house surrounded by flood water

Lessons from Hurricane Florence: The Real Deal about Disaster Recovery

On a Saturday afternoon, I was snapping pictures of our dog Molly surrounded by moving boxes and paper, joking about how I wasn’t sure what day of the week it was. We were in full move-in mode. That weekend, I had finally unpacked my suitcase for the last time this summer.

On Sunday, the hubby and I strolled down Front Street in Wilmington, North Carolina, and found a pub to watch the Patriots game. The woman working behind the counter asked us if we had decided which direction we would travel to evacuate. In the whirlwind of unpacking and settling into our new home, we’d heard nothing about Hurricane Florence heading straight for us.

On Monday, we planned to stay.

By Tuesday evening, I was in the shower crying, not because I was scared to evacuate and leave my husband behind to care for his Marines, but because I was furious that I had to get the suitcases out again. Deciding what to take wasn’t hard. I packed the dogs, a few boxes of pictures I couldn’t replace and the one box of memories that I’d be crushed to live without. I was gone within the hour.

What I returned to after being tucked away at my mother-in-law’s house in Northern Virginia, glued to the Weather Channel and local news outlets, can only be described as heartbreaking chaos. I caravanned home with a friend who was returning to her hometown of Morehead City. As we got closer to the coast and neared the outskirts of New Bern, remnants of the storm revealed our region unraveled. Fallen trees that had been sawed to clear the roadways, standing water in the ditches, debris, damaged crops and billboards that had been violently rolled up like rugs on the tops of their frames. When we crossed over the bridge and passed through New Bern, we discovered a war zone. Our war zone.

The street lights were still out in the small town of Havelock. Business owners were just beginning to unboard their businesses and sweep up debris. I lost cell service shortly after my friend and I parted ways about an hour from my house. Electrical crews roamed the roads. Lines circled corners at the sparsely open gas stations, and trees – giant Carolina pines – littered the landscape, fallen and broken like matchsticks everywhere I looked.

On the main road leading through the many small seaside towns headed toward Camp Lejeune, soaking wet carpet, ruined furniture, and piles of drywall that had been removed from homes and businesses devastated by the storm surge littered the roadways. When I got to the base, at first glance, things seemed “fine” until I drove through our neighborhood to find trees through houses, debris everywhere and more matchstick pines that were no match for the howling wind and rain. We were very lucky to have sustained minimal damage. But in the coming days, I learned just how the area, in general, had faired.

The battle for contractors, insurance adjusters and containing mold was just beginning. Friends had trees through roofs, collapsed ceilings from the onslaught of driving rain and flooded houses. Now, a few weeks into the recovery effort, we have all learned more than we ever cared to know about what to do in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

  1. Take preparation and evacuation orders seriously. I did not want to evacuate, but I did. And I’m glad. Know that if your service member is considered essential personnel, they may not be able to leave with you. Before I left, I went to the store for extra food and propane for our camping stove, ensured clean drinking water was on hand, and bought a hefty supply of batteries. In our case, it took several days for power to be restored to local businesses, let alone our home, and it took much longer for grocery stores to carry perishables. I brought perishables back with me when power was restored. Don’t get caught unprepared and know that it will take time for your area to return to “normal.”
  2. Document, document, document. Before you leave, take pictures and video of your home before the storm, inside and out. After the storm, do the same. Inspect your house from top to bottom. Look at your roof. Look in your closets. Look in your attic or basement. Leave no corner or your home or belongings unchecked. If you rent your home, notify your landlord of damage. If you live on an installation, notify housing immediately. Follow up regularly. In the chaos of a disaster, even government agencies can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of reports. Things can and do slip through the cracks. Be your own advocate but be as patient as possible while ensuring your housing authority is aware of the damage.
  3. Call your insurance company. Whether you are a homeowner, or you carry renter’s insurance, call your insurance agency. Depending on your carrier, your policy may cover some of your evacuation expenses and may reimburse for food spoilage, even if your home is not damaged.
  4. Follow local social media outlets. During a storm, local media outlets can be like a lifeline to the outside world. They will provide information about resource distribution centers, road closures, school closures, and daily updates on the impacts to critical services such as water and power.
  5. Call for reimbursements. Once services have been restored, such as cable and internet, check with your service provider regarding rebates during the storm. Often, companies will reimburse customers for outage time during a natural disaster. Again, be diligent and keep an eye on your bills. You may need to call more than once (like me) to ensure your account is properly credited.
  6. Be cautious of those who come to “help.” Your community will have an influx of relief workers and volunteers who legitimately want to help. These people are saints and deserve hugs and kindness and thank you’s all around. But major disasters can also bring companies trying to take advantage of the vulnerable by overcharging for cleanup and repairs, or by taking payment and disappearing. It happens. Check the Better Business Bureau and report unsavory individuals to your local government, who typically keeps an ongoing list of these organizations. Be aware of your surroundings. Report suspicious activity. Lock your home if you must relocate. Again, be your own advocate.
  7. Be part of your community by giving back. Our community is strong, motivated and patient. We are a community of givers and unsung heroes, like the crew of Marines who moved furniture out of a house with a tree through it, or the friends who wiped everything down to save things from molding. Strangers have climbed on roofs to secure tarps in the pouring rain. Neighbors have helped pull out soaking wet insulation or have given supplies to people they’ve never met. Countless people opened their homes to families who lost everything. We are a community of Florence Warriors. Do not be afraid to help a neighbor pick up branches or clean up debris. If you are making a supply run to mitigate your own mold problem, offer to pick up supplies for someone else. If you hear of a distribution center, tell someone. Give. Give time. Give kindness. Give patience. And know that together, as a community, you will thrive in the rebuilding of your community.

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