Volunteers board Cedar Island Ferry

A group of volunteers board the Cedar Island Ferry earlier this month to make their way to Ocracoke where they gutted about 200 homes. (Contributed photo)

DOWN EAST - National relief agencies are now on the ground in Ocracoke, providing assistance following the devastating effects of Hurricane Dorian.

But in the early days after the storm, it was islanders helping islanders – with an assist from a Morehead City pastor.

Almost exactly a year ago, Ocracokers came 21 miles across Pamlico Sound bringing supplies to family and friends on Cedar Island when Hurricane Florence cut them off from the rest of the county.

Now it was the Cedar Islanders’ turn.

Commercial fishing boats usually fitted to make a living were packed with household and food items to provide a lifeline to the small village to the north the morning of Sept. 7.

“We knew we had to respond quickly,” Cedar Island resident Jessica Emory said. “We saw there was a need, and you can’t always wait for someone to tell you to take action. Time was precious. We had the resources to make it happen. We have a real understanding what it is like to go through this.”

Ms. Emory, the Beaufort Middle School principal, is married to Vince Emory, a lifelong Cedar Island resident and commercial fisherman.

The couple and others on the island started getting word that things were bad on Ocracoke just hours after Dorian had crossed the Outer Banks.

The Category 1 storm of Sept. 6 brought record-setting sound-side flooding of 7-8 feet, causing many of the 800 people who had remained in the village to seek refuge in upper floors or attics or be rescued by boat. Most of the buildings were affected or damaged and the majority of homes and vehicles were flooded.

“Once the water receded here, we got to work,” Ms. Emory said. “We started talking early that Friday night and knew we need to get over there, because we knew they wouldn’t have anything. We didn’t want to wait for those big organizations or government agencies to help them, the ones that have to go through chain of command and all that bureaucratic stuff.”

The feel-good fleet took supplies Sept. 7. Mr. Emory, Robert Emory, Clay Gaskill, David Gaskill, Aron Styron, Neil Styron, Buddy Goodwin, Clayton Daniels, Lester Murphy, Isaiah Smith and others were at the helms, and the news about Ocracoke soon spread.

By the end of the first weekend following the storm, another 15-20 boats not from Cedar Island had also made trips to Ocracoke.

On Sept. 8, a group of Down Easters teamed up with Fat Fellas BBQ & Grille of Newport to fry more than 2,000 pieces of chicken on Ocracoke. Members of the Cedar Island community returned Friday to fry 1,600 leg quarters.

Chadwick Tire Company in Otway also took over donations, with additional help from Casey and Julie Arthur, Joshua and Deidre Arthur, Randy Ramsey, Robbie Smith, Leslie Daniels, Jerry and Valinda Coates and  others.

The Harkers Island Fire Department started collecting donations, soon becoming a drop-off point.

The cause to help Ocracoke was tremendously aided by Donnie Griggs.

The pastor of One Harbor Church in Morehead City – the church also has sites in Beaufort, Swansboro and Havelock – visited Cedar Island on hunting trips in the past and also had members of his church from the island.

After discovering Cedar Island was in good shape after Dorian, he turned his attention to Ocracoke. He got on the phone with other county churches and in a couple of hours raised $15,000.

Pastor Griggs and One Harbor Disaster Relief Coordinator Kristin Cook went to Harris Teeter in Morehead City the night after the storm and filled eight pallets with supplies. A Facebook call for help delivered church members to load them onto a truck for delivery the next day by boat.

“That was the initial delivery, and then we got there and realized, they were going to need more,” Pastor Griggs said. “We had neighborhoods in Newport last year in Florence that had this kind of damage but imagine an entire town like those neighborhoods. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen from a hurricane standpoint. Every single building, residence, had piles of stuff outside. Everybody’s house you go in has a waterline up around the windows. You heard story after story of the most traumatic things you’ve ever heard of.”

Once he got over to Ocracoke, Pastor Griggs visited The Variety Store, and convinced owner Tommy Hutcherson to let him purchase items despite the store being without electricity. The pastor tallied everything he bought and promised Mr. Hutcherson he would pay him later. All of the resources were delivered to Chief Albert O’Neal at the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department.

As that facility filled to capacity, Pastor Griggs turned his attention to helping in other ways. One Harbor, in partnership with Reach Global Crisis Response, gutted 500 homes in the county after Florence. The church also raised more than $310,000 for Florence relief.

He brought that experience to Dorian relief for Ocracoke, hoping what his county and church went through in Florence was for a purpose.

“We called everybody we knew in New Bern, Cape Carteret, Havelock, Morehead (City), bought out Harbor Freight and Lowe’s (Home Improvement), raised a good amount of money from churches in the area, took money from our Sunday services that day and bought and assembled 150 fully inclusive kits for gutting a house,” Pastor Griggs said.

He and a group of volunteers took the kits and spent a week gutting houses to prevent mold in Ocracoke, walking on the ferry each day at 7:15 a.m. – private vehicles weren’t allowed on the island after the storm – and walking off the ferry at nearly 8 p.m.  He said they gutted about 200 homes.

The numbers of volunteers grew throughout the week from around 65 Sept. 16 to nearly 170 by Sept. 14.

“Ferry workers told us they think it’s the most walk-ons they’ve had in the history of the ferry,” Pastor Griggs said of the final day. “We tried to care for people, cry with people, hug people, be patient with people. They’ve lost lifetimes of memories. Everything has been taken from them but their lives. We can’t rebuild Ocracoke overnight, but we can start to rebuild hope pretty quick, so we’ve tried to find ways to bring hope.”

Pastor Griggs said they wanted to help as much as they could as quickly as they could before the heavy hitters showed up.

National faith-based disaster relief and recovery organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, Christian Aid Ministry, N.C. Baptists on Mission and North Carolina Methodists have now replaced volunteers from the county.

 A year ago, Ocracokers played the same role, filling the gap in Carteret County until the national disaster relief and recovery organizations arrived after Florence.

Ocracoke was barely affected by that hurricane, but Cedar Island was hard hit. The island was one of the last areas in the county to get electricity back after three weeks. To make matters worse, with so many electric poles down and debris on the road, trips to Beaufort or Morehead City were difficult.

“Ocracoke, that little island, they knew we were in bad shape, they rallied, brought resources by boat over to us, bags of ice, generators, food, diapers, wipes, it was such a humbling thing to see,” Ms. Emory said. “Those Ocracoke people banded together and gave up their own stuff. They were amazing. It’s crazy, it really is, that it’s now us helping them.”

Ms. Emory, who is originally from Massachusetts, said it isn’t a matter of returning the favor, it is a matter of neighbors helping neighbors, islanders helping islanders, family helping family. She and her husband returned to Ocracoke Sept. 13 with donations from Beaufort schools.

“We would have done this even if they hadn’t done what they did,” she said. “It’s not about repaying them. I’m not from Cedar Island, but these are the best people I’ve ever met. They’re humble, don’t want credit for this, don’t want their names in newspapers. It’s what they do.”

The help has been well received.

Kelton Williams, owner of Beach Ride Rentals in the Community Square on Ocracoke, was among those who witnessed the generosity of his friends from across the sound.

“I’ve known those boys over on Cedar Island for 17, 18 years, and I’m keeping a list of names who have helped us,” he said as his voice began to crack. “If it weren’t for them people, I mean, they were here the day after, before anybody got here. Those are good people over there, always have been. We helped them last year, and now they’re helping us.”

Disclosure: Reporter J.J. Smith is a member of One Harbor.

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