Sam’s Field Notes: Hurricane Florence

The Point in Emerald Isle Sept. 12 before Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina coast. Photo: Sam Bland

Hurricane Florence, we knew she was coming well in advance. After she blew off the coast of Africa on Aug. 30 advanced hurricane tracking and forecasting technology provided all of the information necessary to keep my anxiety just below the berserk level as she reached “Cat4cane” status on Sept. 5.

Two days later, the storm had lost steam and downgraded into a tropical storm where it quickly left my consciousness. A few days later, she was back as a Category 1 storm that quickly blew up into a Category 4 hellion with winds howling at 140 miles per hour.

With the speed of a slow turtle, she made her way across the Atlantic, her steady approach aimed at the Carolina coast. Sept. 10 through Sept. 12 were worrisome days as she maintained her clout as a Category 4 tempest.

While pondering the idea of evacuating, the song by the Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” became an earworm in my head. Everyone prepared as best they could, and many evacuated the barrier islands and immediate coast. It felt like the Kraken was going to rise out of the ocean.

On the late afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 12, I had completed all of the tasks that my wife implored me to do, and I decided to go for a bike ride on the deserted roads of Bogue Banks.

In what remained of a beautiful day, I rode down the streets surrounded by a quiet stillness, the “lull before the storm” as they say. I stopped near the Point at the west end of Emerald Isle and took a long look at my little slice of paradise knowing that hurricanes come with the territory if you want to live on the coast.

I took a few cell phone pictures of the lumpy sand dunes as a remembrance in case it would all get washed away. As I approached my house, I heard the loud hooting of a couple great horned owls. It swept away my anxiety and left me with a peacefulness I find hard to describe.

Later that night, after weather forecasts predicted a downgraded Category 1 storm making landfall, my wife and I decided to stay at our home and ride out the storm like we had so many other hurricanes.

Swells from Hurricane Florence in Emerald Isle. Photo: Sam Bland

Early the next morning, I went out to the beach and took a few photos of the imposing waves. As they crested, the strong north wind sheared off a plume of sea spray that looked like the flowing mane of a galloping horse. Magnificent waves, spilling with beauty, displayed the strength of Florence and the anxiety crept back in with a sense of dread.

I ran back home to beat the town-imposed curfew, closed the doors and waited. The conditions gradually deteriorated throughout the day with the power failing around 4 in the afternoon. As the day grew dark, everything going on outside was magnified. My wife and I sat through the night as Florence stalled with the eye wall grinding away just offshore of the barrier islands.

The rattling of one particular hurricane shutter became my gauge for the intensity of the storm. We tried to sleep, but that silent dark curtain would not fall. We distracted ourselves by perusing the internet on our cell phones and listening to weather reports on an ancient battery powered television.

As the gray morning light began to arrive, so did the reports and images of hurricane destruction on social media sites. Houses, businesses and roads flooded, roofs ripped off, boats sunk and everywhere, trees snapped and shredded.

Even though Florence was still churning away, the storm surge that she had already launched earlier as a more powerful storm was now flooding the sounds, tidal creeks and coastal rivers. Swansboro, Salter Path, the Down East communities of Carteret County and New Bern took the brunt of the storm. Utter devastation for some, lives changed forever.

And then the rains came, as Flo was reluctant to take her leave, drenching the coast and inland areas for three days. Monumental rainfall now surged into the rivers, creeks, ditches and low spots spilling over and filling areas that have never flooded before. Desperation for those that had to flee, leaving most of what they owned and part of their lives behind.

Hurricane Florence had left behind quite a mess in her wake. Not just the physical destruction, but she wounded our psyche as well. As I talked to people, I could see the hurt in their eyes and many were just one extra straw on the camel’s back from losing it. They were walking a tightrope between hope and despair and not sure on which side they would land.

Even with the rain still falling, people began to try to put their lives back together and resume a sense of normality. For some it was a simple task of raking leaves off of a lawn. For others, it was abandoning their house or placing their entire, flood-soaked possessions at the curb of the street. Beds, stoves, refrigerators, desks, dressers, couches, chairs, drywall and insulation created mountains of human detritus. Many people had just lost more than their home; some had lost their business or their job. Life as they knew it would need to find a new normal.

The days following the storm brought out the best in people. Family, friends, neighbors and strangers were helping one another, as best they could, get through this tragedy. When they weren’t cleaning yards, repairing roofs or preparing hot meals for others, they were there to listen, to hug and offer a shoulder to cry on.

The crazy-looking freshwater salamander called a siren. Photo: Sam Bland

Among all the human suffering, the storm was also fatal for all kinds of wildlife. Seabirds called shearwaters littered the beach in the aftermath.

We were able to rescue a few live animals and get them to a wildlife shelter: a shearwater and a crazy looking freshwater salamander called a siren.

A little over a week after the storm, my wife suggested that we go to the Bogue Inlet Pier and watch the moon rise over the ocean. Even though Flo gave it her best shot, most of the pier was still standing. Two sections were washed out, but 400 feet of the fishing platform reached out into the Atlantic from the pier house. Though battered and dinged, the pier had already reopened. The defiant pier reminded me of the scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” where Lt. Dan screams into a hurricane “you call this a storm?”

Built in 1957, the pier has been around almost as long as the town of Emerald Isle. It has battled many a storm with only hurricanes Diane in 1984, Fran in 1996 and Irene in 2011 knocking it to the canvas. But each time the pier was repaired and remains the iconic landmark of Emerald Isle.

In my teens, my brothers and I spent quite a few evenings fishing or just hanging out at the pier. It’s more than a fishing pier; it’s an introduction to the ocean. People from all over the nation make their way down this pier. Here, grandparents teaching their grandkids to fish, mingle with the sightseers. Those not even interested in fishing can’t resist a stroll down the thick wooden planks. Tourists, quickly licking their ice cream cones in the warm summer air, parade to the observation deck, as the scent of perfume drifts in the air.

On the beach west of the pier, I walked down about a quarter mile to take photographs of the moon rising over the pier as I had done many times before. I wanted to capture the moon near the damaged part of the pier as a poignant reminder of the power of nature. I set up my tripod and took a few frames and stood back taking in the scene. The ocean, moon and waves created a restoring sense of balance from the chaotic experience of the storm.

Excitedly, my wife says, “pelicans are coming.” The birds were already upon us and I only had time to reach for the shutter release cable and take two images without framing the birds in the viewfinder. We then went onto the pier and walked down to the end where the first section had been ripped away. To those fishing, it was as if the storm never happened. They whipped their rods, flinging the lead weight along with the bait into the night followed by a splash.

The moonrise over Bogue Inlet Pier after Hurricane Florence. Photo: Sam Bland

We went home and I downloaded the moon rise pictures. One image with the pelicans stood out, I looked at it for a while on the computer screen. It captivated me and gave me the same sense of calm that I had felt on the beach before the storm. I posted the image on Facebook with the comment: “This full Harvest Moon is a sign of the changing seasons and it also represents a big change in the lives of so many people. I’m sure that everyone knows someone who has lost little and someone who has lost everything. But what I have witnessed is that there is a resiliency of the human spirit that will always rise like a full moon, big and bright. “

I didn’t think much about it until I checked the site a few hours later and was surprised with the responses. With all that people had been through it seemed to strike a chord with folks. One comment read: “Repairable, but a visual reminder that there is a sense of “brokenness” for many right now.” Another: “And beauty peeks her head back out after the storm to remind us why we live here and to give us hope.”

There were also numerous comments about the pier that others shared expressing their love, affection and emotional attachment to the pier. I realized it is more than just a pier, it is special memories that people hold dear such as memorial services, weddings, fireworks and young love.

Yes, we have been beat down by Hurricane Florence, and for a while, our emotions will continue flow like the tides, with highs and lows.

I will continue to return to the pier when the full moon rises, sit out over the ocean, breathe in the salt air and feel the pulse of the ocean roll through its pilings. I will watch the pelicans glide over the glassy waves and feel the power and beauty of the coast and know that our love for it will never be stolen by a hurricane.

About the Author

Sam Bland

Sam Bland spent much of his life out in the field as as a park ranger and park superintendent at the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. Most of his 30 years with the division was spent at Hammocks Beach State Park near Swansboro where Sam specialized in resource management and environmental education. He also worked from 2009-18 for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, where he helped develop programs at the education center on Jones Island in the White Oak River. He is also an accomplished photographer.