Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wilmington, North Carolina on the morning of September 14, 2018 and caused wide spread devastation in both North Carolina and South Carolina. Parts of Florida and Virginia were also heavily damaged. The first death attributed to Hurricane Florence occurred on September 11, 2018, and the storm went on to claim 47 more lives by September 29, 2018.
North Carolina is no stranger to these kinds of catastrophic disasters; her communities bear many a scar from past storms. Several make landfall in the Coastal Carolina region every year, and the people who call the Old North State home, do what they always have done after a storm; dry off and rebuild. Florence and the devastation it wrought has been different though. Almost a month later, many towns are still flooded and dozens of schools are still closed. The after effects of Hurricane Florence are lingering around much longer than any other storm’s in the state’s history.
Being a resident of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, I have been through dozens of tropical storms, tropical depressions, and hurricanes. I remember hunkering down during Hurricane Bertha, Hurricane Fran, Hurricane Bonnie, Hurricane Floyd, Hurricane Isabel, Hurricane Arthur, and Hurricane Matthew to name a few. The power went out, we lost services, but a few days later it was back to business as usual. With Florence, its been different. We’ve never experienced a storms’ aftermath like this before.
As Florence approached, it ebbed and flowed in intensity like waves crashing on the shore. It went from Category 1 to Category 4 to Category 2 and finally down to Category 1 as it made landfall. At the height of the storm’s intensity, many a dire warning was sent out. North Carolina hasn’t been hit by a Category 4 Hurricane since Hurricane Hazel hit the state in 1954. Hazel left a trail of destruction from North Carolina to Toronto, Canada and is still talked about today in our small coastal towns. The prospect of being in the cross hairs of another storm of that magnitude was daunting. Comparisons to Hurricane Katrina; the Hurricane that leveled many parts of New Orleans, were made and mandatory evacuation orders were sent. Hundreds of thousands evacuated the coast even as the storm was downgraded to Category 1. People were told that if they needed assistance during the storm, none would be provided. First Responders couldn’t risk their lives to brave the violent storm, so you were on your own during the storm if you stayed.
Category 1 Hurricanes scour our coast all the time. They are dangerous, but nothing people really worry about unless you live right on the beach. Many people who evacuated; including myself, wondered if they made a mistake in leaving. If Florence is a 1, then why leave? Did we let the media hype scare us? Florence won’t be that bad, or so we thought.
On the very early morning of Wednesday, September 12th, my family and I finished packing our vehicle. We were nearing the limit of safely leaving during the mandatory evacuation order. You had to leave before the afternoon of the 12th, because gale force winds and rains would arrive before the actual storm itself did. The Governor, the county officials, and the city officials all ordered everyone in our community to leave, and leave we did. Since the storm reached Category 4 strength, all shelters in the area were ordered closed. Therefore, everyone was advised to drive inland as far as they could, because everything within 100 miles of the coast was facing imminent danger. Where to go then?
My family and members of my extended family that lived near us on the coast set our sights on the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia. Where else better to go than to high ground during a storm that will cause life threatening flooding? Also, the storm was projected to hit the coast and veer north. With that in mind, we hit the road heading south and over 15 hours later, we pulled up to our cabin at Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia.
We hiked the park to keep our minds off of the storm, but the same thought was always stuck in the back of my mind. Category 1? I’ve been through several Category 3 strength storms, we shouldn’t have left…
We were glued to the TV on the 13th. Swansboro; our home, was starting to feel the force of the storm. Friends who stayed posted on social media about the strengthening wind and rain. I started to second guess my worry of whether we should have left or not.
On the 14th, we woke to heart break. We watched as our communities in Onslow County were barraged by the storm on national news channels. The Jacksonville areas of Piney Green, South West, North Side, Midway Park, New River, Holly Ridge; the Marine Corps installations Camp Lejeune, MCAS New River, Camp Geiger, Camp Johnson; Topsail, Sneads Ferry, Swansboro, Hubert, Stella, Richlands were being deluged with rain… Our friends in neighboring Carteret County were posting updates about the storm damage in their areas of Cedar Point, Cape Carteret, Newport, Morehead City, Emerald Isle, Pine Knoll Shores, Atlantic Beach, Beaufort… But something was different. The storm was stalling.
Normally, a small storm would hit the coast, and quickly pass through it. It could strengthen as it moved through, or it could quickly dissipate. Either way, it’d leave the area in no time. The problem with Florence is that it hit an already existing front as it made landfall. This caused the Hurricane to stall, moving a mile or two an hour. Not only that, the tide came in, meaning that any rain accumulation would stay in place for the time being. Usually, rainfall during a hurricane would last for 8 hours a so, but the rain would stop as the storm passed. This time around, the hurricane and then tropical storm rains lasted for days.
We watched as reporters or friends posted videos of our community being submerged by rain and storm surges for days on end. Even after the eye of the storm had passed and the storm had already moved inland, bands of rain from the outer walls of Florence continually poured water onto our area. A record breaking amount of almost 36 inches of rain dropped on our town in the space of a few days. And that was just the start.
The rain started to come down in Swansboro on Thursday, September 13th, and didn’t let up until Wednesday, September 19th. It was something no one in the community experienced in their life time. A lucky few maintained generator power, but most everyone else lost power almost immediately on the 14th. With the power went their internet and cell service. Water mains were damaged and running water stopped. So, people could do nothing else but hunker down as they waited for the rain to go away, and for services to come back up.
As the storm moved inland, another problem arose. When Hurricane Matthew brushed the Carolina Coast in 2016, it caught everyone by surprise as rivers flooded several inland towns. This time around was to be no different. The slow moving tropical storm dropped record levels of rain in these low laying areas, causing many rivers to crest during the storm. These areas remained flooded after the storm passed, causing many roads to become impassable to First Responders and disaster relief teams.
The storm continued to move farther inland, and south towards South Carolina and Georgia. This put us in the storms path, reminding us as to how unpredictable a storm can be. We thought the storm would head north, but it was on a path directly towards us in northern Georgia. It dropped more rain as it inched by, causing inland areas whose flood waters receded to flood once more. Luckily, we didn’t get anything but a light rain in the part of Georgia we were in.
In North Carolina, downed trees knocked out power lines, and roads washed out. I-40 and I-95 were completely submerged in several areas. Gas became scarce as station after station ran dry. The State ground to a halt, and evacuees were told to remain in place because it was too dangerous to return.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 18th, we packed our car and cooler up with water, canned foods, meats, milks, and other supplies we bought in Georgia and hit the road and ran into the problems detailed above. The storm may have left our community, but the devastation was still fresh. We had to take a very round about way to get onto I-85N to Charlotte, North Carolina.
We couldn’t take the path we took to get to Georgia in the first place, because many of the roads we took were washed out. Cars that tried to drive through moving water over a flooded road were swept away. Other roads looked passable with just a few inches of water, but the asphalt and dirt under the road were washed away. People thinking that they’d drive through a little bit of water found themselves submerged in holes.
For the trip home, we continued to travel on I-85 until it merged into I-40 in Greensboro. We continued on I-40 until we got to Highway 70 just south of Raleigh. From there, the road was clear from Clayton through Goldsboro, and into Kinston. We refueled our vehicles before we got to Kinston because there were reports that Kinston was out of gas. It had flooded, but the rivers were receding. It was good that we did that, because that’s when we ran into our first sign of what was to come. Kinston was still partially under water and without power.
As we traveled further on Highway 70, we were passed by dozens of bucket truck convoys full of out of state linemen rushing to reach the hardest hit areas on the coast before the rivers flooded again. These convoys were a welcomed sight, because power was out in many of the inland cities we drove through.
The buildings along Highway 70 in Kinston, New Bern, Havelock, Newport, and Morehead City stood ominous in the pitch black rainy night of the 18th. Much of the coast was under a curfew, to prevent looting and traffic accidents at night as traffic lights were out. At Morehead City, we got onto Highway 24, passing through Cape Carteret and Cedar Point. We entered an electricity free Swansboro, and stared about in disbelief. It looked like a war zone. It was dark and debris littered the roadside. Then we drove to our home and inspected the damage. It wasn’t as bad as our neighbors, so we counted ourselves lucky.
The saga didn’t end with our return home though. The morning of September 19th came around, and the sky’s cleared. Power started to come back on, as did running water and the internet. Most, if not all gas stations were out of power and gas. Grocery stores were shuttered, and fresh food was no where to be found. Services weren’t running, but the people weren’t sitting idly by.
As cell service and the internet came back up, all of our community group pages on social media were overloaded with offers of help from caring members of the community. Anyone in need of food or water was taken care of by members of the community or by local church groups. People asked strangers to check on family members who weren’t answering their phones, and other strangers went around cutting up downed trees. Often, evacuees returned home to find that a stranger had nailed tarp over holes in their roofs, or found that trees were cut up in their yard that fell on their house or on their lawn.
People drove around and cleared roads that weren’t flooded. Several people drove around while live streaming from their phones, and drove through neighborhoods to showcase damage to homes. People watched in relief or in heartbreak from out of state, as they saw their homes either undamaged or uninhabitable. These selfless members of the community would go to any neighborhood by request, and show how the homes looked on the streets there. Everyone quickly found that no place was left unscathed by Hurricane Florence.
Life was slowly creeping back to normal from September 20th on. Within days, gas pumps came back online. Roads were cleared enough so that supply trucks could bring grocery store items in. Relief teams set up in local churches or rotary club buildings to accept donations and pass out much needed supplies. Diapers, bottled water, canned foods, hygiene items, tarps, and cleaning supplies were now available to anybody who needed them. If people weren’t able to leave their homes, supplies were delivered to them.
But we were far from being clear. Thousands of homes were damaged beyond repair, while tens of thousands more sustained all sorts of levels of damage. Curbs were full of the contents of whole homes. Mold spread unchecked as rain or surge water flooded everything over and over again.
Then, devastating news hit. Many of our schools in the county sustained major damage, as did other schools in the surrounding counties. School would have to be closed until the damage could be assessed. School roofs were so damaged that rain water would seep back into them again with every new rain fall, re-flooding the interior and causing mold to grow once again.
Not only that, inland rivers started to crest a full week after the storm passed. Roads that were flooded, then opened, were now closed again due to rising water levels. Many coastal communities; even the large city of Wilmington, North Carolina, became an island again. Cut off from all outside contact. It seemed that there’d be no reprieve. Services were once again sporadic.
By September 27th, the inland river flood waters receded again. I-95 and I-40 were passable for the first time since the storm hit, so supplies started to flow in. Grocery stores now had milks and meat again. Things seemed to be normal again, but this was not to be the case.
Schools in our county are so damaged that they will not open for students before Monday, October 8, 2018. Some reports state that they will be safe enough for students to return around the first week of November.
Not only would kids be out of school from September 11 to October 8 at the earliest, the coast was hit with another bit of bad news. A population of a very large and aggressive type of Mosquito has exploded across the coast. Swarms literally chase people as soon as they leave the house.
It has made repairing storm damage very cumbersome. The sheer amount of damaged buildings has overloaded the local insurance agents. People are constantly adjusting the tarp on their damaged homes and swatting the ever biting bugs while hoping to be seen by an insurance adjuster or general contractor in three weeks or so at the earliest.
In storms past, damage was assessed and cleared relatively quickly. With Florence lingering over our area as it did, hurricane force winds and pounding rains barraged homes for days instead of hours. So, Hurricane Florence may not have been a Category 4 strength storm, but it’s slow moving and relentless winds made the Category 1 storm just as damaging. As this is being written on September 29, 2018, the recovery process is only just beginning and is going to be a very long process.
North Carolina is hurt, but is not out. We are rebuilding our community as strong as ever, and we will be ready to brave the next storm that comes. We’re Carolina Strong and Carolina Proud.
*EDIT December 27, 2018
Our community has continued to rebuild since this article was posted. It’s still an ongoing process. Some parts of the Crystal Coast look like nothing has ever happened. Other parts are still devastated. Many places still have ruined household items sitting in front of them. Free pickup services stopped over a month ago, so it’s no telling how long these torn out carpets and ruined couches will sit on people’s curbs. Businesses are mostly up and running, but some are still being cleaned out. There are hotels that are still being cleaned out due to the amount of rooms that were water damaged. It seems that business signage is a low priority for replacing because many are still torn down.
In our county, schools were closed around September 14th and most didn’t open back up until the end of October. A few schools opened back up in November, while schools in other counties were deemed to be a total loss. We made the best of it by ordering workbooks online for our kids, but losing a month or more of school is worrisome. The State said that the schools wouldn’t have to make up the days, but our county took away days from Winter and Spring Breaks, took away a few scheduled days off, extended early release days, and added a few days to the calendar to make up for the lost time.
Many homes roofs; including ours, are still tarped and waiting for companies to come out to provide estimates to replace shingles. It looks like almost every single home on the coast will need a new roof, and that’s not including businesses. Some shops in the malls are still closed due to needing roof work. There just aren’t enough crews to get everyone’s roof fixed. That’s nothing though, compared to places like Pollocksville, North Carolina.
Pollocksville is maybe an hour away from the coast, but the Trent River runs through it. We drove through it yesterday and most of the downtown area is shuttered and abandoned. Even though the town is far away from the coast, the flooding that followed Florence devastated this inland area. The river receded but then flooded again, and this process repeated a few more times. The downtown area may never rebuild. Only time will tell.
A local beach we usually frequent just reopened a few days ago. The dunes that once protected the area are gone, and the local officials are asking for Christmas tree donations to help rebuild these sandy barriers. In essence, life is slowly moving back to normal. As I mentioned in the past, I’ve lived in this area for dozens of storms, but none have had such long lasting effects as this one. The slow moving and stalling over us for days with battering rains caused damage the likes we’ve never experienced before. The Category 1 storm left us with Category 3 or Category 4 type damage. Our homes are hurt, but our spirit is not. Looking at the people around here and talking to them, you’d never be able to tell that they lost at least a little something or lost nearly everything in a storm not too long ago.
Copyright September 29, 2018. All photographs owned by Paul Russell Parker III and PRP3 The Author Media.