For the uninitiated, there are three stages to the hurricane experience. Previous to Hurricane Florence, these stages were foreign to me, but after the last few weeks, I can confidently say that there is a process to this hurricane drama.
Stage 1: ‘The Tweak’
“Cornelia, we need to evacuate now!” I was adamant about leaving. We were 24 hours out from a Category 4 hurricane making a direct hit on our hometown of Wilmington, NC. “Sean I have been through these before and evacuating has its own set of problems.” We battled, and from talking to many other families in the path of Hurricane Florence, they battled too. It was a dilemma, do you stay and risk life and limb but protect what you own, or do you pack up and head for the hills? In this pre-hurricane phase, I was very confident that we had to leave. The plan was to evacuate to Aberdeen, NC so we were not too far but far enough from the impact winds. My wife, a Wilmington native, had other plans and continued to prepare as she had been doing for the past 5 days. We accumulated a Generator, gas, food, enough water for weeks. It was now Thursday morning and 12 hours until the expected landfall of this deadly Hurricane. The process of preparation was set, but I was still of the mind that we had to bolt. So, the car was loaded, ready to go, and stocked with extra gas cans for a straight 10-hour trip if needed. But the hunker down strategy, complete with a safe room and 7 days of supplies for a 4 person family was also in place. At this time, I thought we knew what we were going to do. Leave and run like hell. The warnings were grave. The Eye Wall was expected to hit with 100-120 mph winds, large trees would snap like twigs, and roofs could blow off. The storm was then set to stall and dump 3’ of rain on the region, flooding roads and isolating the area for up to 7-10 days without power and incoming relief supplies. The outlook was bleak and not an environment I wanted to put my family through. I had Cornelia on board and we had come to the conclusion that we would leave. But the universe had other plans. Our family cat, Bathsheba, did not show up as expected for her morning feeding on the day of departure. She was nowhere to be found. We decided to postpone our evacuation, wait her out and go kill some time watching the media circus down by the Wrightsville Beach Drawbridge. Every news networks A team was there from Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel to Dylan Dreyer of NBC Today Show, and even teams from France and Italy. While intrigued by the spectacle, I missed the text from my good buddy and local ripper Joe Cheshire to meet him at his boat in 10 minutes. By this time, 20 minutes had passed and now the ship had sailed. This was the first downer of the storm event.
Later that afternoon Cheshire informed me that I missed some of the best overhead green waves ever seen on the barrier island. As I became outlandishly depressed by this information and angry with myself for dropping the ball and paying attention to the glam of media, my cat had still not shown up pilling on to my mental stress. Meanwhile, with tropical breezes moving through the trees the children played calmly duck goose under the famous neighborhood pecan tree. With 2 hours remaining until our deadline to leave, we searched for the feline. She was still missing. As the clock counted down, our fate was clear. We would not abandon Bathsheba and we would stay. Resolute as we began to unpack the car, I looked at my wife and said, “Now I’m so grateful that you got us prepared to stay.” Later that night after the family went to bed I was waiting up for them and not giving up hope. The winds began to increase (50mph 12:30 am) and now with 5 hrs until the eyewall was expected to make landfall. As I searched the yard in the battering elements, all I could think of was how crazy powerful the energy in the air was, it was pulsating. Then finally, Bathsheba the cat appeared! Relieved and full of accomplishment, I snatched her up and got her inside. With Stage One of the drama at its end, I was off to bed full of hubris and confidence with no idea as to the power of what was about to hit… and hit it did.
Stage 2: ‘The Impact’
At 5:30 am, I sprung from bed, rattled by the howl of winds ripping through the 50’ tall trees outside our family home. Never had I heard winds like this. “So, this is what a hurricane feels like,” I thought nervously as I stared at my kids Nealie (6), Dax (4), and wife Cornelia, who were all sleeping peacefully on the first floor of our tiny two-story home. We were all here because I felt it was the safest place with the overhead load-bearing beams above. It was still pre-dawn, black and then…BOOM! Glass shatters, the house shakes, Cornelia pops up, “SEAN!!! what was that, are you ok!?!?!? Still seated on the couch, eyes wide, I look up and I am so happy to see the house has not collapsed in the shaking. “Yes!! I am fine!!,” I respond through the powerless darkness and driving winds blowing so hard they were loud in the house. We both snatched the children up and moved our situation to the stairwell. The kids woke up wondering what was going on and we
told them that this was what the hurricane was going to be like and just to stay calm. Surprisingly, they did as instructed. That is until we started hearing the dripping. Now, in the 9 am hour, I still hadn’t emerged outside to assess what happened. The storm was just too terrible. In the morning light, I could look out the window and see the family car was crushed by that precious 100-foot neighborhood pecan tree, the same one the children were playing under hours before. As we were in the thick of the storm and tightly boarded up I did not want to emerge from the home and inspect, but I did leave the safe area and checked my son Dax’s room where I found a branch piercing the ceiling. We had major roof damage that needed to be dealt with. As I was uninitiated to this type of event, I had no idea how to solve the immediate problem. Now I knew why there were so many tarps for sale at Home Depot the day before. Now I wish I bout a few. Over the course of time, the extreme dripping spread and turned into flowing streams from above collapsing the ceiling and ruining everything below.
At this point, Hurricane Florence then proceeded to stall and dump (as expected) 3 feet of water on the area. As the ceiling fell in and AC pumped out of the window unit fueled by our brand new generator, (and with ample supplies of gas) I looked at Cornelia and said, “ I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now, and I thank you again for getting us prepared.” It was the truth and I meant every word. Now, the uninitiated might say that this was a terrible idea, as did so many people from around the country called me to say so. But as I told them, to experience nature in its’ full fury and then to survive, taps into the elemental essences of what it means to be alive. Going into Hurricane Florence I did not intend to stay, but because my wife is a seasoned hurricane survivor, she knew what we needed to do to weather the storm. Now, like anything in life, if you’re not prepared when the storm comes it can destroy you. Life lesson learned from stage 2 – always be prepared.
Stage 3: ‘The Recovery’
If “The Tweak” was useful, and “The Impact” powerful, “The Recovery” was just downright inspiring. People helping people would become the hallmark of the Hurricane Florence event. 48 hours after the tree hit and tornadoes were less present, I strapped on my Hurricane helmet and left the house to assess damages. Our house was barely recognizable, as it was completely covered by trees. Dax looked out the door and said, “ Daddy, this is just like Jurassic World.” As the ceiling had already caved-in, I knew the tree had pierced the roof, but didn’t know my next move. I sprinted to my neighbor Greg Kokoski’s house for consultation. He had sent his family out of town but needed to stay for work. I also knew that on a 1-10 scale of preparedness he was going to be about at an 11. After recapping the previous 48 hours, and being a novice to this drama, I asked for advice as to what to do. As I looked around his spotless garage packed with organized supplies Greg asked,
“What size tarp do you think you need…?” Whipping out stacks of unused packed tarps in various sizes, with ignorance I replied, “I don’t know? T
he big one….” After wading through the swamp separating our yards, we arrived on the scene and Greg said calmly, “Uh, ya… I will be back in a second with my chainsaw.” And in less than five minutes with sheets of rain falling he was on my slick roof ripping through piercing limbs and before I could say “Greg You’re The MAN!!,” he had patched and sealed 3 large holes. “Sean we will take care of the rest of this thing when the storm passes,” he said walking down the ladder. 48 hours and another foot of rain later, Hurricane Florence did pass. And in its wake, displacing thousands of people and killing 48. Four days without cell phone coverage and news sent us to the Stone Age. We had no idea the extent of the situation around town. The water public utility was urging residents to fill up bathtubs and containers in case water was cut. Power was not expected to come on for another 10 days and as expected, all roads leading into the city of Wilmington were flooded and impassable. Food and especially as we’re running low and difficult to attain. If a gas station could be found with gas, you could count on a three-hour line to get a maximum limit of 20 gallons. News footage showed open looting downtown. It felt like society was on the brink of collapse. Then, I heard a knock at the door. Familiar faces from the community were in my driveway with chainsaws. Pleasantly surprised I said, “My dudes, I’m so glad to see you’re out doing some side work, I would love to support you instead of these out of town tree guys…how much do you want to take the tree away?” Tegan Harmon, Josh Gore, Kelly White, and Drew Salley looked at each other smiled and Tegan said, “ Sean we don’t want anything. We are here to help.” They said they called the selves ‘Port City Proud’ (PCP) and their mission is one of Community support during post-disaster recovery. They then proceeded to solve my family’s personal traumatic situation bringing metaphorical sunshine to a really cloudy day. When they were done, they wished me good luck and went on to the next house. In the days since stories like this became the norm, neighbors helping neighbors. Those with something to offer, giving it away to those in need. At the end, when the ‘real’ became known, the tales of looting proved to be isolated overblown incidences. The true villain became the black mold that takes over immediately after you have water damage.
As the clean up continues and is proving to be long and hard we can report from Wilmington North Carolina that this natural disaster has brought the community together and we will be stronger for it. To strengthen the community further PCP will be hosting a donation drive at Jimmy’s in Wrightsville Beach this coming Monday from 5-9pm. Stop in to donate and for some good community fellowship. If you can not make it to the beach and still want to donate follow PCP on Facebook and give back that way. Every bit makes a difference and will contribute to rebuilding this world-class community.
– Sean Ruttkay / EDA Surf Art