Southport, North Carolina: a story of dread, devastation and hope

Hailey Meyer has lived in coastal areas her entire life. It was only after Hurricane Florence devastated her town in September of 2018 that she realized how quickly hurricanes could change everything.

January 14, 2019

When did it become apparent that you were going to have to leave your town?

Well, since we’re from Florida, we’ve dealt with hurricanes a lot. And we normally don’t leave, because we kind of just stick it out. But we’re not in Florida, we’re in North Carolina now. And North Carolina isn’t really built to deal with hurricanes like Florida is; we took that into consideration. And also since my dad’s in the Coast Guard, we had to leave, because the coast guard made us. We had to leave. We left two days before the storm actually hit. We went to Boone, North Carolina. It’s two-and-a-half hours northwest from where I live.

 

How long were you in Boone?

We stayed in Boone for about 5 days; the storm slowed down and stayed over my original town for a very long time. We thought we were going to be able to come home a lot sooner, but we couldn’t and then the storm started coming towards Boone. And since we were in the mountains, if we would have stayed, we would have gotten flooded and trapped in Boone. So we left Boone and drove south and went to Columbia, South Carolina for one night. And then we stayed in Charleston, South Carolina for four days.

 

And then you went home?

And then we went home, but my dad had to leave three days before us because he had to get back to the Coast Guard station in my town. He wanted to go check on our house before we came back and kind of make sure everything was safe for us to come back, because a lot of my friends were going back really soon after the hurricane. Their cars were getting swept off the roads from all of the running water and everything that was going across the roads. And they were getting trapped and they had to be water rescued. So we saw that and we didn’t want to go back because we didn’t want that to happen. Because then we would’ve had to be staying at a shelter instead of in our hotel room, safe.

 

How many people that you know evacuated?

Probably a week before the storm, about 30% were evacuating. And everybody else was kind of sticking in their roots about not wanting to leave. And then as the storm got closer, more and more people were evacuating. By the time the storm hit, I would say about 80% of the people I know evacuated. The other people stayed in their houses or went to family members’ houses that were more inland. One of my friends stayed in his house, which was kind of like a mobile home or trailer, and a tree fell on his house when he was in it. It broke through his roof and his windows and everything and it almost fell on him. They were trapped in their house and they had to get water rescued and taken to my high school, which was a shelter. It was really scary because I wasn’t here to know if my house was okay, and I live a quarter-mile from the ocean, so I was really scared. When we left our house, we basically had the brain mentality that when we came back, we were going to be homeless. It was a really stressful and weird feeling to have to comprehend that.

 

And you’ve dealt with hurricanes before, but never like that?

When we first heard about it at school, everyone was talking about it, like oh, it’s just going to kind of turn and curve out, go back to the ocean, because that’s what they normally do. But I guess there was a lot of pressure coming from the north and it was keeping the storm down and it wasn’t letting it curve up and go back out to the ocean, which is what they naturally would have done, so it came over my town. The eye of the hurricane went directly over my town. And that wouldn’t have happened if that pressure wasn’t coming from the north. They originally said that it was a category five, it grew to a category five, and they were saying that this storm was deadly. It’s gonna destroy everything in its path. When I left school, I was thinking, ‘my school is going to be destroyed, my house is going to be destroyed.’ I had to think about stuff I couldn’t live without, because my house is going to be gone when I came home, which was really sad. And then as it got closer to us, it wasn’t building up but it was still a huge storm. But it wasn’t as strong and powerful as they thought it was. So by the time it hit us, it was a category one. It stayed over my town for about two to three days, just pouring rain. That’s where the flooding came from.

 

Your house is okay, which is totally crazy. But what about other areas of your town?

Inland a little bit, there are the Boiling Spring Lakes. It’s a different town technically. A lot of people live in there and there’s a bunch of lakes. It’s really pretty and all of the water was held into the lakes by a dam, and it got so flooded that the dam broke and all of the water was drained out of all the lakes. So now there are just giant empty lakes all around my town in that area because the dam that held all the water in broke. It was rising so much because the dam was still holding, and water was about to be flooding into people’s houses. And then the dam broke and all the water just disappeared. I’m not sure where it went. But if that dam wouldn’t have been destroyed and broken, all of the houses in that area would have been completely flooded and destroyed.

 

What day did you go back to school?

When we left school, we thought we were going to be back the next Monday. We left on a Wednesday. We were set on being back on Monday, and then we were out of school for four weeks. And then the week we went back we had Thursday and Friday off because of Hurricane Michael, because that was supposed to come directly to us after it hit Florida. It was supposed to rain over us a lot, and we were really nervous about flooding again because our ground is still so wet and trees are still falling everywhere. We’re in a very vulnerable state, so we’re very nervous for storms and everything like that.

 

So you were out of school for four weeks. After you got home from your evacuation, what did you do with that extra time?

In our town, people had no homes. So my mom and I volunteered a lot of food distributions and giving our clothes and stuff like that to help people because a lot of people lost everything. A lot of people stayed and didn’t have time to prepare before the storm. So then when their house got destroyed during the storm, they didn’t have anything together. So they just had to leave and their house got destroyed. We just helped the community and got our house back in order.

 

Good for you guys. Are those efforts still going on?

Yeah. When I went back to school, we talked about it a lot, obviously, because it destroyed our town. And at least three kids in each of my classes lost their entire houses and everything they own. And so they’re living in trailers in parking lots of our Walmart, or at one of their parents’ jobs. The hospital was housing people for a little while. It’s still going on, and a lot of our roads are still destroyed. So getting places is really hard. And that was the biggest thing after the storm was getting people in and out of their houses, because a lot of people were trapped in their houses with no food, no water and no electricity because the roads got destroyed because of all the flooding.

 

For people that live in poverty who lost their homes, what’s going to happen?

Most of the people who lost everything did live in mobile homes or trailers. I did notice that that was most the people. The people who did are are the ones who didn’t live in two story houses. And our school has been doing a lot of surveys, we are getting papers constantly asking us to fill out things we have; if we have clean clothes, if we have toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, and asking us all these things, and then if you don’t have these things, when you hand it in, they’re calling kids down to the office to come get these things, and giving kids to the option to shower at school. Our lunches are free for the whole month of October, as well as breakfasts. Our homecoming dance has been rescheduled a lot, and that’s now free. Our school is being very accommodating for everyone. And our teachers are giving kids who lost all their school supplies new notebooks, binders and backpacks. So everyone’s helping each other out.

 

How has school been operating this year, since you’ve only been back for a week and you took two days off?

It’s very stressful, because we were only in school for two weeks before we got let out for a month because of the storm. So we had just started learning and then being out for a month and something like that happening, just so devastating for our town, has really set us back a while, because we have to relearn everything, we have to be accommodating for those who are going through hard times. I came out super lucky in this situation. I’m so grateful that I had a house to come home to, because it could have been so much worse. And it’s very stressful. The state is trying to decide what they’re going to do about our standardized testing. They’re trying to decide if we are going to get more of a curve than the other states because of the hurricane and us not having as much time. A month is a lot of time to cover things in school. You do something new every day in school, so month is a really long time. So it’s very stressful. They’re taking it easy on us just to try to get back to normal.

 

You’ve lived in coastal areas your whole life. Has anything like this ever happened before?

Hurricanes? Yes. All the time. I always have to have hurricanes, you know, just because like you say, I always live in coastal areas because of my dad. But I’ve never lived somewhere that it was so devastating to this many people. My dad went and helped with Katrina after Katrina happened, so he has seen this kind of stuff, but I’ve never seen it firsthand, this kind of devastation. And we lucked out. It could have hit us way worse. They thought it would be much worse. But for some reason, it slowed down and lost some power. And thankfully, it just kind of hit us a lot less than it was supposed to. So that was good.

 

So speaking of your dad, how has this affected his job?

It was very stressful when it was happening. My dad’s station is right on the ocean, and he thought it was going to be completely destroyed. He had to move his boats out of our town and move them somewhere so his boats won’t be destroyed. It was a very stressful time for us as a family. I think, because we had to make decisions from our family and our house and make sure that we were going to be okay, and then on top of that, my dad had to make decisions and make sure that all of the guys in station were going to be okay too. It was just kind of a lot for us to handle.

 

Who was rescuing people during the storm if the Coast Guard made you guys evacuate?

We had mandatory evacuation a week before the storm even hit, they called a mandatory evacuation. So during the storm, nobody was doing anything. After the storm water rescue teams from California and Florida were flying here and getting here to go find people. And that’s why my dad had to leave early, because he had to go back to the station as soon as he could, to get the station running so they could be up and running as soon as possible to help people.

 

Are they still in crazy mode or has it calmed down a little bit for them?

I would say it’s calmed down a little bit. For so long, for a month, it was the only thing anybody was talking about. And it got really overwhelming. But it’s definitely calmed down more. And things are slowly getting back to normal. There’s still a lot of brush everywhere, because of all the trees that fell. Houses are still being rebuilt and repaired. And in Boiling Springs Lakes, the neighborhood where the lakes got drained, they didn’t get power and water back for about a week to two weeks after the storm was over. So they were going to shelters and trying to have food. Our grocery stores were completely shut down, because they couldn’t get trucks in to get any new food. After losing power, all the food went bad. And so the grocery stores had nothing. So helicopters were flying in after the storm and bringing food and water for everybody who didn’t have the option.

 

How do you think experiencing all of that has impacted you or changed you?

It’s definitely made me see the intensity of how everything can change in a matter of seconds. Because even though I didn’t, a lot of people I know lost everything. And even just having to prepare for [the possibility of] that happening to you is really overwhelming. And I think it definitely did do something to me and my brothers and everybody who had to go through it, because just preparing for that just really is a scary feeling. Having to take all the pictures down in your whole house and put them in plastic bags up in the top of your closets. It’s very scary, just having to comprehend the idea of losing everything. And I saw how stressed my parents were, and it was just a lot. It was very scary. And it also showed me how a community really helps each other and works together after a time when you really need it, which was really good. I’m glad that we pulled through for each other like that.

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