’t afford the gas to fill their car up—if they could even get gas since supplies were vanishing fast; or their car wouldn’t make it far even if they could fill it up; or they didn’t even have a car; or they had nowhere to go if they left and no money to pay for a hotel, motel, or AirBnB; or they had farm animals like horses; or they were too infirmed or old to travel.
For any number of reasons, many had little to no choice.
There were also people considered essential personnel, such as shelter workers, EMS workers, firefighters, and hospital staff. Their jobs demanded they stay, whether they were scared out of their minds or not.
We decided to stay but we packed so we could decide to leave at a moment’s notice if it came to that. (Though we knew not to wait too long.)
We gathered what valuables we could flee with. We put other things up high in the two closets inside our small house. We picked things up off the floor and near the floor. We rolled up rugs, we scrambled for photos, I quickly grabbed a few particularly special books (which was hard because I have what my gf thinks is a thousand books).
We moved across the street for two days.
We asked our neighbors about staying in their two-story house instead of our one-story bungalow. They’d received an invitation to spend the (rainy) weekend in Ocean City, Maryland with some relatives, so they went for it and we moved right in.
We hauled suitcases, bags, and coolers across the street.
Eventually we got our cat and our 18-year-old dog out of our house and boarded up our doors in case the water came up that high. We moved one car to a friend’s higher driveway and moved our other car to the back of our house where it was a little bit higher.
Our friends got on the road and wished us well. We watched their house and their dog.
And the next day we watched our house across the street as water rose around it. My god.
Florence was a bitch early on.
Hurricane Florence was huge and slow. A bad combo.
So with the storm already causing homes and businesses to flood before arriving, it was all getting pretty ominous and freaky, as if the forecast alone wasn’t bad enough.
Then after the local TV station staff had to evacuate—during a broadcast, no less—because the station was rapidly flooding, Facebook became a godsend.
I never thought I’d call Facebook a godsend, but it was our main source of news about the hurricane and about each other once the power had gone out. I was reading and posting updates along with everyone else who could still use their phones.
Once the storm had passed, it left an unbelievable amount of destruction—from high winds, of course, and from flooding. God, so much flooding—flooding that still hadn’t subsided much in many areas for a couple of weeks afterward, along with flash flooding that remained a threat to many for far too long.
By the way, Facebook is still the best place to find pictures of Florence and the aftermath. Just do a “hurricane florence” search and start following posts—news coverage is piddly compared to real-life images. (Plus, as a bonus, people posting their pictures on FB don’t politicize the story the way the major news outlets keep doing. I mean, this is hardly the time for us-and-them crap.)
Our house didn’t flood after all, even after watching the water rise around it. Man, that was scary.
For so many, of course, the water did enter and overtake their homes.
Homes that had never flooded before. Homes that weren’t in a designated flood zone. Homes with and homes without flood insurance. Homes in high-dollar neighborhoods, low-dollar neighborhoods, and every place in between.
And though this was seriously a non-discriminating hurricane, recovery will be easier for the resourceful and those with resources—because it’s hella harder to crawl out of a mess for people if life was already hard.
It’s now a month later, and there are people who won’t be able to return to their homes (and/or businesses) for many months.
Some are renting temporary homes, some are staying further from town than they’d like due to the lack of available housing, some are staying in a friend’s spare bedroom or on a sofa, some are still looking for a place to rent, some are bouncing from place to place, some are living in an RV in their driveway,…
I’ve heard a third of the houses in New Bern flooded, and that doesn’t even count homes outside of town in areas like Vanceboro and Jones County, where the flooding was other-worldly well after the hurricane had passed. And this is just around where I live, never mind the devastation around Wilmington, NC, where the storm made landfall.
Many who evacuated were unable to return quickly due to flooded roadways in all directions. So their homes sat those extra days or a week or longer gathering mildew and an increasing case of “the stench.”
Stench from rotting households, from rotting chemicals (in everything from furniture to clothing to appliances to building materials), from rotting upholstery, from rotting drywall, from filthy standing water. The much reported-on stench from hog waste and coal ash wasn’t the first stench on the scene.
Entire neighborhoods are still—a month later—piled high with flood-ruined furniture, ductwork, flooring, carpeting, insulation, drywall, and worst of all, memories.
One friend told me that what broke her heart the most was seeing the box of Christmas ornaments that her mother made in the 1940s—and that she’d used every year since her childhood—float out of the flooded garage, ruined.
I saw muddy photos of anonymous people plastered to the ground when I walked around downtown on Saturday after the storm. I know one woman whose house flooded who’d already had to start over in life once—she lost everything a second time.
She said, “Yeah, it’s only stuff, but it was my stuff.”
There are businesses that still can’t re-open due to damaged floors, roofs, and systems. Many businesses had no power for weeks, never mind internet. Grocery stores that could re-open with what little they had were completely emptied out of perishables—you’ve never seen anything like an empty Walmart. Many traffic lights either didn’t work at all for weeks or were just blinking. It was eerie.
Public school was out since Tuesday before the storm and was closed for four weeks. When they did re-open, only eight out of thirty were able to open due to extensive water and mold damage that’s still being repaired.
It will take New Bern and all of eastern North Carolina so long to recover and rebuild that I can’t even fathom it. Life will always be “before Florence and after Florence” now.
On one hand, it seems like just last weekend we were boating on the Trent River.
But on the other hand, it feels like it was forever ago.
And I suppose in a way, it was.
p.s. Big love to the fine people in the panhandle of Florida for having to endure that asshole Hurricane Michael.
And to the people of the Bahamas and, really close to home—the people of Ocrakoke Island for the devastation they’ve experienced from Hurricane Dorian.
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5 CommentsAdd Yours
This is very well written, Coco. We should bid hurricanes goodbye–forever!
Great work with your hurricane piece!
Thank you, Dan. It was a helluva storm, and I hope we never see another one like it.
You always know how to put life’s little and big events into perspective.
Deeply touching account of the hurricane experience.