One month after Florence: ‘We’re still fortunate, we’re still blessed’

October 7, 2018

by Ryan Jones

“I didn’t really have a problem answering the question,” Franklin Evans of Wilmington, North Carolina said, laughing into the phone. “This storm just caused a lot of problems with my marriage.”

When we first ran into Franklin down on Front Street in Wilmington just hours before Hurricane Florence made landfall on the Carolina coast last month, causing devastating floods in the region, he had seemed a little on edge. When asked why he was staying in town and not evacuating like most people, his answer had been direct, if not a little abrupt:

“My family’s here,” he says in the video recording from that afternoon, standing on the relatively empty sidewalk downtown and looking right at the camera (though barely audible over the beginnings of Florence’s great gusts of wind). “Been here all my life. We ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Almost a month later in a phone interview (me in Manhattan, Franklin home in Wilmington), he laughed at the agitation he’d shown in the moment. He’d been stressed, and with good reason: a hurricane was coming, and his wife wasn’t going to be home with him and their young children. She’s a supervising Certified Nursing Assistant, which meant she had to care for others during the storm, rendering her own needs secondary. Franklin’s wife, like so many other people in the region, didn’t have the luxury of evacuating. She had to stay because she had to work, and there wasn’t much of an alternative option for her. Or, as Evans put it: “You don’t have no choice but to go and do your job… if you don’t have a job, well, the bills can’t pay themselves.”

“You know, as her husband, it’s my job to protect her,” he went on. “It was kind of scary, going that long not being able to talk to her. Her phone wasn’t working, my phone wasn’t working. I was more worried than anything.”

“Worry” is a word that comes up a lot while catching up with some of the folks my father, 1010 WINS reporter Al Jones, and I met while covering Hurricane Florence weeks after the storm finally blew away from their sleepy coastal towns. When we were down on the coast in the days leading up to Florence’s arrival, tension and frenzied preparation for something huge were palpable in the air.

“I definitely saw a lot of panic from people,” recalled Lexi Farmintino. She’s a nineteen-year-old waitress I met in downtown Wilmington the day before the first breaths of the storm arrived. She works at Bourbon Street, a restaurant down near the banks of the Cape Fear River. The owners, like everybody else, had boarded up their windows in preparation for the storm by the time we got to town. Lexi had made good use of the blank slabs of plywood, painting Bible verses and information about nearby shelters in a bold red on the sheets of pale wood.

“I saw some panic from locals too, which kind of worried me… (people were) preparing a lot more and taking this super-seriously. That’s when I was like ‘okay, this is not going to be good.’”

And people were panicking with good reason. Hurricane Florence dumped over 10 trillion gallons of water across the Carolinas during its extended stay in the area, and caused an estimated $22 billion in damage. At print, Reuters has the death toll up to 51.

Folks we re-connected with weeks later all had stories of destruction and loss to recount; if not their own personal suffering, they were sharing the tale of a friend or loved one’s misfortune. Lexi told me a friend of hers who works with her in Wilmington lost her house entirely.

“She had to be rescued out of her window. I heard they bulldozed her house…she lost everything, so I don’t really know if she’s taking it very well…but we’re all here for her.”

Lexi and Franklin were both relieved that, as bad as it was, Florence didn’t hit North Carolina at Category 4 or 5 strength like it was scheduled to.

“If a Category 4 or 5 hit, well, there wouldn’t really be much of Wilmington left… (Wilmington would) probably never be the same after that.”

Jeff Harris is a twenty-something resident of New Bern, North Carolina. He’s lived in New Bern all his life and said he’s never seen the town take a beating like this from a storm before.

The Wilmington area got hit hard by Florence, especially places along the coast like Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach, but New Bern might have gotten the worst of the raw power of the storm. New Bern was built along the mighty Neuse River, and when Florence’s unrelenting storm surge set in the river overflowed, sending floods barreling through the downtown, causing devastating levels of damage. I’d talked to Jeff after the floods had receded a bit, and while we spoke, right next to us was a boat that had been lifted up out of the harbor and slammed into the Courtyard Marriott downtown. Jeff details boats for a living, and he recognized some of the vessels scattered on dry land around town as boats he knew well, boats that helped him make his livelihood.

Areas of the town of New Bern were decimated by the storm, and Jeff didn’t mince words when describing the wreckage.

“I do know quite a few people that completely had to abandon their houses. They’re going to have to demolish and then rebuild.”

Speaking of a neighborhood not far from his: “A lot of those houses are gutted from the inside out. Floods got really bad in them areas.”

Like “worry,” that word “gutted” is another one that comes up a lot in conversations with recovering residents of coastal North Carolina. People’s homes and businesses, buildings where people meet and live and love, where they spend their time and build memories together: gutted. Whatever the flood waters could reach, they devoured. If Florence comes with any lesson, it is a simple one: water is merciless, and it does not care what it eats.

With tragedy comes recovery, and the resilience of the people that live in the area, and their commitment to their own rehabilitation, is what they all talked about most almost a month out from Florence’s harsh winds and waters. They spoke of damage, of loss, but, as people do when they emerge on the other end of a catastrophe, they spoke at length of human compassion as the foundation of their rebirth.

“There’s a lot of people in the community that’s been doing a lot,” said Jeff Harris. “My parents are going out and taking food to certain people’s houses that can’t get out, elderly people that suffered during the storm.”


WEB EXTRA: Photos from Hurricane Florence


This reminds me of a man we spoke to hours before the storm arrived in Wilmington, a man who I was unable to track down for this article. We asked him why he didn’t run for the hills like other people, and he told us that some older neighbors of his were going to have trouble during the storm and needed him around. It’s people like that man, and like Jeff and his family, that are the glue that hold society together when it starts to crack under pressure and adversity. These are the people who keep the lights on metaphorically even when the actual lights and everything else are off for a while.

“It’s really nice seeing that, actually, seeing people still able to get on their feet and help each other out. It’s a really good thing. Even those who can’t do much, don’t have a lot of money to help, they’re doing their part by just walking over and helping,” Jeff said of what he’s seen in New Bern since the storm. It doesn’t surprise him, though.

“That’s just the way people are. People try to come together and put the bad stuff behind them…it’s good to be a part of it.”

It isn’t just locals who did their part to keep North Carolina towns like Wilmington and New Bern and Jacksonville together during the worst of Florence’s pummeling of the coastal region, as well as the immediate aftermath. New York sent some of its best men and women down there as well in the form of Task Force 1, a strike team comprised of NYPD and FDNY personnel that has a wealth of experience in hurricane relief; they were sent down to help with Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey in 2017 alone.

The task force sent down to North Carolina was made up of 2 teams of 101 people, with the first team deployed on September 11th.  On a day when the city’s police and fire personnel would normally be remembering brothers and sisters they lost on 9/11, this group instead was heading far outside of their comfort zone to save the lives of strangers.

FDNY Battalion Chief Joe Downey lost his father DOWNY on 9/11, and while his wife read some of the names of the fallen out loud at the yearly ceremony near Ground Zero he was leading the first team of 83 task force members down to North Carolina.

During the task force’s roughly 2 weeks down south they rescued 128 people, 61 animals, and conducted 370 wellness checks. New York City Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joe Esposito calls them heroes of the highest caliber.

“When there’s an incident, they’re calling up saying ‘are we being deployed?’ They want to go into harm’s way,” said Commissioner Esposito. “They’re a special breed of folks, they really are.”

The city’s finest and bravest made some daring rescues while down in North Carolina, rescues that could be optioned for the big screen and gross millions at the box office. At a news conference in Bushwick to welcome home the members of Task Force 1, NYPD ESU Detective Dennis O’Sullivan told the story of the night they came across two men who had tried to evacuate their homes in a rowboat long after it was safe to go outside.

“They went through an overflown river. The boat capsized and they wound up in a tree…Hypothermia was kind of setting in for them,” a spotlight-shy O’Sullivan told reporters. “We were able to talk them through getting into the boat, putting location devices on them, pulling them in and getting them to our medical staff who were waiting.”

The men were stuck in the tree for six hours waiting for help.

NYPD ESU Detective Mike Cacace told the story of how task force members rescued a male cancer patient who evacuated to his neighbor’s house when the flood waters got too high, but forgot an estimated $15,000 worth of his cancer medication in his home. When the rescue team reached him, the man was resigned to losing the medication, the detective said. But New York’s heroes put themselves in great danger to get it back.

“His residence was surrounded by about six feet of water filled with spiders and fire ants…he was telling us he’s got some alligators that live in that area as well. Nobody was thrilled about that one,” Cacace said.

Rescuers found the medication on a coffee table in the back of the completely flooded house, and it was none the worse for wear.

The extreme pressure of saving lives in a chaotic weather event like Hurricane Florence brought out everything these heroes had to offer, and the adrenaline didn’t stop pumping until the mission was over.

“Coming down from that ‘go-go-go’ and trying to get back into everyday life,” said FDNY Chief Bill Redden, who we first spoke to down on New Bern the Sunday after the rain finally stopped.

“It’s an adjustment.”

Redden led the second team of the task force that was deployed on September 13th.

“It’s like a fifty pound weight just dropped off of you,” said NYPD Captain Thomas Traynor of the moment he got the order to bring his men and women home. “Weight lifted off your shoulders.”

Natural disasters come, deliver tragedy to the masses, and then they go they go, leaving behind wreckage and desolation, and eventually the extra people involved fade away from the situation. First the out-of-town journalists leave, like we did after the storm was over. There is always news to report, there are always stories to tell, but eventually you have to pack up your cameras and microphones and head back to your neck of the woods. Next are the heroes who came from all over the country to prevent Florence from claiming even more lives than it did, like the members of Task Force 1. The people who remain when everyone else is gone are the people who live in the region, the people who have to try to piece together the world that great walls of water came and splintered in some cases, shattered in others.

Talking to the people who are trying to patch up their homes and their lives is an exercise in learning about the nature of mankind. People settle, and they build worlds in their image where they settle. Some people spend their lives moving around, going from place to place and never settling, but most people aren’t like that. Most of us put down roots, grow civilizations and businesses and neighborhoods as testaments to our very existence, functional monuments we can hand off to our children and grandchildren to grow bigger and more bountiful than ever. It’s a big world we live in, and it’s our nature to want to claim a piece of it and be claimed right back by those we build our little settlements with. The way human beings react to tragedy highlights this again and again.

People build civilizations and are tied to them, and the idea of leaving any of it behind is foreign, almost sacrilege, to most. The people who live on the Carolina coast understand that they’re in hurricane country, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stand by their home and their communities. The damage is widespread in its brutality, and very costly, but rebuilding is part of the process that people in this region have made peace with.

“That’s just something you have to understand if you’re wanting to move to the coast,” Lexi said, but she’s positive storms like Florence won’t slow down the consistent flow of people who flock to the area to enjoy the warm climate and scenery. “People will risk a lot to live near the ocean.”

Still, the fact that residents of the North Carolina coastal area understand hurricanes are a part of their lives doesn’t make the experience of dealing with one any easier or less tragic for the human beings who are ripped from their daily routines and thrown into the kind of chaos no human can ever dream of having any kind of control over.

Hurricane Florence dealt a truly crushing blow to communities up and down the coast, and the recovery will be anything but swift. Jeff Harris said the people in New Bern are dealing with a lot of hardship, and that the end is not in sight just yet.

“A lot of companies around here took some big hits. Some people are gonna have to wait before jobs open back up, and it could be weeks. It could be months.”

After a pause: “You gotta have money to survive, and people need it.”

“It’s not something that’s easy, but you adapt. I’ve been through hurricane after hurricane in my lifetime, and it just happens,” Jeff said. “You live through it. If you survive, you survive.”

It’s this kind of perspective that keeps communities alive in the wake of disaster, the kind of perspective that lets you see flooding of biblical proportions as something to deal with head-on and move beyond instead of something that you’ll let dictate your life choices. Or, as Jeff put it towards the end of our phone call, you just need to know what it is that’s important once all the dust has settled:

“Even some of the people that lost everything they got, they still came forward and said ‘we’re still fortunate, we’re still blessed. We still got our life.’ ”