Wednesday, September 19, 2018, 10:00 am. Wilmington, North Carolina
Hurricane Florence pounded our town for four and a half long days from Thursday the thirteenth until the morning of Monday the seventeenth. She wasn’t the monster storm she was predicted to be in wind velocity – making landfall as a category 1 storm versus the expected category 4 – but she was epic nonetheless and her devastation is the stuff of legend. Her effects are still being felt as all the sea water she forced up the rivers and the rain she dumped across the state finds its way back into the rivers and heads back to the sea. Along the way, houses, barns, schools, town halls, stores, offices, and all manner of structures have been invaded by Florence. Her winds sent trees and utility poles and debris ripping through roofs and crashing through windows. Her rain caused flash flooding that created ponds and lakes where pastures and playgrounds and houses and businesses used to be. As all that water recedes, it is making its way back to us here at the coast flooding yet more homes and businesses and public spaces along the way.
A New Island?
Florence cut us off from the mainland. The Cape Fear River runs along one side of Wilmington and New Hanover County, the Atlantic Ocean along the other, forming a funnel from which there was recently no escape and to which there was no return. We
like to think of Wrightsville Beach, Pleasure Island (Carolina Beach, Kure Beach), Masonboro, Figure Eight, Topsail, and their popular friends to the north – the Outer Banks – as barrier islands, protecting us by taking the brunt of tropical storms. This time, New Hanover County was a barrier island, Florence’s rain and surge flooding every road into and out of our area leaving us stranded. The water that blocked those roads is indeed finding its way back to the rivers. It has receded enough to allow limited access again, but now the mighty Cape Fear River will crest well above flood stage creating a new disaster for those within a mile or so of its banks. Other rivers that feed the Cape Fear or run to the ocean themselves are likewise exceeding their banks by record amounts. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. As the polar cap continues to melt and sea levels rise year after year, it seems that our little corner of paradise in Southeastern North Carolina might become a mere sandbar.
The Miracle of Technology
Imagining this hurricane experience without digital technology, without all of the prevention and preparation and solutions that were possible because of modern weather forecasting and computer projections and digital communications and GPS tracking is impossible. Not having the sophisticated emergency plans that leverage public and private assets for storm recovery like we are seeing deployed now in Wilmington is unfathomable. Refrigerated tractor trailers full of food and a kitchen running on generator power were operating in advance of the storm to feed people in evacuation shelters and the first responders. Within 24 hours of the eye of the storm passing over us, grocery and convenience stores were open, and some restaurants were serving food, albeit by flashlight. Within 48 hours, a land supply route had been established to get needed supplies into the area despite the flooding and many stores and restaurants were back in business as if nothing had happened.
I cannot imagine what it would look like if we had known nothing at all in advance and had no way to communicate beyond the analog phones of my youth. I thought about my step-sister and I donning our bathing suits and running to the corner to sit in front of the storm drain at the intersection during a rain storm as we often did, giggling to the point of tears as the storm waters gushed over us. Then I imagined us being swept into the storm drain instead of returning home safe and sound. Maybe it would look like that. Maybe it would look like the farmer who saw a storm coming but had no way of knowing that it would rip the roof off his barn or flood his crops or kill his livestock. Is it better to know that these things are possible and to make what preparations one can? For many, many people the answer is a resounding yes, giving them a chance to flee with their loved ones and pets. Though you cannot know how intense the storm will be or what havoc it will wreak, you have time to prepare mentally for the trials that you will face after the storm has passed, and you have time to make potentially life-and-death choices. I prefer knowing to not knowing, despite the oft-attendant helplessness.
No Miracle for Some
At this moment, as my biggest personal concern is for when the power and internet will be restored to my home, I cannot help but think about Puerto Rico. Technology was not leveraged to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year. Why is that? This island that has provided so much wealth and culture to our country was virtually ignored after a few initial recovery measures. Nearly 3,000 people died as a result of our government’s neglect of this important part of our nation. Perhaps Puerto Rico is the answer to the question of what it looks like when you don’t know a hurricane is coming. But we did know and we chose not to do anything about it.
This will be the case for many in rural areas along Hurricane Florence’s path. All this flash and dash going on in our town is of no help whatsoever to people who live in small towns and rural communities all over the eastern part of our state. No one is constructing a makeshift bridge to reach those people now. They are left to their own devices. Many knew this would be the case and planned for it. Others had no way of knowing they would be flooded or without power and were not adequately prepared. All are beyond the glare of the media spotlight and will remain so for weeks and months to come because we like success stories and do not want to discuss our failures. Just ask Puerto Rico.
Location, Location, Location
While all the cameras are focused on the great and wonderful efforts underway in our town, I hope someone is trying to get food and clean water and power and aid to those who do not have the money and means that Wilmington collectively possesses. My thoughts go out to all those folks who are not as fortunate as me, who do not live in this town, or in a part of town near two of the wealthiest enclaves in the region – the Landfall community and Wrightsville Beach. My location makes me the beneficiary of many preventative measures and early restoration efforts. I am keenly aware that those who do not live by the politicians and power brokers who can command microphones are not as fortunate. I don’t like these circumstances one bit, but for now at least that’s how it is.
If you are in the middle of nowhere surrounded by floodwaters and feeling hopeless, there isn’t a lot I can do for you in this moment. I hope you will do whatever you must to stay safe and take care of yourself. You likely do not have an internet connection to read this. Even if you did, my words would probably ring hollow. Still, I want you to know that you are not forgotten by me. Hang in there, my friends.