‘It will never be the same again’

By on November 25, 2019

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On Ocracoke, scenes of destruction and recovery

Driving down the streets of Ocracoke these days, a new sound fills the air. You can hear it even with your windows rolled up. Pop! Pop! Pop!

That is the sound of nail guns at work, and it seems to emanate from everywhere. Young men in their twenties hustle in and out of houses carrying saws and planks of wood. Overladen tool belts hang from their waists, and their work boots look worn in, caked in dust and paint. On breaks, the men chat good naturedly with one another on front lawns, leaning on their trucks.

Nearly three months after Hurricane Dorian decimated the community, many parts of Ocracoke still feel like a disaster zone. Plant debris, wood, and other building materials sprawl outside most homes in chaotic jumbles. Nighttime drivers have to be careful to avoid hitting household appliances piled on the curbs. An entire bus still lies on its side, its windshield smashed, on NC-12.

As the community tries to rebuild and heal, residents and those helping them are finding that the process can be bumpy. Uncertainty, bureaucracy and even the foibles of human nature are all complicating factors. But what everyone on the ground clearly recognizes and appreciates is what one resident described as “an outpouring of love and support.”

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Over at the Methodist parsonage on Howard Street, a local contractor and some helpers are using heavy equipment to break up an old concrete cistern.

Bob Lineberry, a retired electrical and computer engineering professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, is eagerly bounding around the site, helping out where he can and “getting dirty.” Lineberry and his wife retired this year and decided right away they wanted to do relief work. The couple has vacationed on Ocracoke for years, so once the hurricane struck, they felt they had to come volunteer.

“We’d been pecking at [the cistern] for three days with volunteers and were getting nowhere” Lineberry shouted over the grinding noise of the machines. “The way it works on Ocracoke, you just go down the street and ask for help.” So they approached a local contractor operating the machine and said, “We could sure use that machine.” And he said, ‘I’ll be right down!’”

Lineberry and his wife are volunteers with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the Church’s humanitarian arm, which has taken the lead in rebuilding on the island.

Twig Rollins, UMCOR’s site manager, said that, “Because America and the eastern part of North Carolina is so saturated with disasters, other faith-based groups weren’t able to set up operations. But we were.” Other denominations, including Presbyterians, Lutherans, Latter Day Saints and Baptists, have come under UMCOR’s management coordination to do volunteer work. UMCOR provides housing, donated food, hot showers and a laundry facility for anyone willing to come and pitch in, and volunteers have been showing up from all across the country.

Islamic Relief USA volunteers outside the Methodist church. (Lucy Papachristou)

Last Thursday afternoon, a group of a dozen young people from Islamic Relief USA, a humanitarian non-profit headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, was forming an assembly line outside the Methodist Church on School Road to bring supplies from a tent outside into the church building, which was severely flooded by Dorian.

One of the young people, Syed Hussaini, is from Los Angeles, and flew in a few days ago to come down to Ocracoke. A coordinator for Islamic Relief, he said there were nine volunteers and three coordinators working this cycle, and that many boarded flights from faraway cities.

UMCOR has set up shop next door to the church in the fellowship hall, which was spared any significant damage. The wood-paneled walls are lined with tall shelves filled with donated food: 28-ounce cans of peas, varieties of pasta sauce, and snacks for school children, like Cheez-Its and applesauce.

Rollins, busily working on his computer, said the money is coming from everywhere. The Outer Banks Community Foundation has pledged hundreds of thousands to build houses, Samaritan’s Purse has pitched in, UMCOR allocated money, and the state has authorized funds, though they have not yet arrived. He said UMCOR is now beginning to do case management and identify which houses are in greatest need of the incoming state money.

Each homeowner has their own particular case, Rollins said. Some people are receiving SBA loans, some have money from state grants, and some, though very few, he said, had flood insurance. The problem, he added, is that homeowners will have to wait for repairs, as the labor is done by volunteers. But costs are kept low by using free labor, and UMCOR, as one of Lowe’s top national accounts, gets high discounts on supplies.

Rollins himself used to be a construction manager for UMCOR in Pender County, outside Wilmington, where he was helping fix flood-damaged houses from last year’s Hurricane Florence. He came to Ocracoke on temporary assignment for about a month and “loved it.” When they offered him the site manager position, he couldn’t say no. “I felt like I was called to be here, so here I am,” Rollins said.

Gil Wise, the Methodist Church’s District Superintendent for the Beacon District, has been coming to Ocracoke about every other week since Dorian. For him, the struggle isn’t over when all the homes and businesses are rebuilt.

“We have to invest in the people,” he said, explaining that he has been conducting leadership trainings for locals. “We’ve been talking about how they cannot just reclaim who they were, but in this moment, being able to redesign themselves to be something new in the future,” a process he called “congregational development.”

Rollins agreed that the island has changed since the hurricane and conceded that “it will never be the same again.” But some changes, he said, will be for the better. “You’re going to have new construction. Some of the older cottages are not going to be the way they were. They won’t have this beautiful wood. Some people are taking that very well, and some people aren’t. But it’s a necessary evil so that you don’t have a lot of respiratory problems down the road.”

In terms of the effects on the community, Rollins said he “couldn’t think of many negative things at all. We’re seeing the best of man come out, no matter if they’re Muslim, Baptist, whatever…We have a saying, ‘Never waste a disaster.’ I see people set aside their presuppositions of people and religions and coming together.”

‘People don’t really have a plan’

The Dorian-related hardships have hit many locals hard. A woman working in one of the few businesses open last week said she was “on the cusp of leaving” after the storm. She said she usually takes her two school age children on ski trips during the winter, or to art museums in Norfolk, to show them the world outside their little island village.

But now, she said, she has to think much more about her budget, and cannot indulge in any unnecessary spending. More generally, she said people “don’t really have a plan.” Most locals who were living in trailers lost those homes and are now staying for free in rental houses. But in March, when owners will need to rent those houses out for their own income, people “still don’t know where they’ll go,” she said.

Jason Wells, who runs the popular local eatery Jason’s Restaurant on NC12, is similarly frustrated. His restaurant was “completely destroyed” by Dorian, and, unable to work, he has been donating his free hours to cooking and serving up food to local residents.

The day after Dorian struck, Wells showed up to volunteer at the firehouse. “Someone asked me, ‘I have five-hundred pounds of donated chicken, would you be willing to cook it?’ So that was day one,” he chuckled.

Wells now spends much of his time at the Ocracoke Community Center, where a rotating crew of roughly six volunteers prepare and box 350 meals per day for residents and unpaid volunteers. At its peak, the group was cooking 500 meals a day, but now more residents are back on their feet.

Just before noon last Friday, Wells and his crew were heating up some chicken pot pie, which was cooked by a woman in Beaufort County and sent over to Ocracoke. Wells receives many such food donations from citizens in surrounding counties.

After his restaurant took in 20 inches of water, it was completely gutted, Wells said, at a staggering cost of $50,000. He will have to rebuild most of the interior.

“I’m facing potentially an eight-month stretch with no income,” Wells said, as he stirred the vats of chicken pot pies, occasionally wiping his brow. “I agree [the recovery money] should start with individuals. But what I think gets lost is that most of these individuals have a job and if you don’t help the businesses recover, then how are going to help individual people recover?”

Wells said that the “outpouring of love and support has been amazing,” but added that people don’t always donate what is needed. “People want to get the warm fuzzies,” he said. “It’s a lot more gratifying to donate a Christmas tree than a couple sheets of plywood.”

The Ocracoke Volunteer Firehouse is another place that still feels something like a disaster zone. The two women working at the food pantry there on Friday afternoon, Traci Griggs, a part-time resident, and another resident who wanted to remain anonymous, say they and other organizers have been trying to systematize the pantry.

Samples of food pantry packages – the smaller box is for 1-2 person household, the larger one for 3+. (Lucy Papachristou)

Until last week, the place was a “free-for-all,” said Griggs, but now residents are asked to come just once a week to pick up a food box, which are organized by household size. Pantry workers keep a log of residents’ names on index cards to track the flow of goods.

Early afternoon last Friday, the pantry was seeing a great deal of business, as residents shuffled in and out carrying cases of water and bags filled with canned beans and Cheerios. The mood was neighborly, and people chatted with one another about the restoration of their homes and asked after family members.

But it’s not always easy managing vital supplies in the wake of a disaster.

“The problem before was that people would come and take forty rolls of toilet paper, stocking up,” the anonymous woman explained. “They would take three or four cans of pasta sauce, instead of actually thinking about their neighbors. People were a bit self-centered. So, we’ve been trying to monitor that more. Hopefully we’ll have enough all winter long, but…”

The so-called ‘control group’ of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department will be in charge of allocating the $1 million donated to islanders by the Outer Banks Community Foundation. But this woman at the pantry worries about infighting among islanders already strained by their destroyed homes and additional financial struggles.

“There are already people saying, ‘It shouldn’t be anyone on the island making those kind of decisions,’” she said. “I don’t want any part of that. I just want to tune it out.”

Concerns about tourists

She also wonders about what will happen to the island once tourists are allowed back on Dec. 2, a worry shared by Jason Wells. Right now, there is an informal vetting process for volunteers when they come through the door of the community center looking for lunch, Wells explained. But when the island opens, “Anyone can walk in and get a meal, and we don’t want to get to a point where we’re grilling people and saying, ‘Show us your ID!’”

The woman at the food pantry worries about the perception of Ocracoke that tourists will take back home, as well as how they will behave on an island that’s very different than the one people are used to.

“There won’t be enough restaurants open and enough for tourists to do. I think people will get really bored. I don’t want them to go back and say, ‘That place is a dump and we shouldn’t go there anymore…’ I don’t think we’re ready, but that’s just my opinion,” she said.

In fact, though, the most incredible view on the island may no longer be the long stretch of untouched white sandy beach. Just beyond Jason’s Restaurant where the national park begins, a junkyard is slowly growing by the side of NC-12.

The long line of debris on NC-12 at the eastern edge of town. (Lucy Papachristou)

Along a hundred-foot stretch of the road, all kinds of debris is piling up: building materials (wood, linoleum, concrete); car parts (wheels, axles); household appliances (refrigerators, microwaves, washing machines); bicycles; mattresses; paint supplies and buckets; a dozen or so gas tanks; and a slew of strange miscellaneous items, like egg cartons, a pot of faux sunflowers, a single shoe, an empty can of Spam, a busted kiddie pool, a basketball and a landline phone. This is the detritus of a disaster, and three months later, the pile endures, a painful reminder of what Dorian wrought.

If the wind is right, you can smell the salt air as you walk alongside the junk heap. But when it shifts, a far less pleasant smell hits your nostrils, emanating from the washing machines and paint cans.

Line of three dozen ruined and abandoned cars on NC-12 at the eastern edge of town. (Lucy Papachristou)

A bit farther down, some three dozen cars are parked along the side of the road. All of them are dead, killed by the seawater that leaked through their doors and windows in September. On the windows of one white truck, someone has written “FLAMMABLE EXPLOSIVE KA-BOOM.”


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