Jade Lopez scooped up her 11-month-old son, José, and wiped the long black bangs out of his eyes as he showed off a dirty plastic humidifier he had found. It had been just one day since Hurricane Dorian flooded the family’s trailer and gutted their taco shop, and already the stench of rot was creeping in.
Her husband had torn up the soggy carpet, and Jade Lopez, 21, had scrubbed the floors and heaped the soaked clothes in the bathtub. But as she and her two children sat in the broiling kitchen Saturday afternoon, with the power out and their flooded generator out of commission, she said she felt surrounded by that smell, and by the scale of what they had lost.
“Everything,” she said.
While Hurricane Dorian largely spared the U.S. coast, it leveled a direct hit on 800 people who had remained in the village near the southern tip of Ocracoke Island, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A 7-foot surge from Pamlico Sound washed over the island, gushing into people’s living rooms and burbling up through their heating vents and cracks in their floorboards. Seawater filled bathtubs from the drain up and sent people racing to the second floors of their homes — and then it retreated just as quickly as it had come.
Unlike in the Bahamas, where the death toll from the storm is in the dozens and rising daily, no lives were lost in Ocracoke. But much of the village was left a soggy, isolated mess.
“I’ve been through every storm,” said Dan Garrish, 66, as he sat in a love seat in his driveway, surrounded by a dripping pile of clothes, books and everything else from his bedroom. “I’ve never seen water come in like this.”
Unless you happen to be a piece of driftwood, it is hard to end up living on Ocracoke by accident. The mainland is nearly three hours away by ferry, and there are no roads on or off Ocracoke Island, a 16-mile-long blade of sand that mostly belongs to the National Park Service. Residents of the village cherish it as a beachside Brigadoon where streets did not receive official names until 1999, according to a local newspaper. Dorian’s blow knocked out the power and water service, and for a time, halted the ferries that tie Ocracoke to the mainland.
Ferries loaded with heavy National Guard cargo trucks and pallets of supplies began trudging across Pamlico Sound to the island Saturday with emergency food and water, cleanup crews and hundreds of emergency workers. But the island remained under mandatory evacuation Sunday, meaning that residents who had fled before the storm were still not being allowed back on the ferries.
So a tiny makeshift fleet of power-boaters — most of them residents or second-home owners — assembled at a boat launch in Swan Quarter, near the ferry terminal, to set off for the island, carrying water, food and even a pair of shoes for an 88-year-old woman who had stayed during the storm.
To get to Ocracoke on Saturday morning, a photographer and I hitched a ride with an extremely unofficial five-man volunteer relief crew who said they had helped pull people from floods during Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas last year.
They had cases of water, military rations and chainsaws to clear debris. What they did not have was a boat that could make the 30-mile trip across Pamlico Sound. About an hour into the journey, the outboard motor on their 20-foot fishing boat groaned and died.
We bobbed listlessly for an hour while the relief crew called for a tow, spliced wires and performed oil-covered surgery on the smoldering motor. I flagged down a private fishing boat of part-time Ocracoke residents who graciously let the photographer and me scramble aboard. After ensuring that the relief crew was not in danger and had enough engine power to putter back to land, we roared off for Ocracoke.
As the boat pulled into the harbor, three generations of the West family — Peter, his son, Chris, and his grandson, Spencer — pointed out splintered wooden walkways and piers that rippled like roller coaster tracks. A 100-year-old boathouse was gone.
“The roof is over there,” Chris West said, pointing to a neighbor’s yard.
Hurricanes and floods are part of life on the island, so ingrained that older houses were built with scuttle holes to allow floodwater in and out, so the houses would not float off their foundations. One of Ocracoke’s markets makes a ritual of serving free post-hurricane coffee, residents said. There are white signs nailed up outside the Village Craftsmen showing the high-water mark of storms going back to 1985. A new one for Dorian is about 2 feet above any of the others.
Joyce Gordon, 83, was second-guessing her decision to stay through the storm. She said she had nervously drunk wine and paced through her home as the water rose and as neighbors debated whether it was time to rescue her by boat.
“I won’t again,” she said.
As residents walked through the streets with bottles of bleach Saturday and celebrated the return of running water, several said they had stayed on the island because they felt they could endure Dorian’s Category 1 winds, and did not want to be cut off from their homes for days after the storm passed. Many spent the weekend airing out their absent neighbors’ homes and calling them with updates about the flood damage.
“We’re pretty resilient,” said David Frum, 69, who works at the local water plant.
But in a grassy backyard cluster of rented trailer homes where Lopez’s family and others live, there was little discussion about rebuilding or calling contractors. Unlike the homeowners whose losses are covered by federally backed flood insurance, Lopez said, her family did not have any insurance on their personal belongings, nor did they have coverage for the kitchen equipment or the food they lost at their now-destroyed taqueria.
Compared with the families who have lived for a century in the same cedar-shingled homes, Lopez was a newcomer to Ocracoke. She did not fish or boat or duck-hunt, or even care much about going to the beach. The ocean scares her 11-month-old son, José, and her 3-year-old daughter, Melissa.
But five years ago, an aunt who cleaned houses here told her there was opportunity on the island, and Lopez — who was born in the United States but raised in Mexico — said she decided to leave Hidalgo, Mexico, and finish high school in Ocracoke.
She and her husband, José Alfredo Suazo, started the taqueria last year. People loved their mahi-mahi tacos and chimichangas, and though making money was hard when they had to pay more than $2,000 in rent on their shop and trailer home, Lopez said they poured their profits back into the taco stand and a new food truck.
“It was nice,” her brother-in-law, Wilmer Dominguez, said as he sifted through the food-covered kitchen of the taco stand. “Before.”
Ocracoke’s tourist-dependent restaurants and hotels have to make enough money during the summer to survive the emptier winter months, and some residents said that Hurricane Dorian had slammed the doors early on this year’s busy season. Lopez said she did not know whether they would reopen, or even stay on Ocracoke.
“After this?” she said. “No.”
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