Opinion | What I Saw When I Rode Out Florence

Opinion | What I Saw When I Rode Out Florence


WILMINGTON, N.C. — Hurricane Florence made landfall on Friday just five miles from my home here. Although the storm has since been downgraded to a tropical depression and lumbered west, today, Wilmington remains all but cut off from the outside world, with the major highways flooded and impassable. Toppled oak trees block intersections. Downed power lines snake across the ground. A giant sinkhole has swallowed one of the major thoroughfares. Coast Guard helicopters thunder across the sky, bringing aid supplies. We are marooned.

Friends and family could not believe we stayed. But we have three large dogs and I was not particularly confident that my 30-year-old car could make a long trip. We stocked up before the storm: old wine bottles full of tap water, a supply of canned food, several bottles of $5 Target wine, a full tank of gas, and a power inverter to turn the car into a generator.

Though we’re far from well-off, we could afford these supplies. The night before landfall, people who could not were huddled in school gymnasiums — people for whom evacuation was not a remote possibility, let alone a choice. On Thursday night, I went to sleep in my own bed.

I was awakened by a heavy thump. The wind was a sustained roar. We rose and tiptoed through the dark house, hearing the storm skirl. Slowly, cautiously, we approached the sliding door to the deck. In the dull blue glow, our faces neared the glass. Outside, all was violence. Trees were bent, their black branches thrashing and whirling. Debris soared through the air. In that moment, our wonder just outweighed our fear.

We were incredibly lucky. The wind had uprooted a large oak, but the tree fell away from the house, crashing into the rail bed of the old Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. Our view from the backyard porch was transformed, disfigured by Florence. But we are alive and dry.

Others have not been so fortunate. The worst of the storm would come in the days after landfall, when record rains swelled the creeks and rivers of the Cape Fear region, transforming Wilmington and the surrounding area into archipelagos.

Over the weekend, we sat in the dark and watched in horror as the news rolled in, via text message, from friends and relatives who thought they’d already weathered the storm. The photos showed the water rising higher, higher, inching into their homes. The messages were haunting, heartbreaking, many of them coming in real time.

“The water is now up to our back steps.”

“It’s in my living room.”

“Laundry room full.”

“Our house is [expletive].”

We did not hear from my girlfriend’s sister for 12 hours after her house began filling with water. In the end, she barely escaped with her dogs. Her mother was forced to leave her car because of the whitewater of a flash flood. Surely it’s gone.

On Sunday, we ventured out to assess the damage for evacuated friends. The city looked like a war zone. Again and again, we had to turn back when water or power lines or fallen trees blocked the road. Once, we could actually see the floodwaters still edging up the street. Wiring spilled from fallen streetlamps. The hedges and trees that cloak houses were stripped of leaves, revealing wrecked cars and porches. Broken glass and random debris littered the sidewalks.

We heard that five million gallons of wastewater had been discharged into the Cape Fear River when a treatment plant lost power. We heard it could be days, even weeks, before many evacuees return.

Still, we saw signs of hope throughout town. We saw generators thumping away on second-story porches, their extension cords running in all directions, spidering through the windows of neighboring houses. At my local lunch spot, Detour Deli, a neighbor was siphoning gas from his battered sedan to run the deli’s refrigerator. The owner, Alistair, offered us some meat.

My local corner store was open. The owners stood in the dark and heat, wiping their faces with dishrags and ringing up orders with a calculator. On our way home, we saw convoys of white bucket trucks, loaded with line crews from points far afield. The cavalry was on its way.

We do not know when the evacuees will be able to come home and what many will find when they do. We do not know when the power will be restored or when the floodwaters will recede. We do not know how many lives have been lost. Only a few miles away, there are still people trapped in their homes. For others, generators are running short of fuel and canned food is running low.

Still, I know the people of the Carolina coast will not be broken. I keep thinking back to the day I was prepping for the storm. Some neighbors were standing outside, in their garden gloves and rain boots, talking to one another, next to patio chairs stacked and triple-tied to the nearest tree.

“Y’all staying?” I asked.

Emilie, my neighbor, set the back of her hand on her hip and nodded. “We’ll keep an eye out,” she said. “We got you, baby.”

This is who we are when the storms come: who we want to be. People who look out for one another in times of need, when the skies are dark and trouble’s afoot.

In the weeks to come, the continuing damage will be tallied, and there will be much rebuilding to do together. But as we roll up our sleeves, never has a warm Coors Light tasted so good.

Taylor Brown is the author, most recently, of “Gods of Howl Mountain.”



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