Hurricane Irene: A reporter’s look back after a year, Part 2
By ANNE BOWERS
from those first view hours in the tri-village area will stay with me
forever. It was much different than Hatteras village after
Hurricane Isabel in 2003 where buildings and belongings were simply
eradicated -- gone.
Waves, and Salvo were still standing but brutalized in a more subtle
manner that wasn’t always easily noticeable. The sound waters
kept coming all Saturday night as residents climbed onto furniture,
into attics, or were rescued by personal watercraft in the black of
night as houses filled with tide that was head-high by some
reports. When the waters receded, most of the houses still stood,
but many were ruined forever.
first drive to the small inlet at Mirlo Beach was intense. There
was a boat sitting on top of a fence, perfectly balanced.
Tombstones were knocked to the ground. Retail stores had their
fronts and backs blown out and their merchandise strewn everywhere.
was hot during this stretch of time, typical post-hurricane
weather. The humidity levels were wicked and the mosquitoes
unrelenting. For storm victims, there was no relief from either
because there was no electricity and sometimes no home.
most awful sight I remember was the people sitting on their front steps
not knowing what to do. It was the second morning since the
storm, and no one had yet come to help them. House after house,
they just sat and stared, lost. It reminded me of some of the
post-Katrina scenes. Donny wouldn’t take any photos for these
were people who he knew and had gone to school with. These people were
proud but vulnerable.
went as far north as the road would take us. Barricaded and
guarded was broken highway with the southbound lane sunk or
missing. But just ahead, it all ended abruptly, stopped by an
inlet that flowed from ocean to sound. Both of us sat in the back
of the truck amazed at the amount of the destruction. The power
poles were leaning badly and all the houses in this area had sustained
massive damage. It was a mess, and it would take a tremendous
amount of manpower and time to repair.
National Guard escorted Donny past the barricade so he could photograph
the area in the pink glow of sunrise. I spent this time talking
with the manager of Kitty Hawk Kites in Rodanthe who rode out the storm
in his apartment that was just down the street.
He had lots of stories to tell, and even though I wrote them all down,
I never had time to publish them. His name was A. J.
Jackson. We had never met before but our paths crossed several
times over the next couple of weeks. However, our friendship
would not last because he died a short time later kitesurfing in the
the corner from the breach at Mirlo Beach, were the smoldering remains
of the house built to look like a lighthouse. It was owned by
Roger and Cecelia Meekins, the original owners of the famous
Serendipity House that was used in the movie “Nights in
Rodanthe.” They called it the Sentinel on the Pamlico.
was another story that I never wrote. On the second night of the
hurricane, the rising flood waters caused their generator to catch fire
and quickly burned the house down around 9 p.m. The couple barely
got out of the house in time. Roger escaped carrying his brief
case and medicines, but neither wore shoes, only the clothes on their
water was over their heads. A neighbor and his wife, who was
recovering from recent hip surgery, met them with life preservers and,
together with their dogs, swam and bounced off the ground to a house on
the other side of the street. The owner of that house and his son
waved a lit lantern from the top deck to guide the two couples to
safety. No one was hurt but there was nothing left of the
beautiful house the Meekins had so lovingly designed and built.
and I then drove over to the ocean side to check on Serendipity, which
had been moved in 2009 from Mirlo Beach to save it from the encroaching
Atlantic Ocean. There it stood, all strong and proud with those
bright blue shutters. Over the railing appeared the smiling faces
of Ben and Debbie Huss, owners of the house. They, too, had
ridden out the vicious Hurricane Irene on Hatteras Island.
shook, she rattled, and she moved a lot,” Ben said about the house
during the hurricane, “but she hung in there and we have very little
They did lose the six gallons of ice cream in the freezer.
moved around the island all morning talking to people and hearing their
stories. Because our house phone worked, we collected phone
numbers and messages from dozens of people asking us to contact their
family and friends off-island to let them know they were safe.
Apparently, we had one of the few working phones on the island that
could call long distance.
had arranged to take a flight to get his first aerial photographs of
the inlets that day so our first trip was cut short by this
opportunity. Coming back into Buxton that afternoon we saw lines
of trucks and cars in both directions at two open gas stations.
It was day 3 without electricity and residents needed gasoline to run
their generators. It was a crazy scene and reminded me of the gas
crunch in the ‘70s.
barely made the flight with local pilot Dwight Burrus of Hatteras, and
I used this time to catch up with Irene Nolan at her office – which, at
the time, was her air-conditioned vehicle. There was so much
going on and communications were hampered, yet the news had to get
out. It was all so rudimentary but we managed. She edited
my work on my laptop and I would run to the electric company to e-mail
articles and photos to Donna, who continued to work from Raleigh.
readers may not remember this but it was 11 days before those who
evacuated could return home. We were on lockdown until
fundamental services, such as food, water, electricity and fuel could
be established and maintained. The Coast Guard patrolled the
waterways and marinas and the airport was watched by law enforcement to
keep folks from flying in. Who was allowed to use the emergency ferries
was tightly controlled. A curfew was also in affect from 9 p.m.
until dawn, which made my late-night trips to use the electric
company’s wi-fi rather nerve wracking. However, we never got
nearly three weeks, Donny and I made daily trips up to the
tri-villages. The amount of issues to be covered was
endless. The Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo Community Building, along with
the local fire departments, became the central locations for
everything. This is where people ate, where donations were
dropped, where medical attention began, where housing problems were
addressed, where meetings and church services were held, and
more. Most residents lost their cars in the flood and getting
around was challenging without a car, so these localized centers were
temporary ferry dock that ran from Rodanthe to Stumpy Point, which was
also devastated by Hurricane Irene, had its own set of problems.
It was our vital connection to the mainland. Every piece of heavy
equipment that was used to fix the road came by this ferry. All
fuel came through this ferry. The steamy black asphalt had to
travel to us by this ferry. Yet, the storm had caused shoaling in
many areas of the channel, and ferry boats could run only at high tide
most days. The channel leading into the Rodanthe dock was so
narrow that only one ferry could be in it at a time, and the dock was
only big enough for one ferry. Many times, the ferry would have
to wait out in the sound until the channel was clear of boat traffic,
which would take an hour or two.
ferry workers pulled long shifts without any days off only to get off
work and spend the night on a neighbor’s couch because their own home
was made uninhabitable by Hurricane Irene.
Wednesday Aug. 31, signs of recovery were beginning to show.
Volunteers from the lower villages had mobilized and were helping the
people of Avon, Waves, Rodanthe and Salvo clean up and protect their
homes from mold. This was a horrible job – pulling out wet carpet
and soaked insulation from underpinning, pulling out drywall, spraying
Clorox, or just picking up huge amounts of debris which could be
anything from trees to the neighbor’s dock.
trash was required to be brought to the sides of Highway 12 where it
would be collected. By the last day of August, the piles were
huge and growing. It looked awful and sad. Furniture,
pianos, clothing, papers – it was all piled along the road.
dump trucks that pulled a huge trailer were brought in and funded by
FEMA. The Salvo Day Use Area, located on the soundside just south
of Salvo, became the temporary dumping ground. It was organized
into metal, wood or other materials, and it grew into a monstrosity.
houses were torn down and taken to the edge of the road. These
super-sized dump trucks were equipped with yellow cranes that would
scoop up everything and take it to the dumping area. By the next
day, there would be more trash and debris along the road, which looked like it had never been touched.
were often overcome with emotion when they saw the size of the
temporary dumpsite. It continued to grow until Highway 12
reopened on Oct. 10. There are no words descriptive enough to
accurately tell readers how big and terrible this area was.
by the end of August, Donny and I had tested the power of the inlet at
Mirlo Beach. We devised a plan to ride our bikes up to the big
inlet on Pea Island which was about five miles north of Mirlo. We
checked the tide charts and picked a time before low tide to carry our
bikes across at Mirlo and ride north to take the first photos of the
inlet on the ground on the south side.
the early afternoon hours of Sept. 1, Donny and I discreetly took the
bikes out of the back of the truck and made our way to the shallow part
of the inlet, carrying the bikes high as we waded across. The
road on the other side was like ribbon candy with dips and valleys that
were chest high. On the dunes, we could see the high-water mark
left by the sound water from the week before. To our surprise, it
was over our heads all the way to the inlet.
took some time to negotiate the broken surface, but we finally got to
some smooth road and battled the 25-30 mph headwinds all the way to the
Pea Island Inlet. Once there, we walked towards the ocean and
through the fingers of the newly cut inlet. This wasn’t an easy
inlet was a sight to behold. There were multiple cuts with one
major one that ran from sound to ocean. The fast moving water was
clear and blue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife buildings were
severely damaged, with one of them draped on the edge and falling into
the water. In time, all three buildings would be swallowed by the
electric linemen were working on the poles in an effort to straighten
and repair. On the other side of the inlet, there seemed like
there were lots of parked vehicles and dozens of people scurrying
around. There were so many kinds of repair issues around this
area -- transportation, electricity, phone, and cable just to name the
obvious. Recovery plans were still in the making at this
point. We didn’t know yet how the road would be repaired, but it
wasn’t going to be quick.
the wind at our backs, the ride back to Mirlo Beach was much
easier. This would be our only bike ride to the inlet. When
the Mirlo Inlet became somewhat negotiable by truck, we started getting
regular rides with the North Carolina Department of Transportation road
crews. We met some great guys that gave it their all to get that
road repaired as quickly as humanly possible. Oh, did I mention
that I accidentally dropped the bike in the inlet when crossing
readers may know that I have a real soft spot in my heart for
animals. Driving home from Rodanthe one day, we saw a pelican,
acting sickly and standing by the road. We caught it without much
trouble. Donny tied a rubber band around the tip of its beak to
keep it from biting, wrapped it in a towel to keep it still, and took
it to Frisco where local wildlife rehabilitator, Lou Browning, could
attend to him.
bird was exhausted from the storm and unable to hunt. After much
needed food and rest, it was released back into the wild. Lou’s
rehab center had dozens of birds suffering as a result of the
hurricane, mainly the ocean bird known as the shearwater. Many of
these waterfowl were too far gone for Lou to save.
morning following our bike ride to the inlet, I got a call that the
house known as Tail Winds had collapsed. Tail Winds had become
the first oceanfront house people saw after Serendipity was
relocated. It was painted a beautiful shade of blue with lots of
white trim. The windows had been boarded up for protection during
house simply fell in on itself, according to witnesses. A
surveyor heard a loud crack that caught his attention. He watched
the house fall to the ground. We were surprised that this house
collapsed because outwardly, it didn’t appear to be in peril, unlike
several other houses that surrounded it.
house and everything in it was smashed to pieces by the ocean that was
churned up by Hurricane Katia, which passed offshore. The
broken-up house and all of its contents covered the beach or washed
into the inlet. A lot of this debris is buried under Highway 12
attention was quickly turned to Tail Winds neighbor, the Black
Pearl. This oceanfront home was seriously listing. For
days, we watched and photographed it as it continued to lean towards
the ocean. But, the Black Pearl still had some life left in it
and it held on. The owners were able to secure a permit to move
the house back on that lot and save it. They are hopeful that it
will be able to be rented by Labor Day weekend.
There were plenty of meetings to attend.
Commission Chairman Warren Judge traveled from Manteo to Hatteras
Island often. He always parked his vehicle at Stumpy Point and
walked onto the ferry, saving the valuable ferry space for someone who
needed it. There was always someone to meet him and take him
around. And the person was generally Allen Burrus, the
commission’s vice chairman from Hatteras village. They were
always around, meeting with the public and working hard for a quick
recovery. One needs to keep in mind that Hatteras Island was only
one of the areas in Dare County devastated by Hurricane Irene.
Sept. 30, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue flew in to see the damage
in the northern villages and talk with a few storm victims. Donny
and I were lucky enough to ride around with her entourage and to have
the opportunity to speak with her directly. She pledged her total
support to put the island back to the way it was in spite of some of the
opinions being talked about in the mainstream media that they shouldn’t
build “the bridge to nowhere.” She was warm and approachable to
the victims who wanted to speak with her.
I could write endlessly about this period of time, but I won’t.
triumph of the human spirit is what powers people to do amazing things
such as fixing what the storm ruined, and this needs to be the
take-away from every article written about Hurricane Irene.
Through it all, the island continues to recovers today. We still
drive over a temporary bridge, and there are some people who still are
waiting for their homes to be finished.
seven weeks of isolation following the attack of Hurricane Irene was
surreal and weird. We ate differently, our routines were
disrupted, and clocks ran fast on generator power, gaining about a half
hour per day. Light bulbs glowed and faded. Electronics
worked most of the time but not always. It was January when the
final repairs were completed on the electric lines that power the
the end, my truck battery died prematurely probably from all those late
nights working in front of the electric company with my laptop plugged
into the cigarette lighter and air conditioning running on high.
The bicycle that I dropped in the inlet at Mirlo Beach rusted pretty
quickly from the salt water in spite of Donny’s efforts to clean it.
the laptop didn’t make it. It held on until the bridge opened and
with the job complete, it gave up and just wouldn’t turn on
anymore. It had done its job well.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Click here to read more Island Free Press articles on Hurricane Irene.