Belhaven, North Carolina, has a local plan for emergencies but lacks the resources to enact it. Hurricane Irene brought that fact home.
Julia Peacock doesn’t leave Belhaven, North Carolina, when a hurricane hits. She stayed in her hometown through Fran and Dennis, Bertha and Isabel.
“Some people say you really can’t run from God,” she said.
But as Hurricane Irene bore down on the North Carolina coast last week, her mom pointed out the dark clouds and suggested they should go to neighboring Pantego.
When Peacock returned home Sunday, a tree had destroyed her 25-year-old mobile home, which her grandpa had made sturdier with his own hands.
“You laugh sometimes, and people come by and lift your spirits,” she said, “and then you cry.”
Peacock’s home was one of the worst hit in this town of 1,688, most of the damage from flooding. Though neighbors here are accustomed to taking care of each other, and do, Hurricane Irene has exposed gaps in the systems that should protect Belhaven’s citizens from nature.
Many residents of this town just north of the Pamlico Sound in Beaufort County have safely stayed through multiple hurricanes and say they count on heaven’s protection. But those who would leave might not receive the necessary information or have the means to get out.
Mayor Adam O’Neal made an impassioned plea on the local public access cable TV channel for residents to evacuate, but Donnie Moore watched the hurricane news on a different channel.
While Moore waited out the storm with his dog, a tree fell on the mobile home next door, cracking open the bedroom.
“I’m not too much for running,” he said. “I feel as if I’ve got God on my side.”
Belhaven was once a crabbing town, but much of that industry has left. Now, more than 25 percent of residents in Beaufort County live in mobile homes and many struggle day-to-day.
When Guinn Leverett, Jr., became town manager, one of his first acts was to create an emergency operations plan, delegating the responsibilities in case of a hurricane or other disaster. But like any rural town, the municipal government has limited resources.
Belhaven has no public transit. So older residents and others who own no vehicles or have a tough time getting around must rely on family to reach the shelters.
“Some of those people, they have nowhere to go,” Leverett said.
There was and is no mechanism to enforce mandatory evacuation. Town officials do not knock on any doors or force those in low-lying areas to leave.
“If you want to stay down here and drown, it’s your privilege,” Leverett said. “We know there are some people who would never leave.”
At least two homes in Belhaven were destroyed by Irene. A tornado knocked the roofs off a lumber business and a car dealership. Most of the town’s main strip is still closed from flooding that reached several feet above the ground. But no one died here in the storm that has killed 43 people across the country — at least six of them in North Carolina.
Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration which included Beaufort County, allowing the federal government to provide loans and grants for survivors to repair homes, rebuild businesses and pay medical costs.
Peacock is now living in the hurricane shelter at Washington High School, unsure of where the family will be night-to-night.
All of their possessions are in the mobile home, inaccessible and probably unusable because of plumbing breaks. Joshua, 13, and Jeremiah, 8, have on the same clothes they were wearing Friday, when they left home.
Julia Peacock’s long-time friends have been constant help. Gladys Winfield, a former schoolmate, dropped off toys for the children Tuesday afternoon. Winfield herself stayed in Belhaven for the hurricane and watched as sheets of her vinyl siding flew into a neighboring power line. But Winfield still has a house to go to, so she helps her friend.
Despite all that’s she’s lost, Peacock couldn’t help but cry when she saw flooding in nearby Pamlico Beach.
“I’m crying for other people,” she said. “That’s the biggest part of this town: everybody wants to stick together when it’s time.”
Max Rose is the Autry Fellow at MDC, a non-profit based in Durham, NC, that has worked for more than five years with Southern towns to improve disaster preparedness.