From the Inside Looking Out: A Weather Report From A Wilmington Resident, Part One

By Janice Barlow

AFTER HAVING SPENT over half of our lives in Michigan, my husband and I made the move to the gulf coast of Florida in 1994 with our two young boys. We had some concerns about hurricanes, but we were moving to an area west of Tampa Bay that hadn’t seen a direct hit since the 1920’s.

We lived there until 2016, staying put through three hurricanes. Frances caused the most damage at a Cat 2 even though it had to traverse the state from east to west to get to us. We lost a small tree and some gutters. We didn’t even lose power as we had during frequent tropical storms and bad thunderstorms. It was no big deal. We had earned our hurricane bragging rights. Or so I thought.

In January 2016, we became “halfbacks” and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, a small city that we had grown to love on frequent vacations in previous years. We were drawn to an unincorporated area on the south end of the county, contracted a builder, and built our home – the one we live in today – at least I think we still live there…

The convoluted path to where we ended up was no coincidence. The church we were members of in Florida had recently taken on our son as an associate pastor. The short story is that one Sunday, he directed us to a visiting couple. He told us that the couple was a pastor and his wife on vacation from Wilmington, and we should find out where their church was located.

It turned out that it was less than three miles from where we had decided to build our home. When we went to Wilmington that fall to do our closing, we visited the church. We never needed to visit another one. And the members welcomed us with open arms when we made our move.

In early October of 2016, we found ourselves making reservations to evacuate to Fayetteville in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which had first devastated Haiti and the east coast of Florida before heading north. As it did, it weakened though, and we decided to stay in place. We briefly lost power as the storm came ashore in South Carolina as a Cat 1, but it was not a terrible event for Wilmington. There was a lot of clean up of trees, branches, and debris throughout the county. It was a typical event that coastal North Carolinians are accustomed to.

Unfortunately for Haiti, the damage was devastating and 546 people lost their lives.

In late August of 2017, our son and his family evacuated Florida to escape the ravages of Hurricane Irma. That one affected Pinellas County worse than any storm had while we had lived there. They would have been miserable if they had remained in place since the area was without power for about a week during the hottest time of year in the Sunshine State.

However, just prior to Irma, Hurricane Harvey wreaked devastation and destruction throughout eastern Texas, mainly from massive flooding. Some of the residents of Houston and the surrounding areas are just now resettling in rebuilt properties, or they have relocated.

Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico only as a final annihilating insult following Irma and Jose. The island territory really hadn’t recovered from the two previous storms before it got hammered. And many of the people there are still displaced or haven’t gotten back to normal. As a nation, we really dropped the ball on Puerto Rico. Nearly 3,000 died directly from Hurricane Maria related events.

But once again, my husband and I had gone through a season where storms impacted around us, but didn’t affect us directly. We could read about them, comment on them, become involved in donations and emotionally support those we knew were affected, but we were on the outside looking in.

Then came Florence.

The National Hurricane Center had predicted a lower than average storm season in terms of number and intensity of hurricanes affecting the United States. But it only takes one.

Florence showed up out of nowhere. Those who follow hurricanes will remember it as suddenly appearing in the Atlantic, and not as a low that spun off the west coast of Africa as is typical. When it showed up, I felt my gut wrench because I just had a “feeling” about it. Those who know me know that I usually brush off hurricanes until they are reasonably close because the data changes so often. And I wasn’t even home. I was in Europe on a trip with my other son.

But I followed the storm daily.  My plane landed in Charlotte on Monday night the 10th of September. It was ironic, because from Charlotte I flew to Wilmington, knowing we were evacuating right back to Charlotte. I had to get home first though since there was a lot of packing and planning to do. At that time, a Cat 4 was predicted to hit Wilmington and our home is less than a half mile from the Atlantic.

It was an eerie evacuation trip Wednesday morning. We were all gassed up in three separate vehicles. My husband, my brother, who has a truck and took one of our dogs, and me, who had the other dog. The drive was smooth. Traffic was normal. The day before, we had heard of terrible traffic backups on I-74, the only real artery between Charlotte and Wilmington. But since most people left before we did, we were fortunate to avoid sitting in traffic.

The storm hit on Thursday. As we sat glued to The Weather Channel, we heard our neighborhood mentioned by name as the eye of the storm passed right over it. Even though it had been downgraded to a strong Cat 1, in my mind my home was demolished. It backs up to two very old and tall live oaks and a swath of land behind them carpeted in evergreen trees.

On Friday, our pastor bravely ventured out to check on people and properties. He called us to report that our home sat intact with no damage. We were beyond grateful. We were anxious for the storm, which was moving at a snail’s pace, to head out of the state so we could head home.

But then the flooding began.

Since Friday the 14th, the waters have been rising. Even if Highway 74 were not flooded in Lumberton, Whiteville, and Fayetteville, we realized we could not get back into Wilmington itself because it had become a virtual island.

I lay awake at night worrying about flooding, worrying about those oak trees which may have weakened enough to fall over or lose branches, worrying about looters breaking into our house, mold, and other things beyond my control. I prayed. I asked God to take away my concerns and I thanked Him for our safety.

A bicyclist rides through a flooded South Water Street on Friday as Florence makes landfall in Wilmington, N.C. Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti

Even though we chose not to stay home, which was a very wise decision in retrospect, we are impacted. We don’t know what we are headed back to or when. Thankfully, I work from “home” so I just plug in my laptop and tap into the server of the company I work for in Florida. I get paid.

My husband and my brother do not get paid as their employers had to close. But we are fine.

What about all the people who aren’t fine? I know some of them. I want to get back and do what I can to help. I want to direct them to resources that often go untapped because people don’t know how to tap them. But I also don’t want to encourage others from going after money and goods that are available if they don’t need them and they are just taking advantage of the situation. That’s why I’m not posting that information here.

My next article will be about what I find upon returning back to Wilmington, complete with my own photos of the town and surrounding area. In the meantime, I wish to extend a heartfelt thank you to all of you who prayed for us, called me, and texted me during this time. You have no idea how much it means to me to have friends across the country who reached out to find out how we are doing.

I now know the feeling of displacement of those who are on the inside, looking out.



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2 thoughts on “From the Inside Looking Out: A Weather Report From A Wilmington Resident, Part One

  1. Janice, I always love your commentaries and look forward to reading them. I will be praying that you are able to go home soon and that your house is not damaged.

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