As a child growing up in coastal Virginia, I saw the Carolinas as a mystical beach wilderness full of wonder and salty air, a place made of beach vacations and bears, alligators and wild ponies, and stories of hurricanes on the news at dinner. When I read the book The Prince of Tides in high school, I had been to coastal North Carolina several times, was already in love with it by the time Pat Conroy’s novel showed me how Love of Place can turn even the ugliest of stories into something beautiful.
The Tidewater area of Virginia is also no stranger to hurricanes, and I was well trained in Mr. Mazaitis’ earth science class, where we tracked storms on a giant map in the classroom until the waters of the Atlantic cooled down in November and we moved on to other weather. My earliest hurricane memory is watching sheets of rain pour down, sitting on the floor in front of patio doors. We were at the house of a family from church that I did not know well. I was not in school yet. I watched the water creeping in under their patio doors. When an adult noticed, I was whisked away and we all left for higher ground.
In 1986, my neighborhood was on the border of the evacuation zone during Hurricane Charley. We “rode it out” in our house. Again from the patio doors, I watched the wind pick up my father’s metal shed and turn it into a metal ball as it bounced amongst trees and neighbor’s houses, then over a fence and down the alley. We never saw the shed again. After the storm, the only things remaining from the shed were its foundation and an engine block.
By 1992, I was a young adult working in the florist industry when Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of Florida. Not only did this affect my work for nearly a year – the storm wiped out the ornamental greenery epicenter of Florida, leaving much of the U.S. fern-less – there was a mass exodus of young men from my community, all headed to Florida for construction work. Most of them, I never saw again.
None of this deterred me from moving to coastal North Carolina when I had the chance in 2011. I started work in March, bought a historic home on the main street of a tiny town in April, and renovated it over the summer while living in a rental. We moved in July. Hurricane Irene happened in August.
It went on forever. I had two young children and their father, a combat vet, was in the hospital being treated for severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For brevity, I’ll just share that we lost six trees, two of which tore down sections of fence I’d just paid $3,000 to have built. Water dripped from multiple ceiling locations. No sleep. The eyewall, a couple hours of quiet right in the middle of the storm, was followed by 80 mph winds in the opposite direction from before. As soon as the eyewall passed and the wind kicked back up, I could hear trees snapping all around us. The howling wind woke up my 4-year-old son, who made his way to the window just in time to see a hundred foot tall pine tree 15 feet away snap at the base and fall, taking two other trees and a shed with it. It missed our propane tank by two feet. Thankfully, it fell away from the house instead of into it. My son turned around to me and said, “Mom, if that tree had fallen into the house, would it have killed us?”
Fast forward to 2016, when career opportunities bring me to Oregon. We got here June 20, missing hurricane Matthew by two months – and leaving a legacy of “hurricane two months after you move in” to the family that bought my house. I was adjusting to a huge move and job change while hobbling on a broken ankle, so Matthew really didn’t sink in for me. The flooding was tremendous. Many of my North Carolina co-workers were ousted from their workplaces by flooding. Their new building was opened just a couple months ago. They’ve been working remotely for two years.
Florence is different.
Three thousand miles away, I have been unable to escape Florence. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for two years now but keeping track of developing Atlantic storms in the fall is ingrained in me. Florence was a clear threat early on, and through social media I watched all my friends, many of whom work for N.C. State Extension and are intimately involved with preparation and response, getting ready. There was a fist-sized lump in my throat for a week. Someone asked me about my North Carolina friends at a meeting, and I burst into tears. While I was discussing future trees, they were packing livestock into trucks as fast as possible and answering reporter questions for farmers so said farmers could salvage some crops before the storm. They were helping fill sandbags and sharing information and helping coordinate evacuation efforts. They were making choices about whether to leave with their families or remain behind to pick up the pieces. They were sharing posts from strangers further west with room to house one, or six, or 15 horses. They were figuring out who had small boats, able to navigate soon-to-be-flooded roads.
Florence made landfall just to the south of where I lived in North Carolina. Bad, bad news for my friends to the north: the northeast quadrant. Everybody in the coastal southeast knows this is where the worst storm surge and flooding will be. Hurricanes and real estate: location, location, location. This is why New Bern, North Carolina, made national news. Storm surge pushes ocean water hundreds of miles upstream, adding to the several feet of rain. It is lethal, and it takes days and weeks to completely play out. As of this writing, Florence is no longer a hurricane, and many people have forgotten about it. But where I lived, the rivers haven’t even crested yet. It is far from over.
While for most of Oregon, Florence was a blip in the news, for me it was unfolding in real time on social media, and I could not pull away. Before the flooding in New Bern made the national news, I watched my friend Eileen’s house being engulfed by the Neuse River via video. She is one of several friends who learned that their homes had been flooded via Facebook video. Another friend, Amber, a nurse, begged in the middle of the night for someone, anyone, who was willing to drive a neighbor to a hospital. I pieced together later that the patient was a child involved in a freak accident. Amber hasn’t been on social media since then.
Another Friend, Willow, evacuated, while her husband stayed behind. (In case you wonder why people do that, it’s looters, y’all. Social media posts about looter sightings started way ahead of the actual storm. It’s pretty easy to figure out who’s evacuated. And if you did evacuate, you might not be able to get back home for weeks, depending on road conditions.) Via social media posts, I watched Willow panic as pictures of her flooded house began to surface, with no word from husband. Eventually, she learned that he was safe at a neighbor’s.
On Sunday, September 16, the towns of Pollocksville, where I lived, and Trenton, my work base 10 miles away, were evacuated by the National Guard. A dam broke in Trenton. Both towns are completely flooded. The rivers still have not crested. My friends in North Carolina have not slept well for over a week now. The rescues go on. The County of Jones, population 10,000, will be little mentioned in the national press, despite the huge contribution its agriculture makes to the wider community.
When I became acquainted with the agricultural community in Jones and surrounding counties after beginning work there in 2011, one thing was clear: There was Before Floyd and After Floyd (1999). Pecan groves devastated by this storm were permanently abandoned. Farmers noted that blueberries planted on Floyd-soaked fields still performed differently than fields that were not flooded. Trenton proudly showcased its new dam, years after Floyd removed the old one. A high-water memorial sign commemorated Floyd on the town building where I paid my water bill.
Florence is another Before and After event for the people of wild, magical coastal Carolina. My heart is breaking for its people. I am trapped by my grief for them. As I have evaluated my obsession with this storm and its aftermath, I have come to understand survivor’s guilt for the first time. I’ve intimately watched the destruction of lives, destruction that will take years to rebuild, months before any semblance of normality. And I can do nothing to help them.
Sure, I could send money. My money is not going to repair the bridge that stands between Pollocksville and groceries. Or restore electricity any faster than the two weeks currently projected. My money isn’t going to lower the humidity that will mildew everything in the boarded-up houses of the evacuated – they’re still going to return to mold, mildew, breathing problems, and ruined carpet. I know. It’s happened to me. My money isn’t going to spare them any insurance headaches or anxiety over their next car purchase — could that car have been flooded?
Somehow, I managed to feed my kids and get most of my work done last week. While Oregonians went on about their daily lives, shopping in stores that had bread and bottled water and toilet paper, my body was screaming, “Alert, alert! Danger!” Because despite my efforts to immerse myself in my new community, some of the South is still in me. Understandably, hurricane prep was not on the radar of most Oregonians, leaving me in a strange parallel universe where grocery store line conversation does not include praying for Wilmington, or Charleston, or wherever the next one is supposed to hit. Where one item in my Facebook feed is Kitty, making fun of herself over her struggle over what to take as she leaves her home on her fifth-generation farm by boat, and the next is an Oregonian friend sharing a meme making fun of weather reporters trying to stand still in 75 mph wind.
Over time, the waters of North Carolina will recede, and I will watch my friends recover. Already, they are giving thanks that Florence hit as a Category 2, instead of the once-predicted Cat 5. They are helping each other, and posting vital road and water access information, checking on the homes of those who left. Pretty soon, I hope, this lump in my throat will dissipate and my heartburn will go away. As for me, I’ve learned a lot from this storm, including the value of social media as an actual survival tool — and its ability to wreak havoc with my life by delivering a too-intimate unfolding of the anxiety, and even terror, of so many people I care deeply about. Please say a prayer for the people of eastern North Carolina. Their world is now a new one. A world called After Florence.
Nicole D. Sanchez is on the faculty of the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center, part of the Oregon State University Extension Service. From 2011-16, she lived and worked in Eastern North Carolina. Opinions expressed are her own.