September 7, 2011 Facebook TwitterMore...
How I Spent my Summer Evacuation


During the week before a hurricane hits, a meteorologist friend sends out e-mails with his forecasts on where the storm will land and what to expect. He’s usually right on the money, so I put a lot of stock into what he has to say.

The e-mail he sent on Thursday, Aug. 25, scared me to death.

Excerpts of the e-mail included:  “For Outer Banks... This appears to be the Big One” and “For some guidance as to what to do...consider the effects of the worst that you have seen or been in or been told about and plan on that.”

So even though we had stocked up on water, batteries, Cheetos, and all the other hurricane essentials, we decided on Friday morning to pack up and head for the hills, literally, to stay with my fiancÚ’s dad in North Wilkesboro, N.C.

Islanders struggle with the decision of whether to leave for a hurricane, and the reason why so many people stay is simple – we don’t know when and how we can come back.

After Hurricane Earl in 2010, which had relatively minor effects, visitors and locals who had evacuated were allowed access back to the island at the same time, resulting in hours-long lines and harried locals who had to hurry up and get back to work to prepare for the influx of visitors, without stopping to check on their house, refuel on supplies, or just get a much needed nap.

Several friends of ours who had sat in that line, including a couple with a 6-month-old baby who had waited 10 hours to return home after Earl, decided to stick it out during Irene for just that reason.

There are also a number of fantastic businesses, including our good friend Steve Nelson at the Inn on Pamlico Sound, who have generators and ample food and open their doors to anyone who needs a safe haven during or after the storm. In fact, the aforementioned couple ended up staying at the Cape Pines Motel, where they were able to safely ride out the storm in an air-conditioned room.

This is why people stay.

We left for the same reason other folks leave – kids and pets. Many families with small children evacuate because they don’t want to put their kids in danger. Donna, who became our frustrated ferry buddy (more on that later), said she always evacuated for a storm because in the early 1990s her Hatteras house flooded so badly that she was literally gripping her then 5-year-old child and wondering if she should swim to safety next door and maybe drown, or go to the attic, and also maybe drown.

It might sound silly, but we adore our four cats and our dog, and we didn’t want to put them in danger either.

Now, you might think a seven-hour road trip to the mountains with five animals and a grumpy fiancÚ in the car might be stressful. You’re right.  Our van smelled, and I quote my fiancÚ on this one, “like a cat and an armpit had a baby.” Also, five animals who do not like to travel make a lot of noise and release a lot of fluids along the way. 

But we were extremely lucky. We had wonderful family members who were happy to take all seven of us in, and fed us like you wouldn’t believe, and drove us all over the place to play tourist in the mountains. I can’t even express how amazing these people are, and I could write an entire article about our evacuation vacation in the mountains. 

We had the best evacuation experience possible, really. Most evacuees were not as lucky. Our friend Amanda stayed in a motel for days until she could no longer afford to do so, and finally found friends in Raleigh who let her stay in their apartment so she wouldn’t go broke. Another couple with two small children and a dog made a week long trek from a hotel, to one set of parents, then another, that took them across two states, with hours of driving, unpacking, and repacking along the way.

No matter where in the country we ended up, all of us were glued to our Facebook pages and the Dare County Emergency Management page to find out what was happening, and when we could go home.

Granted, we could access much more information than the poor folks who stayed behind and were living without power in sweltering heat, but the information that mattered most to evacuees was limited at best: When can we go home? How is our house? How are our friends and families?

We waited and waited while rumors flew and facts trickled in: There’s an inlet in Rodanthe. There are five inlets. No wait, it’s one inlet and four breaches. The island has power. The island doesn’t have power. We can go home on Wednesday. We can go home on Saturday. We can go home on Tuesday. We’re never going home again, are we?

Finally, Dare County announced staggered entries for Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras, and we Avon and tri-village residents had a glimmer of hope.

Then on Monday, (one week and three days after everyone evacuated), a miracle happened – CHEC totally rocked it out, emergency electricity was up, and everyone could come back on Monday, starting at noon! 

The ferries were going to run 24 hours to support everyone, and the schedule was available on online, so evacuees could make their plans.

So we woke up on Monday with the resolve to head home, and we washed the sheets, broke down my work computer, packed everything up, and were well on our way to leave at 4 p.m. to catch the 12:30 a.m. ferry.

Then an anti-miracle happened. The ferry dock ramp broke. No re-entry for 24 hours, or maybe 48, or maybe just five hours. Thank goodness my co-worker called me and let me know, because we were literally minutes away from wrangling the cats into the car and heading to Stumpy Point.

People in line for the ferry at the time made a mad dash to neighboring Swan Quarter to catch a ferry there, a trip I’m certain was as stressful and speedy as humanly possible. Some people made it, some people didn’t and headed to Manteo and Nags Head hotels to wait another night.

We remade the bed and slept in clean sheets while waiting to see what the next day would bring.

Tuesday brought miracle number 2 – the ferry was fixed by midnight and was back up and running. We repacked our stuff, had a successful cat wrangling, and headed East with an unending chorus of barks and meows to keep us entertained.

 We had checked the schedule that morning and found out there were ferries at 4, 4:30, 6:30, 8, and 10 p.m and at 12:30 a.m. We had intended to make the 4 p.m.ferry, but had a flat tire on the way, and were detained for an hour in a convenience store parking lot in Raleigh.

When we got back on the road, I realized that we still had a shot of making the 4:30 ferry, and I drove like the devil all the way to Stumpy Point. Seriously, if the route from Raleigh to Stumpy Point were a NASCAR track, I would have placed first, and lapped a few cars to boot.

We got to the docks and we stopped at the end of a line on the highway. I could see the curve of a line ahead towards the sound, which at first glance didn’t look that long, and prepared myself for miracle number 3: We were there at 4:22, they weren’t boarding yet, and we were going to drive right on!

A very nice police officer stopped by the car, and politely asked for my license while I shouted back “DID WE MAKE THE 4:30 FERRY? HUH? DID WE??”

Unphased, he explained that the ferry schedule was off, but they had four ferries running, and one just left at 3:30, so it shouldn’t be that long. He said they had slowed down a bit because of the narrow channel in the sound that could only accommodate one ferry at a time, but they were running every 90 minutes or so.

Satisfied, I sat in line covered in cat hair and waited. Donna, the aforementioned Hatteras resident who was in line behind me, stopped by our window while she was handing out donuts to the policemen on the scene, and asked what we had heard. I told her it wouldn’t be long, and we would probably be on the next ferry, which was due to arrive any minute.

I hate being a liar.

The next ferry did come, probably around 5 o’clock or so, and we eased up into the two official lanes that were designated as ferry traffic. I noticed a few cars that had gotten there after us zoom into the lane next to us, but didn’t think that much about it. The ferry personnel were keeping track of who got here and when, surely, because angry locals who have been displaced for days would most likely riot if the order got messed up.

More cars trickled in behind us, and I began to wonder just how long this line was, so I stepped out and walked around.

It’s hard to describe the scene, but it resembled a rock concert parking lot with children, pets and babies.

The line was much longer than I originally thought, stretching a good 30 cars deep in both lanes, and tired families were milling around, walking dogs, entertaining kids, and swatting away the mosquito assault that had descended on Stumpy Point.

There were six or seven port-a-potties staggered throughout the line, but no water available, no food, and certainly no bug spray. One passer-by joked that he wished he had a hot dog tray, because he would make a fortune walking up and down the lanes shouting “HOT DOGS! Get your hot dogs here!”

It was funny, definitely, but it was frustrating that it was true, and the only way to get anything to drink or eat besides what you had with you was to get out of line.

Also, I hadn’t used a port-a-potty since I was 19 and absolutely desperate, and believe me, they are just as I remembered, and that’s not a good thing.

Finally, 5:30 comes. No ferry. 6 o’clock comes. No ferry. 6:30 comes, with a ferry, and the ferry personnel slowly start to board it. A half dozen to a dozen cars and two giant dump trucks that arrived after us, and are in the other lane, get on the ferry, but we don’t.

Donna marches out of her car to find out why this happened, and apparently, there was a shift change and the stacking order may have been messed up. My fiancÚ and I get out of the car and ask three people when the next ferry is coming, and if we will be on it. We get three different answers, including two “I’m not sure.” Donna also gets a different answer as she shakes her head and says “I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on around here.”

Seven o’clock approaches, it starts getting dark, and the natives start getting restless.  But we’re all comforted by the fact that they have four ferries, the last one left at 6:30, there is a line of cars that is stretching all the way down the highway now, so surely it can’t be much longer.

We see another ferry arrive, and load people off, and everyone gets back in their cars, ready to board. Then 7:15 comes and goes and 7:30 comes and goes. The unloaded ferry turns off its lights and sits in the boat slip. Another ferry arrives around 7:45 or so, (My timeline may be a bit skewed because at this point we are exhausted, hot, and have been in a car with five animals for 12 hours.), unloads people, and sits at the docks. There are a dozen or so ferry workers also hanging around the docks, some of which have those red, flashy wand thingies up and ready to wave people on.

We get in our cars and wait, and wait, and wait. I finally get out and go up to the front of the line where I stop a very tired dad who just talked to the ferry workers.

“They say there might be an 8 p.m. ferry, or there might be a 10 p.m. ferry, but they don’t know. Nobody knows,” he reports.

Eight o’clock comes and goes, and 9 comes and goes. At this point, there are two ferries sitting in the slips, a dozen ferry workers standing at the docks, and a line of cars that stretches farther than I can see.

Another person I talk to says she talked to someone who confirmed that the last ferry is scheduled to run at 10 p.m., and there would be no more ferries after that until 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. A very nice ferry worker tells me I might get on the next ferry, but I might not, depending on if they let a huge tractor trailer truck on.

What the heck is going on?

I’m mad. I’ve been here since 4:22. People who got here at 6 have boarded a ferry. There are two empty ferries taking up space in Stumpy Point. There are hot, exhausted families milling around confused. There are hot, exhausted ferry workers milling around confused. There are giant trucks showing up that will fill up the ferries, and might get on before we do. Nobody knows what to do, or what is happening, or what will happen next.

And my cats, in an act of protest, decide to throw up in the car. Phenomenal.

At 9:15 or so, I call my fabulous editor and asked her if she knows what’s happened – have the docks broken again? Are the conditions too dangerous to travel? She hasn’t heard anything, but calls her contact, Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners..

Then the ball starts to roll.

I will always be grateful to Warren Judge, who called me directly and said that he hadn’t heard what was happening, but he was going to find out what was going on and would resolve it ASAP. He then called me again to give me updates and ask for information on the situation, (not like I knew much), and called me a third time, around midnight, to make sure I had gotten on board a ferry. He also said he made sure the ferries would continue to run so that everyone in line could get home.

He has my vote for life.

The ferry workers start to board people. Large trucks that arrived late are not boarded, but dozens of residents who have been there since 4 p.m. are. We get on board, and so does Donna, (who takes pity on our grumbling tummies and gives us a donut), the tired dad, the family that has traveled around two states, and all the other refugees who are grateful to be finally heading home, but scared about what’s waiting for them when they arrive.

Keep in mind that all of us evacuees haven’t seen our homes in a week and a half. There might be moldy food in the fridge that has sat in the heat for days. There might be flooding. There might be leaks or no power. There might not even be a home at all.

We were lucky in this instance too – our dear friend Steve Nelson literally waded through overflowing septic to clean out our disgusting fridge, so we wouldn’t have to throw it away. We bought him a T-shirt. He’s clearly a better friend than we are.

But many people couldn’t contact friends or families to find out what was wrong, or were returning home at midnight to flooded, moldy homes. They weren’t looking forward to a good night’s rest, they were gearing up to start cleaning, repairing, and putting their lives back together over a week after Hurricane Irene hit.

The ferry ride was two hours or so, and when we unloaded, we made an eerie procession down Highway 12 in the dark to our homes, or what used to be our homes.

This was the first time we had seen what Irene had done, firsthand, and it was heartbreaking. Piles of trash, mattresses, appliances, carpet, furniture, and who knows what else lined the highway for miles. In the dark, we couldn’t see the houses, but we could only imagine what damage had been done to accumulate such a mess.

We got home around 12:30 or 1. I let the animals finally escape the car, sat on my smelly couch that had obviously had a bit of water damage, and cracked open a beer.

So given our experience, and the experience of everyone I talked to in the mosquito infested ferry lanes, is evacuating worth it?

Hard to say. Personally, I think I’ll stay put for the next go around, and my fiancÚ says I will literally have to club him, drug him, and pry his fingers off the side of the house if I ever expect him to get in a car with five animals again. (In other words, his answer is “No.”)

And what went wrong at the ferry docks? Who knows. There was clearly a communication issue somewhere along the line, but no one person or division can be blamed. The ferry workers, the policemen, and most definitely Warren Judge were doing everything they could to get everyone home. We weren’t stranded because of a lack of good hardworking people who wanted to help us, but we were, for some reason, stranded.

But perhaps this is just a case of an unprecedented situation – hundreds of people who have to take the Stumpy Point ferry home – that can’t be perfectly executed because it’s something that no one has had to deal with before.

And in the end, considering the hundreds of poor homeless people who are at this moment struggling to stay afloat on this island, if a 15-hour road trip with a carful of cats and a bit of flooding damage is my takeaway of Hurricane Irene, then I am one of the incredibly lucky few.

As everyone I’ve talked to has said, from folks who had generators and little damage to the poor people who lived without power for days and have to level their homes to the ground, “It could have been a lot worse.”

After all, if nothing else, Hatteras Islanders are hardy, salty, and can survive anything.

(Editor’s note:  Dare County Commissioner Allen Burrus of Hatteras took angry calls late last night from folks in the ferry line at Stumpy Point.  Both he and Warren Judge worked late into the night and were back at it early this morning to try to straighten out the problems.  Joy is right when she says this is something that can’t be perfectly executed because it’s something we have never had to deal with before – getting hundreds of residents back on the island by ferry. The ferry process has been smoothed out for now, but please be patient.)

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