When I wrote about Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, I never imagined I would live through one myself a year later. But back in March, I moved from Chicago to the small city of Jacksonville, North Carolina, which along with much of the eastern part of that state, is underwater. Power is being restored, but things are far from getting back to normal; local officials believe it could take as much as two years to rebuild.
Hurricane Florence destroyed my new town and has left me with a newfound appreciation for what victims of natural disasters experience. As a writer, I am sure it will make me more empathetic and insightful when covering such events in the future. As a person, though, I am still processing one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.
I write this from the safety of my grandparents’ house in the mountains of Tennessee, far removed from the floodwaters and wind damage back home. But I almost didn’t leave. Until Tuesday morning, when a mandatory evacuation order was issued, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I didn’t want to leave my house, didn’t want to drag my cats 500 miles (they hate travelling), and didn’t want to spend the money I knew it would cost to travel. The locals weren’t panicking, so why should I?
But Tuesday morning, when the full ferocity of this storm came into sharp focus, was one I will never forget. At the coffee shop I frequent, you could cut the tension with a knife. Regulars who, the day before, had been jovially talking about “hurricane parties” were suddenly discussing whether and where to evacuate. I made my mind up then to leave, and was gone within hours, leaving everything behind but my laptop, my car, and of course my cats.
Since then, coverage of Hurricane Florence is all I care to read about. I tried desperately to find pictures of my neighbourhood, which is on the river and flooded. A brick building I took a picture of the week before was partially destroyed. According to my aunt, who managed to drive by my house, it is still standing (and presumably not flooded), but many people weren’t so lucky.
A friend’s roof collapsed, and her house flooded, while she and her family were inside. A local high school was destroyed. I have no idea how my neighbours have fared. The day I left, one defiantly told me “I am not leavin’ Jacksonville.” I only hope she hasn’t lived to regret that decision – or more accurately, simply that she has lived.
So many people chose to stay, but so many others had no choice. The cost to evacuate was too much for many folks who couldn’t afford extended stays in hotels or didn’t have reliable transportation. The county did bus people out starting two days before the storm, but even I didn’t know they were doing that until after I’d gotten to Tennessee. There were no shelters open in my county, as none were designed to withstand a storm as strong as Hurricane Florence. The storm’s death toll is 32 as of the time I’m writing, but it’s thought that could climb as the waters recede.
As bad as it is in the Carolinas, though, we should count ourselves lucky. It won’t be nearly as bad as what happened in Puerto Rico last year, where thousands died (despite President Trump’s insistence that figure is a Democratic conspiracy). While it is infuriating to see officials from the Trump administration making jokes about Hurricane Florence, it is nothing compared to the callous disregard shown to Puerto Ricans. We are likely to receive more federal support and more media attention than our fellow Americans on the island. And we’re already starting to get our electric back. It took nearly a year for Puerto Rico to have power fully restored.
That’s good news for the Carolinas, but for those of us who evacuated, it isn’t fast enough. Bridges and roadways are still washed out, and many of us – myself included – are waiting to find out when we can safely return home. I hope it will be this weekend, but I don’t know.
What I do know is that the people of coastal Carolina are resilient and determined. They will help one another rebuild, and I will be there with them. Above all, Hurricane Florence has taught me that folks mean it when they say they are Carolina Strong.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Eastern North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @SkylarJordan