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By Anne Blythe

As Hurricane Dorian churned in the Atlantic Ocean, frustrating the meteorologists trying to predict its path, there was a bit of calm before the coming storm Wednesday at a specialized medical emergency shelter in Clayton.

Amy O’Connor, a registered nurse at Duke, and Logan Spears, an emergency room nurse at Duke Raleigh Hospital, were sitting at a makeshift triage-station set up inside C3 Church, a 21-year-old open and airy structure built on an old tobacco field about 115 miles from Wrightsville Beach.

Logan Spears, an emergency room nurse from Duke Raleigh Hospital, left, and Amy O’Connor, a registered nurse at Duke University Medical Center, will help triage people referred to a shelter for the medically fragile at C3 Church in Clayton. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

It was mid-afternoon and though the shelter had 60 beds at the ready with room to add another 40, only one patient had sought shelter inside the church auditorium.

Amanda Herring, a family nurse practitioner who came to Clayton from Boone to volunteer her time and services, joined O’Connor and Spears as they waited for what could be dozens more patients referred inland as coastal counties evacuate residents and vacationers.

“I love doing patient care,” Herring said.

O’Connor had helped tend to medical needs after Hurricane Matthew doused southeastern North Carolina and flooded many out of their homes along the Lumber, Tar and Neuse rivers and wanted to help with any repercussions from Dorian.

“I begged to come,” Spears said. “I like the excitement.”

Past hurricanes provide lessons

With lessons learned from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael last year, North Carolina emergency workers are becoming more proficient at setting up shelters for hurricane-zone evacuees. State health officials are working with shelters to set up “calming rooms” at some shelters where people with autism and other health-related issues can get relief outside the  larger communal settings.

While Hurricane Dorian was still more than 270 miles southwest of Wilmington, state medical assistance team trucks and Emergency Medical Service ambulances from many counties were congregated outside the Clayton Church.

Gov. Roy Cooper toured the site early Wednesday afternoon and met with Matt and Martha Fry, the church pastor and his wife.

Fry offered C3 facilities last year to provide needed shelter for vulnerable evacuees from Hurricane Florence and did not hesitate to do so again this year.

Brian Haines, a public information officer with the state Department of Public Safety, said the patients that end up at the shelter come with referrals from their counties.

The people who end up there do not necessarily need hospital care but they could use more medical attention than a general shelter is equipped to provide.

The state has set up 60 beds for the medically fragile in a shelter at C3 Church in Clayton. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

The Clayton shelter, which will have around-the-clock teams of nurses and other caregivers, can tend to people who need oxygen or need dialysis or cancer care.

Mobile shower facilities were ready and in addition to the 60 to 100 beds available for evacuees, there was also an area set aside in the church where the 50 to 60 caregivers that will be stationed there can sleep between shifts.

Though hospitals up and down the North Carolina coastline did not plan to suspend emergency services during the storm, other care typically is scaled back to keep off-site patients out of harms’ way and to allow the health care workers to focus on storm victims.

Dorian claims its first NC victim

As of Wednesday evening, 40 North Carolina counties were under weather alert, including tropical storm alerts as far inland as Wake County.

Cooper issued evacuation orders for the barrier islands and by midday was warning coastal residents about the potential for high winds and storm surges from four to seven feet.

An 85-year-old man died in Columbus County after falling off a ladder while trying to protect his home from hurricane damage. His death was ascribed as being the first related to Dorian in North Carolina.

As hurricane models continued to vex meteorologists much of Wednesday afternoon, showing slight shifts west that could bring more flooding and wind damage to North Carolina, a mega-shelter set up in an old Sears store at Northgate Mall in Durham began to see its first guests.

Sheltering in Durham

Lucille Smith, 39, a resident of Columbia, S.C., decided to come to the Durham shelter, in part, because she knew the American Red Cross had a hand in it.

“I know when I see the Red Cross name that it’s going to be a safe shelter,” Smith said.

Smith lived in Georgia, when Hurricane Michael did so much damage to the roof of the house where she and her family were staying that they moved to South Carolina to start anew.

When the forecasts started showing Dorian’s path and the possible damage coming to South Carolina, she decided amid the uncertainty that she would be certain.

She has a 2-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son with autism.

“I’m not ‘Let’s wait around and see what happens,’” Smith said. “I thought if we came up here, there’s a lot of room and my kids will be able to have lots of room to move around.”

Though the Durham shelter is not set up specifically for people with specialized medical needs, there were 12 paramedics in a room with medical beds and supplies to help with minor health care problems.

In the late afternoon, they were working with technicians to set up wi-fi connections in case they needed to contact a physician offsite for a telemedicine conference and review.

Tim Jones, a Gaston County EMS captain who was at the shelter with 11 other EMS workers from across the state, said the facility was set up to provide oxygen for evacuees who might be suffering from asthma attacks or to provide shelter who might need off-site dialysis.

A crew of nurses was there, too, as were social workers to help anyone sheltering at the Durham facility with mental health needs.

“We want to keep as many people here if we can in case the hospitals and emergency rooms are inundated,” Jones said.

Sense of deja vu for relief workers

Tom Hegele, a public information officer for the NC All Hazard Incident Management Team, was at the Durham shelter late Wednesday afternoon, answering questions about the cots set up for 629 people and the potential to expand at the old Sears store.

The first shelter seeker arrived at 12:10 p.m. Wednesday and by late afternoon there were about 20 people checked in.

State medical emergency teams opened a Hurricane Dorian shelter at C3 Church in Clayton for medically fragile patients who need active monitoring. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

As weary as coastal and eastern NC residents are of the hurricanes in recent years, many of the same people who respond to the call to serve those in need of shelter afterward are finding it easier to set up help. At the same time, they’re wondering how many times they’ll have to do it again.

“The folks that are helping, it’s a pretty universal feeling — ’We’ve done this enough or do we need to see this again,’” Hegele said.

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.