OCRACOKE, N.C. — I write this from a barrier island 26 miles off the mainland coast, accessible only by boat or plane. It has been about three weeks since Hurricane Dorian blew through, tore up and submerged the place that my 1,000 or so neighbors and I call home. While it might seem from a distance that the storm has passed, we are all as shellshocked as we were on Day 1.
I first came to Ocracoke as a 17-year-old who’d just lost her legs to meningitis and sepsis. The topography was overwhelmingly beautiful — and one night on the beach with a full moon, I found a reason to live again after tragedy. Nearly seven years ago, I came again for a 10-day vacation with my children, and never left. I didn’t stay because of the geographical beauty, I stayed because of the village.
Many natives are descendants of the quartermaster of Blackbeard the pirate and still speak with a Hoi Toide brogue, a reference to the way the natives pronounce “high tide.” It’s a magical village where barters of bourbon for fresh fish take place with ease between bicycle baskets. Neighbors help neighbors, and newcomers who stay live by the motto of the native Ocracokers: We don’t ask for help, we give help. But that has changed. America, we need your help.
About one-third of the island are native Ocracokers, one-fourth are Hispanic, two people are African-American and the rest, like me, are varying degrees of driftwood. We have Democrats, Republicans, Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, agnostics and Buddhists. When a storm hits and the ferries can’t run and a plane can’t land, we are on our own. It is that exact nature of isolation that makes this place so special. We don’t care who you voted for, or who you pray to, or what color your skin might be, when stuff hits the fan, we need each other, and if I have something you can use, then take it. When you live in vulnerability, you find out what matters most.
The island averages five feet above sea level, but Dorian inundated us with an unprecedented seven-foot storm surge that, according to the head of North Carolina Emergency Management, flooded over hundreds of our homes with anywhere from a few inches to four feet. Neighbors had to be rescued from their attics by boat, folks axed down their doors and swam through the surge to higher ground. At the Village Craftsmen, a native-owned gift store in operation for 40 years, lines are marked with the names of previous hurricanes. Hurricane Matthew from 2016 is there, one of the worst anyone can remember. The line for Dorian is 27 inches higher than Matthew. It is a miracle, that unlike our friends in the Bahamas, no one here died.
Our day care center, briefly reopened, has been closed because of septic issues; our historic library has been closed. Our post office was reopened on Sept. 18, but our only bank remains closed. Currency is bartered goods. Most local businesses lost all of their merchandise. Our health center is now a series of mobile emergency units. Instead of surge, our island is now inundated with relief workers. Immediately after the storm, local watermen from neighboring islands came into our harbor, skiff after skiff, filled with water, food and supplies. Our schoolchildren, exhausted and anxious, and whose school may not be habitable for a year, helped those coastal kin unpack the boats and load the goods into the few trucks that were operable on the island, and then hauled them to our fire department, which has been the base of operations and distribution since disaster struck. We now call it FireMart.
We still have not been declared a federal disaster, hence we have no assistance from FEMA. Hundreds of my neighbors and friends have been displaced, matriarchs of our village are sitting on piles of debris waiting for good Samaritan crews to help clean out their homes, while the walls are bowing and the mold is growing daily. Last week, I began making phone calls from Raleigh to Washington to speak with my representatives and leaders about our current state of disaster.
I discovered that on Friday the 13th, one week after the storm, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office delivered a request for a declaration of disaster for public assistance and infrastructure to the White House. Representatives from Senator Thom Tillis’s office assured me that the senator urged the president to sign it that day. On Saturday, Sept. 21, eight days after the request was sent to the president, our newly sworn-in congressman, Greg Murphy, came to the island and announced that President Trump had just signed the FEMA declaration. Our state senator, Bob Steinburg, posted on his social media accounts that same hour that the president had signed the document. Those social media posts have now been deleted.
On that same day, Governor Cooper followed up the request for the Public Assistance Program for infrastructure recovery with a request to the White House for assistance with individuals and families. Two days later, he came for his second visit to the island since Dorian. His first visit was the day after the storm. The governor sat on the porch of my home for 45 minutes, listening to the stories of native island matriarchs. He brought with him the state secretaries of health and human services, environmental quality, public safety, the emergency management director, the chief officer of the Department of Transportation and the brigadier general of the National Guard, all of whom toured my home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and had almost three feet of water inside. Under a mulberry tree, the governor told me that the news from Senator Steinburg and Congressman Murphy was untrue. The declarations of disaster had not been signed by the president.
Five days after the storm, I remembered the beach. I wear neoprene sleeves when I swim, to hold on my prosthetic legs, but the day before another amputee on the island had lost his sleeve to the flood and I gave him one of mine. The ocean was calm, and so I took the chance. I swam for half an hour, but coming up out of the sand ledge, a wave knocked me over and sucked my prosthetic leg off. Friends combed the beach until sundown without luck. Our local newspaper put it out on social media that if anyone spotted my leg to please return it to the FireMart. My leg washed up on the beach the next day, discovered by my favorite bartender. For the last few days, my leg has been the butt, so to speak, of the joke for my community, giving them something to laugh at, something to distract them from the purgatory in which we are now living. Ocracokers know that humor is the helpmate of hope. The story of my leg is also giving us hope. The sea taketh and the sea giveth back.
I am a proud resident of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, United States of America. I do not believe in divisiveness. Most survivors of disasters will tell you that there is no better teacher of equality. And while Ocracoke is strong and proud, and has been for over 300 years, we’ve been knocked to our knees by this one, and we need our fellow Americans and our leaders to step in and expedite help immediately. We may have two legs to stand on, but we need more than that right now.
Kelley Shinn is a writer at work on a memoir.
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