Eastern North Carolina was well represented at “The Best of Our State” conference in early January, hosted by Our State magazine in Pinehurst. Two of the presenters on the program call Carteret County home.

This column focuses on the first of those speakers who took the stage – Karen Amspacher of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center on Harkers Island. She jolted attendees with poignant photographs and heart-felt comments about the potential perils associated with living on the coast, under the constant threat of hurricanes and tropical storms.

Amspacher said a common theme for her talks in recent years was the importance of “holding onto the past in ways both great and small. Now, at this point, in 2020, for my world, it’s all about holding onto the future.

“From Harkers Island and Cape Lookout to Ocracoke and Hatteras, we say we have ‘saltwater connections’ to each other living at the water’s edge.

“Our people have been here a long, long time. We are a part of this place, and this place is part of us,” Amspacher said.

“But things are different now. For Down East Carteret County, Florence in 2018 changed everything. Just as Isabel in 2003 changed everything on Hatteras and Dorian in 2019 changed everything on Ocracoke.”

She said: “The tide never really goes down anymore. Road closures happen year-round. N.C. Highway 12 is now a chance you take, not a road you can depend on.

“Do we stay or do we go? We’ve never had conversations like this before,” Amspacher said.

“Storms have always shaped our landscape…and shaped us. Storms were always a part of life,” she said. “But times are different. Across the globe, the sea is rising.

“The damage from Florence was intense throughout Down East…especially to our homes and churches,” Amspacher said. “We are storm-weary.

“Every storm adds to the question: “Do we stay or do we go?”

Amspacher said: “On a beautiful sunny day, it is hard to comprehend leaving. Who can leave home? But when you’re mopping the muck out of your house, again, it’s hard to comprehend having to do it again in a year, or maybe two.

“My house was Granny’s house, and it was her grandmother’s house. It has been home for six generations. How can I leave?

“Others are weighing the costs to repair and rebuild, to raise their homes, to put on stronger roofs or to move the electrical wiring higher. It all adds up. Money is tight. What is the tipping point for families to stay or go?”

Amspacher showed photographs of those friends and neighbors who are still suffering from the 21st century hurricanes. “Listen to their voices...look deep into their faces,” she said.

“Tell me where you’re from and I’ll tell you who you are,” Amspacher remarked, citing the work of the late Wallace Stegner, an admired American writer. “There is nowhere on the planet where this truth is more evident than at the water’s edge. Here, we realize more and more the value of the sacred gift of inheritance.

“I was here spiritually when Granny picked crabmeat at the end of the road in Marshallberg and then walked home at the end of the day and salvaged the bent nails from the day’s work and ‘beat them straight,’ so Uncle Curt could finish rebuilding this house after WWII when there was no money.

“I am more thankful than ever before, more indebted and grateful to my forebears for a heritage that cannot be bought or sold, a deep and lasting kinship to this place…the swaying marshes and those steadfast oaks, the hard, cold northeast winds that I love, those proud trawlers in the sunset…and the people, the men and women – past and present…stubborn, determined, talented and giving, who will always define who I am, who we are, who we will be.”

Karen Amspacher closed her talk at the “Our State” conference with this: “No matter how rising seas and shifting sands redefine this place, know this – we will hold on to this place and one another…just like it has always been and is meant to be.”

Mike Wagoner is a retired chamber of commerce executive and a public relations counselor, Blog:

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