I learned how to shuffle cards when I was 15 years old in September of 1996. What a strange talent to remember exactly when I acquired the skill. But I have distinct memories of sitting with my mother for hours on end at the dining room table that still sits in her house off Middle Sound Loop Road in Ogden. We sat at that table with the windows open and the late summer heat filling our house with no fans and only sunlight in the day and candles or flashlights at night. I learned how to shuffle cards then because my mom and I played cards for hours on end to pass the time away during and after Hurricane Fran hit Wilmington, NC that year.
Fast forward 22 years to a different house on the other end of the county and there I sat, trying to teach my seven-year-old son how to shuffle UNO cards at our coffee table while waiting for Hurricane Florence to pass over our house. Although 2018 brought many technological advances and privileges to waiting out a storm that weren’t possible before the turn of the century, many things were similar during this hurricane: Waiting is painful when the end of a disaster is not yet in sight. Fear is crippling when wondering what the next hour will bring with howling wind, rising water, and threats of tornados. Nerves are shot when people are exhausted and scared, and resources are hard to come by. But the resilience of a community is stronger than any storm when strangers and neighbors come together to get a city back on its feet.
Whether you stayed or evacuated, it’s safe to say that Monday, September 10 was the last “normal” day in Wilmington. The following day, schools closed, evacuations were made, houses were boarded up and the most precious documents and family heirlooms were packed up or put up to prepare for the impending storm. By Wednesday, September 12 – you knew if you were staying or going. My family stayed. My family, a mix of people who are all natives of southeastern North Carolina for all the generations known to us, stayed put.
And we waited… Remnants of the storm started to reach us Thursday, we went outside in the eye Friday morning, and then Florence stalled. She sat and hovered for what felt like a week. Just when we thought she was moving away, the tornados started. As if she hadn’t wreaked enough havoc up and down the NC Coast, Florence continued in her furry with new disasters. I lost track of what day it was, but it wasn’t really safe to even get out Sunday; and even then, our community resembled something out of the Twilight Zone more than what we usually see while driving or walking down familiar roads.
It was painful and heartbreaking driving around right after the storm passed. Power lines were down everywhere, flooding had started, and trees that looked like they would stand the test of time crumpled around neighborhoods, houses, and buildings. Parking lots that have never flooded had 2 feet of water with white caps flowing through them. Neighborhoods that have never experienced standing water were suddenly under feet of flash flooding and people were escaping homes by way of boat or helicopter in the middle of the night. Nights were eerily black when most were still without power, and after all the bands of the storm finally passed, the stars shined brighter than I’ve ever seen from my house because man-made power wasn’t there to obstruct their brilliance. It’s a strange roller coaster of emotions to go from doing nothing but waiting to finding anything to do to help anyone.
Neighbors that I never met came over to ask if we needed help. An old friend who lives on my street brought a chainsaw to my house, and when I told him the downed tree could wait, he said he had to do something, so we shared memories of past while we cut and carried that tree to the mounting debris pile.
People who had no power but generators cooked for people that had nothing. Volunteers signed up at multiple distribution locations to serve meals and pass out donated items to help people who lost everything. Churches opened their doors to crews from out of state who came as soon as their trucks were allowed in the area.
I came up to the office everyday after I could get here to bail water that came in and mitigate any more possible damage that could come. And every day, I saw more help on the roads. Military planes landed in Hanover Center’s parking lot that had rescued people from their homes. Organizations had huge tents set up in other parking lots to distribute tons of donated items to anyone who could come get them. The Cajun Navy volunteers left their place of safety far away and came with trailers of rafts and Jon boats to rescue people and animals from homes completely submerged. It’s humbling to drive around and see strangers who’ve come to help people whom they’ve never met in a city where they’ve never traveled, all because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
Power is (for the most part) restored. Little by little, water is receding, and blue tarps decorate tops of houses all over the city. Grass that was submerged is now visible, but brown. Debris piles are in front yards of almost every home in the city. The mosquitoes have arrived with furor and other critters will soon as well. But, I hope and pray that the resilience, hope, and compassion that has swept over our community is here to stay.
Right now, there are two types of people: those who have what they need, and those who don’t. If you need something, use the resources that are available to help you. This is not a time for pride to well up in you if you are in need or have lost everything. Organizations are still distributing food, disaster food stamps are now available, food banks are stocked to provide non-perishable food items to families, and shelters are still available in the affected counties. If someone asks you if they can help – LET THEM. If you have what you need – find out how you can help someone else. Do you have an extra room that someone can stay in? Can you provide transportation for someone whose car flooded? Can you cook for a family who can’t afford to buy groceries to replace the ones they lost? Do you have, or can you purchase clothes, cleaning supplies, canned goods, hygiene products, diapers, formula, or any other of the many items people need right now? Can you help someone who isn’t able clean up their yard to get the debris out in time for the first pass? Can you go to a neighbor’s house and listen – just listen – to them process all of their emotions that haven’t yet surfaced after the storm? If you can – DO IT.
In the years that followed 1996, the people in our area would refer to places, houses, trees, and big events as “before Fran” or “after Fran”. I imagine that same thing will happen this time. Our city won’t look the same after Florence and there’s a good chance our lives won’t be the same. But just like we pulled through Hurricane Fran and our area boomed in population and economy, I believe Southeastern North Carolina will overcome this storm too.
I can’t help but wonder what my son’s most specific memory from Hurricane Florence will be years from now. I wonder if it will be something disastrous or something extraordinary that happened.
Maybe it will be that he learned how to shuffle cards.
Alexis Hunter oversees all marketing, outreach, and human resources at Chrysalis Center.