Worry, relief, heartbreak. All in one storm.

By Shecoria Smith

When I heard the rain, I worried most about my dad. He had traveled across the country to California for work in the days before the hurricane.

Two young women speak to one another during the Florence resiliency workshop
Shecoria Smith learned that the possibility of death during a hurricane is very real when one of her friends’ mothers was killed by a falling tree during the storm. Photo credit: Krys Fakir

I thought it would be months before I saw him again.

A few days later those worried feelings turned into feelings of relief. I was reunited with my father on a sunny afternoon after the hurricane passed.

I walked into the Wilmington International Airport as the smell of rain still lingered, reminding me that what could have happened to any of us only happened to some of us. At the same time I was thankful that my dad was OK.

I remember waking up to a message from my friend begging me to wake up. She was in need. A few moments later, my mother and I met each other in the hallway. Me with a confusing message saying I was needed, and her with a member of my friend’s family on the phone with the devastating news.

I was in shock. I had heard stories of fatalities days before, brushing it off like it could never affect me and not knowing that days later I was going to get a rude awakening.

My mother had just told me my friend’s mother got killed when a tree fell on a part of the house that she and her baby, not even a year old yet, were in.

I remember crying in my mother’s arms heartbroken for my friend. I was emotionally drained, worrying about my friend having to go through life without a mother and wondering if my dad would be able to come home.

Later that day my friend messaged me saying that she didn’t know how she was going to go on. I told her even though people she loved and needed were gone, she has to keep pushing through this tough time because there are other people who need you in their lives and want to see you do great things.

“This setback will prepare you for a major comeback,” I told her.

We wrapped up our conversation after I told her she could always talk to me. “It didn’t matter if it was 2 in the morning or 12 in the afternoon I’m here and I’ll always be here,” I told her.

I still make sure I check up on her from time to time, however questions have popped into my head from that day forward.

Could first responders have gotten there quicker?

Could we make more areas that have huge trees around them areas that need to evacuate during times like this?

And how do you help make that happen for those who don’t have money to do so?

But all those thoughts were put on pause because everyone had to go to the memorial service for my friend’s mother and baby brother.

My priority was to focus on my friend. No one really got the chance to grieve until the storm had fully passed because we had to focus on living situations and how to get to where we needed to be safely.

After all the chaos from Florence, preparation for hurricanes needs to not only change for me but for all of us. This storm opened our eyes a lot. We need to take natural disasters seriously because the same thing that happened to them could happen to you.

Two teenage girls talk at a table with water bottles in front of them
Shecoria Smith and Julia Narvaez share two very different experiences in a NC Health News and Working Narratives workshop. Photo credit: Brett Chambers

An unwelcome storm makes this teen feel more welcomed

By Julia Narvaez

I never realized what the word “community” meant until I handed a man a bright red Colgate box after Hurricane Florence.

I’d never seen someone so happy. He picked up his son, who shared his big, bright smile, and told me he’d lost everything.

His pictures. His son’s toys. Their home and sense of place where he had hoped his young child would be able to build memories to last a lifetime.

All of it. Gone forever.

In the place I live, the social class you are in defines who you are and how you live.

I always saw Wilmington as a divided place. As a first-generation American whose parents came to the United States from Honduras, I felt out of place in my town. The history and the lack of progress we’ve made to further opportunities for everyone had turned my feelings about this town into disdain.

I first heard about Hurricane Florence during fourth-period class at school. The consensus was everyone was going to leave because staying wouldn’t be safe. Dropping and leaving everything behind came easy to me, as I wasn’t emotionally attached to Wilmington.

The lack of equitable access to resources for people who couldn’t afford it drove my resentment even further.

students try out phone cameras during Florence resiliency workshop
Students practice taking photos with their cell phones during the Working Narratives workshop held by NC Health News staff in Wilmington in Septembr. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

It wasn’t until my friend Facetimed me at 2:31 in the morning that I realized the intensity of Florence. We’d evacuated to New Jersey. I was annoyed that she decided to bother me so late at night.

A tree had fallen into her house. Her pictures. Her memories. All gone.

In a sense, I felt guilty for leaving Wilmington. Although I was miles away, I felt like I’d abandoned a part of me.

It felt like race and class no longer mattered. All that mattered that day was knowing where you were going to sleep at night. The N.C. Department of Public Safety says that 53 lives were lost due to Florence.

Seeing people together after they lost their loved ones gave me a love for my hometown that I didn’t have before. Neighbors were helping neighbors get fallen trees out of their yards. People were opening up their homes to those who lost theirs.

This newfound unity inspired me to give back. From working at hurricane recovery drives, I witnessed people from all different types of backgrounds come together for one purpose — to help each other.

This was a time when it was irrelevant where you came from. What you did to help others mattered so much more.

It turns out now that I come from a place where what divided us also brought us together.

Florence’s washed-out road sent family down different paths

By Karissa Sowers

All I could hear was the helicopter rotor whipping its long blades as we waited on the grass to be rescued.

The helicopter was there to rescue neighbors who were stuck after Hurricane Florence flooded all the roads near my grandparent’s home. There were only three roads that could get you to their house. Two were completely flooded, and the third had washed out, creating a massive sinkhole. All the people who were able-bodied had to climb into and out of the huge crater to escape.

Emergency workers scanning the roads for safety found us stranded on the opposite side of the sinkhole on a sunny afternoon. My cousin, mom, dad, sister and I crawled down the steep, muddy side of the pit, walked across wooden planks over the rushing water and then up the other side. I had an adrenaline rush as my aunt met us on the other side and drove us to my other grandma’s home.

Rescuers in boots on broken pavement and deep ravine created by Hurricane Florence
Karissa Sowers and her family had to climb to safety down and up this ravine created by Hurricane Florence. Photo courtesy: Karissa Sowers

We later returned to the house we left earlier that day, and watched as the helicopter lifted neighbors to safety.

My family and I believed we had made it through the worst after Hurricane Florence made landfall in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. But it was the flooding that came days afterwards that hit us the hardest.

When Hurricane Florence made landfall it had weakened from the monster storm that it once was, but hardly anybody understood the amount of rain it was carrying.

The slow-moving storm devastated my area, but it quickly taught me lessons about my community, my family, and most importantly myself.

I come from a community where people have lived in homes that were built for them. It is the kind of neighborhood where people gather for tractor pulls and hang out at the race track together. A lot of food always is involved.

The post-Florence flooding made it hard for us to reach each other. Power lines were down. Cell phone service was limited.

Once the water started receding, the neighborhood started establishing our new normal.

Some people could not return home until their houses were gutted and rebuilt. Others from the Ivanhoe community were there to help pick up the pieces.

Two local churches organized a donation collection and distribution event. They collected clothes, canned goods and food, toiletries, and pet supplies. Afterwards, the items were laid out on tables and people could come ‘shop’ for what they needed. This experience showed me that in the face of tragedy people can come together and help empower each other.

I spent the duration of the hurricane with my immediate family at my grandparents’ home. I had left my home two days prior to Hurricane Florence’s landfall.

After leaving my grandparents’ house, my sister and I went to my aunt’s home, and my mom went to our house to check for any damages.

The hurricane had ripped up one side of our roof and it had been raining in the house for days. I remember going back home for the first time and crying because I knew that it would never be my home again.

Hurricane Florence taught me and my family that home is not a physical address, but rather a place where you feel loved and safe.

The storm allowed me to realize my true mental and emotional strength after hardships.

This to me was an example of resilience, which is the ability to withstand challenges that come your way. Resilience does not mean that you cannot crumble and fall apart, but it is what you do afterwards that matters.

This is not a skill I knew I had before Hurricane Florence. I had lived a relatively charmed and uneventful life. This was a completely foreign experience.

Military helicopter with a red cross on the side landed for rescue
Karissa Sowers saw her grandparents and others in her neighborhood rescued by helicopters after Hurricane Florence flooding. Photo courtesy: Karissa Sowers

After the hurricane, it felt to me like my life was falling apart due to the loss of my home. Over time, I decided that I could remain sad and miserable or I could try to find the positive in a terribly tragic situation.

I realized that I still had things to be happy for, especially considering that I was still alive and well, along with all of my family members.

Now a year later, I can still hear the dum, dum, dum of helicopter blades disrupting the grass in the field. The sound reminds me of a time of catastrophic tragedy and immense growth.

But we moved back into my new house in the fall. Finally, my family, my community was back together.

Hurricane Florence: Storm of pure fear               

By Charlize Bryan       

I usually love storms, but this time the rain, wind, and thunder made me fear for my mom’s safety.

Our house in Magnolia, North Carolina was near the path of the storm, and as Hurricane Florence’s first raindrop fell onto our house, onto the rain and trees, dampening the dirt, I prayed.

shows a blonde girl working in a notebook, looking intent
Charlize Bryan takes notes during the NC Health News/ Coastal Youth Media workshop that took place in Wilmington in September. Photo credit: Krys Fakir

I prayed for my mom’s safety. She is a type-one diabetic and takes insulin and pain medicine daily.

The power has gone out in previous storms and we were scared of losing it again in this one.

Mom’s insulin is in the fridge. What if it the medicine gets too warm and ruins it? What if she needs it and it doesn’t work?

It was terrifying. If her insulin did not work, my mom would die. The hurricane would have killed her if we didn’t have a generator.

It was dark at night. What if she couldn’t see and tripped and fell? That could hurt her for life.

Florence was the cause of 53 deaths.

The house we live in is very old. My grandfather built it in 1973, and we still live in it today. With it being that old, the roof could collapse if the wind blows hard enough. My mom tells a story of how my bedroom ceiling collapsed in at one point in the past. We might end up living in the back part of the house which is cramped.

I know my mom wouldn’t be able to handle that, as she is stressed, her walking is slow, and it would be hard to get to her insulin. So we were on edge.

Whenever the wind picked up we would just look at each other with this worried gleam in our eyes. I knew mom wouldn’t be able to handle living in the back part of the house like we planned; we simply prayed we would be okay.

Preparing for Florence was a pain. We stocked up on food and water, charged up our electronic devices and my dad got the generator ready. I mentally prepared as well. I slept a lot. I was worried about my mom and knew I would panic if I even started to worry, so I busied myself coloring in my Bob Ross book.

After three days of Florence’s wrath, we walked and drove around examining the damage. One of our vital roads collapsed down the middle, making it impassable. People wouldn’t be able to get back to work. It was scary when we first saw it. We didn’t know how to react other than in shock.

Not much else on our property was damaged though, only debris and tree limbs in our backyard. We were so lucky, it’s almost unbelievable because the house of one of my friends was ruined. Many people were suffering.

Hurricane Florence was devastating. Some people are still recovering from it even today.

We were so lucky, we had no damage and my mom was safe, but she easily could have gotten hurt even worse.

This has changed my perspective of all storms that come through now. Whenever one comes through my first thought is always “please let my mom be safe.”

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