FEATURE: Surviving and rebuilding after Hurricane Florence

A graphic shows Hurricane Florence rotating over North Carolina in September 2018. (Contributed graphic)

By Rebecca Jones, special to the News-Times

CARTERET COUNTY — The thing about a hurricane is that you will never be the same again. You will be stronger and wiser because there are some things you can only learn in a storm.  On the morning of Sept. 14, 2018, a large and slow-moving Category 1 hurricane made landfall; her name was Florence. Over 30 inches of rain were measured and exceeded the highest single storm rainfall amounts ever seen in the portion of the state. Damage estimates were reported of $16.7 billion, as 74,563 structures were flooded and 140,000 North Carolinians registered for disaster assistance after the storm.

Fredda Willis of Stacy Drive in Harkers Island has lived on the island all her life. She said she has been through lots of storms. One could say her life began in a storm. One of her favorites stories says Willis, is “I was born in 1954 during Hurricane Hazel. My aunt poled a skiff all the way to Beaufort (because the roads were flooded and there was no other way out) to buy a crib for me.”

Willis had planned on staying for Florence as well, but her friends from Elkin talked her into visiting them in the foothills of the mountains for a small vacation. Her small vacation was extended to 12 days. Her son stayed at the home which Willis says was a blessing. Her neighbor told her he watched from his window as a tornado went straight toward her house. It was full of debris of siding, parts of other people’s roofs and even lawn furniture. She said, “I was told that he watched as the wind took my air conditioner as it pulled away from my house and twisted it and threw it across the yard.” Trees then knocked three large holes in her roof over the kitchen, dining room and her bedroom as it caved in on top of her bed. The whole backside of the house was exposed. Willis says, “I would have been dead if I had stayed.”

Her son was able to put up some tarps during the eye of the storm as it went over and was there to secure it afterwards. While her son, neighbors and church folks helped him remove cabinets and sheetrock and other damage out of the home, Willis was getting help from her friends in Elkin to apply for FEMA. She was grateful that FEMA came through for her for the outside of her home. There were volunteers who helped her box up some of her belongings that made it through the storm. And more disaster help from neighbors as well as strangers helped her too. Willis said she learned to mud, sheetrock, do some simple carpentry and paint. It took over a year for the outside repairs and for at least one room to be livable. She moved back into that one room in December of 2019. She finally got back to full use of her home in February 2021 of this year; it has taken three years.

The one word to describe what she has been through is “‘heartbreaking.”’ Willis says, “It is the feeling of loss. Clothes and furniture can be replaced. I broke down when I saw that all the items in the attic had to be thrown away.  It was my tangible memories of heirlooms and especially my children’s baby items such as ball and dance trophies, handmade baby clothes that an aunt had made, their first stuffed animal toys and of course pictures.”

Her friends ask her “Why do you continue to live there?” Her answer is “That’s who we are. This is where I grew up. This is home. This is where we battle all the storms of life. This is us.”

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