In the 16 years I’ve lived in this exact spot, I’ve been no stranger to disaster. It’s been two years since Hurricane Florence roared through and devastated my community, and I’m still walking around on barely repaired floors looking up at barely repaired ceilings. Every time I see news of a new storm — in Texas, or Puerto Rico, or Florida, or Louisiana — I feel for the people in its path. I know what it feels like to see the Salvation Army truck with a tray of food and a bottle of water. I know there are holes in the systems for helping people facing hurricanes. I also know what it feels like when your community comes together to build itself back.
When Florence hit, we didn’t have the resources to evacuate so the five of us living in my mobile home gathered at my sister’s house one mile away. We prayed that the brick foundation and her solid roof would spare us the worst of the storm’s impacts. We weren’t alone. There were 28 of us under that roof that long night. I don’t remember when the storm made landfall, but I do remember the water lapping up against the floor as though we were a raft adrift on an angry sea.
There wasn’t just water. While our phones still had power the alerts came again and again, warning of tornadoes that we had nowhere to run from. At one point the water went out of the house, only to return again. By the morning, we’d all tired of being on top of each other and went our separate ways, pushing a boat through chest-deep water to get back to my home. The water — filled with chemicals I can only imagine — left a burning sensation on my arms and face.
When I got back to my home, I was glad that I’d taken shelter elsewhere. a tree limb had crashed through the ceiling of my kitchen, knocking my cabinets and the dishes through the floor. For eight days we scrapped and scraped. We were happy for cold water from someone else’s freezer. It is awful to be hot and miserable and feel like everything you own has been destroyed.
There were a lot of ways in which we did not fit into the government’s plans for response and recovery from Florence. In the time I’ve lived here, the winters have seemed warmer and the water seems higher. The crops have struggled because there’s not enough rain in spring and then too much in the summer. When storms blow in, they’re more powerful and they drown us in rain, but still our leaders do nothing about climate change. Nor have they helped during the disaster. We had no way to evacuate before the storm and after, I didn’t qualify for assistance from FEMA, leaving me to scrape by with the help of my community.
But the community is the high point. At our lowest points, it seems like we finally remember that humans are humans, and the help we give one another is the biggest blessing you’ve ever seen. We got a little help and gave when we could; a friend brought a pickup truck and we sat in the back getting boxes of meals to those we could reach. Sometimes I fear that we’ll forget how to be humans together, as everyone focuses on the differences that we have and the ways we disagree. Above all, it is important that we remember what we have: a dry house and a pillow to rest our head on.
After we cleaned everything up, we still have a beautiful beach to come back to, safe for now from offshore oil rigs and the spills they bring. I go back to that beach to hear the roar of the ocean and see the sun from horizon to horizon. I was born here and though I left for a time, this is my home. In my community we still live at a slow enough pace to stop and get turtles out of the road when we see them. I just hope that we remember what keeps us together and protect this beautiful coast for our children and theirs.
Tammy Leary lives in the Craven County town of Havelock.