Damaged Homes, Piles Of Debris. How Are Ocracoke Residents Recovering After Hurricane Dorian?
Philip Howard is sitting in the living room of his 1860s-era Ocracoke house, tucked along a street that bears his family name.
Under his feet is a massive Oriental rug that once belonged to his mother. She worked long hours to save up for it. When Hurricane Dorian hit four weeks ago and the water rose, it looked like the rug was a goner. "The water was bubbling up under the floorboards and I [stepped] back and this rug was floating," Howard says.
Howard's rug has become a symbol of what's happened on the small island since early September when Dorian pummeled the Outer Banks as a Category 1 hurricane, leaving left hundreds of homes uninhabitable and hundreds more severely damaged.
After the storm passed, a neighbor helped Howard move the wet rug out onto the front porch to dry. A few days later, friends who live off the island, known as "Off Islanders," hauled it onto their own truck, boarded the ferry and drove it to Wake Forest, where it was professionally cleaned. They eventually brought it all the way back.
"The cleaner said he'd never seen oyster shells in an Oriental rug before," says Howard, 75, with a deep laugh.
Assessing Dorian's Damage, One Month Later
Across the small village at the south end of Ocracoke Island, residents, volunteers, emergency management personnel, and county officials have spent the last four weeks tearing out insulation, moving dead appliances to the street, cutting trees, you name it.
Howard's daughter and son-in-law, Dave Tweedie, live next door. Beyond that is the village Craftsmen gift shop. The racks that previously held pottery and paintings are now scattered on the porch. On the side of the building is a running tally of hurricane flooding - the newest mark shows the water line from Dorian several feet above the next highest, from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
It looks like trash. It looks like people's floors pulled up. But it's not trash. It's people's dreams and plans and everything there, piled by the side of the road. - Dave Tweedie
"On the one hand you go down the road and it looks like trash, it looks like people's floors pulled up," Tweedie says, surveying the extensive damage in his own house. "But it's not trash. It's people's dreams and plans and everything there, piled by the side of the road."
The smaller, individual piles are dwarfed by the massive 30-foot-high, 50-yard-long mountain of debris that covers the public beach access parking lot just north of the village. Enormous semi-trucks line up for loads of drywall, insulation, lamps, carpets, and personal treasures of all kinds. When they're full, the trucks will take the two-and-a-half hour ferry to the mainland, where the trash will eventually land in dumps.
A Quarter Of Ocracoke Residents Now Homeless
Just down Howard Street, where it meets the main road, Tom Pahl sits on his front porch. He’s the Ocracoke representative on the Hyde County Board of Commissioners. Pahl points out that about 400 of the island's 1,000 residents are now homeless after the storm.
"There's no one on the island that currently does not have a roof over their head," Pahl says, with pride. "And that wasn't anything that anybody organized. That just happened. We take people in. That's what this community is about."
One Ocracoke resident on Facebook this week described the mood like this: hero stage is over, denial stage is over, and the next stage is resentment and anger.
"It's jealousy as well as PTSD all at once," explains resident Anna Rucker, while running into the Variety Store, one of the only open spots in town. Rucker owns a sunglass shop. She's worried about losing money and a drop in visitors this winter.
"It comes to the point where we need government assistance," she says. "We can't do this all by ourselves anymore. We're tired. We're all damn tired. And we need help."
FEMA has told local officials that they are still analyzing data to make a determination whether Ocracoke will qualify for help. Local officials believe it is likely Hyde County will see some infrastructure aid, but assistance for individuals is less certain.
Authorities estimate that 200 of the 1,200 structures on the island are completely uninhabitable, and another 200 are severely damaged.
"Everyone's in agreement that this looks an awful lot like a disaster, and it sounds like a disaster, it smells like a disaster," says Pahl, the county commissioner, who has praised local and state officials for their response. "We think it should be declared as a disaster."
Federal Disaster Declaration Under Review
In a statement provided to WUNC, FEMA says it has completed almost all of the damage assessments. The disaster declaration from Governor Roy Cooper is under active review and in process.
Pahl says he's weathered more than a dozen hurricanes in his 15 years on the island. He's well aware that these storms are likely to be more frequent and stronger. He says he knows that Ocracoke, and Hyde County, are ground zero for the impacts of global climate change. And he wonders what that will mean for his fellow residents.
"It's a really difficult conversation, especially for people who have lived here for generations," he says. "They are not going to walk away. They are simply not going to walk away."
From Pahl's front porch he can see kids ride bikes around debris piles on the village's main street and residents scoot through on golf carts. A convoy of giant trucks, filled with a couple tons of rotten drywall and other debris, heads for the ferry.
On Saturday, Dave Tweedie will take a break from tending to his destroyed house and wrangling with insurance. He'll grab his fiddle and set up with his band, Molasses Creek, on the dock next to the Working Waterman's Exhibit for a regular Saturday night sunset concert.
There will be music, and maybe square dancing, and a chance for residents to blow off steam and to remind themselves, four hard weeks after Dorian turned their lives upside down, why they've chosen to live in such a beautiful, and fragile, place.