It has been eight months now since Florence blew into Swansboro, tormenting us with record-setting rain. The first shock of that hurricane has passed. There are fewer tarps than those flapping over the hundreds of “topless” houses and thousands of people devastated last September. Yet after all this time, a sobering sense of the long haul has set in. When many workers are burnt out, my neighbors downtown ask, how can we keep up the task of rebuilding?
Summer has me thinking again about what “recovery” means. As we head into another hurricane season, the stakes in rebuilding a house in this next phase become more urgent. When you own a historic home that was torn up inside and out like I do – no matter how small – the challenge is intense. When you own a home that was near 100 percent destroyed – no matter the age – the fear of a repeat is strong.
Getting a roof on – getting the right roof on right – was the first crucial step for many of us. Over this past winter I was intent on finding a contractor and roofer to install something so as to minimize further damage to my house. Turning off N.C. 24 onto Church Street now, you can see the silver metal shining on top of my place, the Robert Lee Smith House at 202 South Walnut St. That seems like a step in the right direction. Negotiating several features of the roof has shown me how tricky this step can become: were the gable ends of the standing seam roof closed up tight? Does the drip edge line up with the gutter? So many structural elements determine whether the roof as the first line of defense of a coastal house is unbreachable. When even one of them is left unfinished, the structure is compromised, and the house not yet fully weather-ready. The lesson some of us have had to learn: post-hurricane rebuilding often leads to hasty decision-making with mixed results.
Across Swansboro there are many residents dealing with a one-step forward, two- steps back rhythm of restoration. Some are struggling with shabby work that has to be ripped out and redone. Some of our older neighbors feel alone, not knowing where to begin to find trustworthy crews. Others like me are caught up in insurance claims as well. The dilemmas catching all of us can feel as daunting as the material destruction last September. Writing this now, as I work on the next challenges of my house to-be-gutted, helps me take heart in the fact that there are hundreds of us in Swansboro still in this together. These days, a family proverb rings in my ears: when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Rebuilding after the first hurricane of 2019 has been named also makes clear that the long haul will last longer than many months. It involves years ahead of us. I’ve been taking in fully how my house is built into the coast, as much a part of its make-up as the king mackerel running at the moment. The resilience of a house built as simply and beautifully as the 1901 Smith House is the flipside of coastal resilience. I can no longer understand one without the other. Because I value the hundred-year-old construction of my little clapboard, I’m concerned about its future; not only the one I’ll hopefully share with it in the next stretch of years, but also the one long after I’m gone. The Smith House is a survivor. So working to restore and protect the man-made structure goes together with being attentive to changes in its natural surroundings: the White Oak Riverfront three blocks down the hill, and the Atlantic seaboard a mile away as the egret flies.
There are the King Tides that town hall reminded us of this winter: those high tides that pound the sands and send stronger than normal currents through our wetlands and up into our brackish rivers. The next one won’t come ’til August, but I follow the cycle, moon by new moon to monitor the changing conditions that affect the life of my house.
It’s NOAA’s forecast of the season’s major hurricanes, though, that stays in the back of my mind, whirring and whooing like the Bogue Inlet buoy. When I crawl under the house to examine the moisture level in search of any new mold, I hear its warning. And again when I’m inspecting the original boards and bead board that took such a beating with Florence’s rain penetrating the house all the way into the drawers of my bedroom chest of drawers. I sensed this warning in my gut too when I climbed up on the rafters of the house with the roofers, and saw that giant expanse of ocean glinting on the horizon. I was humbled by the power of this giant, more or less quiet for the time being. Yet future historic storm surge or not, torrential downpours or not, the hundreds of thousands of tons of water that are driven by the devastating winds in a category 3 storm will continue to pack a punch that assaults our homes. What protective features can I add to the house to secure it better: more hurricane clips? Metal tested for an even more extreme wind velocity topping 190 mph? No matter the choice, they’re small stopgaps, I figure, in the face of the large question of how to prepare house, home and community for the intensity of storms to come. I now reckon with the sure sense that the slow process of rebuilding my house is an initiation into working towards resilience on all fronts at the same time. After Governor Cooper’s visit to our town, his executive order last October to integrate such understanding into our recovery gives me encouragement.
The way I look at it, restoring the Smith house is a process that engages many people. It’s a labor of love that I discovered through Bob Shuller’s drawing of the joints between roof pans. It’s a vote for downtown that Amelia Dees-Killette shows through her activism bringing into view the people who lived in these houses, and walked by them, women and men from all over the area who rarely get attention. John Wood and his historic preservation team in Greenville are allies, supporting efforts to treat the house as a living being, breathing in and out since 1901; the old girl getting back into shape as she dries out. In town, David Killette shimmied across the rafters to check on the plywood sheathing put in. And Buddy Pearce, my next-door neighbor who stood watch at the door, unwilling to let me climb unaccompanied into the attic without floorboards.
If I have the staying power to help make this restoration happen, it’s because of all these people. It’s also for all those who lived here once, like Isabel Parkin, the teacher, whose piano-playing rang out from my house, and many others from the tumultuous days of the town, half-remembered, unknown, who are just as deserving of recognition today.
Committing to the long haul of restoring a house now means living with huge uncertainty, tolerating stalemate, and through it all, creating a way together to safeguard Swansboro’s homes and livelihood on our living coast.
Helen Solterer of Durham bought her home at 202 South Walnut St. in 2006.