Hurricane Irene Aftermath
September 22, 2011 Facebook TwitterMore...

Those left homeless on Hatteras are living a nomadic lifestyle


It was the day before the evacuation for Hurricane Irene was ordered, and Marilyn Midgett got the carpets cleaned in her Rodanthe home.  One week later, her carpets were stripped out of her house and piled next to the highway as trash, ruined by soundside flooding.

Today, the one-story brick exterior of her house looks okay but the inside has been totally gutted from floor to ceiling.  Old family pictures lie on the floor of the enclosed carport.  Random pieces of furniture sit on the bare sub-flooring. 

Gone are the lower kitchen cabinets and all appliances.  Fumes from the Clorox, which was used to kill mold and mildew, tickle the throat.  What was home is now an uninhabitable mess.

Piles of upholstered furniture, which is probably unsalvageable, litter the front lawn.  For the moment, they are drying out.  But in all likelihood, they will be taken to the dump because of mold and mildew.

Marilyn, 66, is the widow of former Dare County Commissioner Joseph “Mac” Midgett, and lives alone.  She has two grown children and two grandchildren who live on the island, and they work together in the family business, which includes, among other things Island Convenience in Rodanthe.

For some, this would be emotionally insurmountable. For Marilyn, she acts like nothing is different. 

“A whole lotta people got hurt a lot worse than I did,” says Marilyn.

Her daughter, Martha Caldwell, lives in Hatteras village and her son, Joey, lives in Frisco, but Marilyn didn’t want to leave Rodanthe when her house was ruined and has taken to living the nomadic life of moving around every two or three days. 

Immediately after the storm, Marilyn spent the first three nights with her daughter in Hatteras village.

“Didn’t like the drive,” she argued.

So she spent a few nights with her nephew, Gary, who has a house across the street from Island Convenience.

“Don’t like stairs,” she continued.

So, she took advantage of the slow business time and spent a week with a friend in Como, N.C.  When she returned home, she spent another two days with Gary, but on the lower level this time, then two days with her son in Frisco, and so on.

But still drawn to the town she calls home, Marilyn decided to spend some nights in the back of the store.

“It has a couch and a half-bath,” Marilyn says.  “The carpet’s a little smelly – got wet in the hurricane.”

Almost a month after the hurricane, she plans to continue this lifestyle.  It may be Thanksgiving before her house will be habitable again.

“She just won’t leave,” says her daughter.

Marilyn seems comfortable with her situation and seems to enjoy being at work.  In fact, she acts nonchalant about the entire Hurricane Irene ordeal.

The day before the storm came and with her carpets sparkling clean, she spent the day cooking because her children and their families were coming to stay with her during the storm in the one-story, brick ranch-style house that sits on the ground.

“Everything I own is here – my store and rentals,” Marilyn explains.

The family spent most of Saturday, Aug. 27, the day of the storm, without electricity, which went out at 8:05 a.m.   By dark, there were early signs of rising sound waters.

“On the screened porch, the water started bubbling up and carrying on,” remembers Marilyn. 

About 4 inches of water came in the house, but the weather outside seemed to be calming and the family went to bed.  Marilyn’s two granddaughters, Myra, 14 and Claudia, 10, climbed into grandma’s king-sized bed to finish the storm asleep.

Even though the family was resting, the hurricane still had work to do.

“Look, Mema, look how high the water is,” said  Myra, pointing to the knob on the night stand. 

For a moment the water was below the knob.  In short order, the water was over that knob, making the water knee-high in the bedroom.

“I was starting to get a little uneasy,” says Martha, “but she (Marilyn) was the calmest.”

Marilyn sat in a chair to keep it from floating away.  Then she asked a granddaughter to grab a stool that was bobbing in the water.  She put her feet on it to keep it in place and asked for a Pop-Tart.

In a manner that was all Marilyn, she reassured her family that “everything is going to be okay.  No one is going to drown in this house,” a structure that had protected the family for more than 40 years.

Martha and husband, Scott, made a game plan to go into the attic.  He pulled a dryer underneath the tiny hole in the ceiling that accessed the attic and got a kitchen chair to use as a step.

A good plan, maybe.  Marilyn turned to Scott and told him that she couldn’t fit in that hole.  The access was unusually small.

The water was now hip-high inside the house.

Plan B meant going outside.  Scott tied a rope to the railing of the house next door that sat a little higher than Marilyn’s house.  One at a time, each person used the rope to get to safely through water that was neck-high on grandma.  Two dogs were carried through the water via the lifeline, too.

This part of the story has a happy ending.  The family survived unhurt, and the house can be repaired.  Marilyn has been displaced from her home and yet, somehow, life is good.

“You learn what is important,” says Marilyn.  “Things can get a whole lot worse than losing your house.”

Waves resident Sheila Collie, 48, evacuated for Hurricane Irene, which was billed as “the Big One.”  She and her 80-year-old mother left the island in a car with a few belongings.  They thought they would be gone for only one night.

But, it would be 11 days before she would be allowed to return to the island because of restrictions that were in place to reduce the number of people on the island after the storm because of the power situation.

Her home had 28 inches of water inside and the damage was extensive.

“What is the difference – 11 inches or 28 inches -- the result is the same,” Sheila theorizes.

The problem here was Sheila couldn’t get home to deal with her house.  Time is critical following floodwater in a house to save the structure from a mold and mildew outbreak.

Five days following the hurricane, friends Paul and Maria Rosell from Hatteras took the bull by the horns and got into her house to remove the furniture, floors, carpets, walls, appliances, insulation, kitchen cabinets – everything!   There were many people helping – teen-agers, church groups.

According to Sheila, there were so many blessings and miracles along the way. 

“I just had to trust that they kept what needed keeping and tossed things that were unimportant or unsalvageable,” says Sheila.  “At the moment, I have no idea what I have.”

When residents were finally allowed to return to Hatteras Island, Sheila left her mother in Hillsborough with family and drove home alone through an area in Columbia that had been hit by a tornado spawned by Hurricane Irene.

Remembering those people heightens Sheila’s emotional state.

“Never seen raw tornado damage before,” Sheila begins.  “Shells of houses with people just sitting in a chair in the middle of what used to be a house.  At least, I had my car and what was in it.”

Sheila is now staying in a friend’s summer house and feels “very fortunate” for this situation.  She will probably be here for four to fives months.  Her reality check was realizing that her mother won’t be able to come back to the island until after Christmas.

Many residents of the northern villages are scrambling to find shelter during this rebuilding process. 

There are people living in the Salvo Volunteer Fire Department or sleeping on a relative’s couch because that is all there is - old people and the young.  Others have set-up living spaces in friends’ garages.  Tiny travel trailers are now home for several while their homes are salvaged or rebuilt.

Some residents still have to go to work and staff the few businesses that are open in this area. They go wearing thrift store clothing and without a home to retire to at day’s end.

The Salvo Inn Motel is providing rooms to people who need them. 

There are more options for shelter in Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras which were less affected by the hurricane, but most are unwilling or unable to travel back and forth.  There are an untold number of vehicles that were destroyed by Hurricane Irene’s flood waters.

Laura Dillard is working for a division of the N.C. Emergency Management called Transitional Shelter Assistance Program (TSA) and is set-up at the Rodanthe Community Center to help. 

The program is designed to help displaced residents find a short term situation until they can locate a more suitable place that is available for five or six months.  Now that the summer rental season has abruptly ended, Dillard feels that the timing is good for finding longer-term temporary housing.

“Most people have managed well on their own,” says Dillard.  “They don’t want to leave Rodanthe.  It seems to be the nature of this group of people that they want to handle things themselves.  But, we still have people living in mold and mildew.”

Mold and mildew present a real health hazard to everyone, especially to people with allergies, the very young and the elderly.

People can exhibit symptoms just by breathing in mold spores, resulting in sneezing and coughing, and longer exposures can lead to sinus infections, repetitive headaches, and severe flu-like symptoms.  Physical contact can cause skin rash and irritation.

The Really, Really Free Market opened in the Wave’s Plaza as part of a local volunteer effort to help this devastated area.  It works like a thrift store but everything is totally free.  It has been a lifesaver for those who have lost nearly everything. 

The recent drop in temperatures drove lots of locals to the market in search of warmer clothing.

According to volunteer worker, Jen Johnson, “People are taking exactly what they need.  For some, it may only be a day or two worth of clothes because they have nowhere to put clothes.”

The emotional toll is starting to hit hard to this storm-ravaged area.  For weeks, people have been so busy helping friends and neighbors plus doing their own clean-up that they didn’t take the time to cry. 

The workers at the Really Free Market agree that the storm victims see how long the road to recovery is and “now it’s really overwhelming.”

Sheila’s positive attitude is indicative of the can-do attitude that is so prevalent with the hardy tri-village folks.  Even with her own house devoid of walls and with huge fans running full time to accelerate the drying process for the house’s framework, Sheila’s thoughts turns to others.

“My goal was to get out and volunteer,” Sheila says. 

Because she was gone for 11 days, she “felt that I hadn’t done one thing for the community.  Gotta pay it forward.  The Baptist Men helped me gut the house, I got to help them here,” pointing to the community center in Rodanthe. 

Being busy helps this islander deal with the harsh reality of what has happened to her.  However, she also feels that if her job was available, she would be emotionally unable to work.  Helping other less fortunate than herself somehow gives her the strength to deal with her own rebuilding process, which is monumental.

From school teachers to fire chiefs, young and old, rich or poor, the hurricane didn’t discriminate.  Those victimized by Hurricane Irene are just taking it day by day to overcome the horrific damages to this part of the Hatteras Island. 

With homes uninhabitable and the 2011 job season over, some have their sights set on just trying to make it to March 1, 2012, the unofficial start of a new season.

“This is tough, real tough” Sheila admits

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