Hurricane Florence, One Year Later
The newest portmanteau to grace my everyday vocabulary, as in “Where did you spend your hurrication?” While these are not two words you’d ever want to mash together, it’s what my husband and I, along with countless others, did for about a week during the Fall of 2018.
During the middle of what some call the most beautiful season of the year on Topsail Island, when the weather is a perfect balance of sunshine, warm waters, blue skies, and low humidity, Hurricane Florence made her way toward the Carolina coastline and forced a million plus people to flee their homes for more than a week.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to prepare for a hurricane? From the first mention of a formation, to boarding up, to evacuation, to mental preparation for devastation, to the wondering what’s happening while you’re gone, to the return, and to the long road to recovery?
We’d like to share with you one person’s story - a person with several unique perspectives. She is not only a local resident ... she is also a rental property homeowner and works for Topsail Island's oldest property management company, Ward Realty.
About the Author
Sandi Monroe is a local resident, living year-round in an oceanfront home in Surf City. Sandi is the Marketing Director for Ward Realty, and she and her husband, Tom, run a small Airbnb from their home.
As part of her role at Ward Realty, Sandi manages the social media accounts, answering questions and concerns from guests from around the world.
All of this creates a unique perspective from which to tell this hurricane tale.
- Boarding up our home – getting all hurricane shutters out and installing
- Securing outdoor furnishings or moving them inside (deck furniture, grill, hot tub)
- Helping neighbors – offering plywood and helping them install and secure
- Updating inventory – yearly we catalogue jewelry and china, crystal, and valuables, including costs, descriptions, and backstories
- Pictures and videos of general home items – not knowing if things will be there at all, or if they will just be wet and ruined
- Gathering supplies – water, food, batteries, pet supplies, gas for cars, etc
- Making a plan for our boat – must remove it from the marina but where to take it? A friend offered his farm for safety.
It was the first part of September 2018 – Labor Day weekend – and we started hearing rumblings about a Category 4 hurricane heading for the east coast. The exact path was not yet clear.
By the following weekend, September 8th, we knew Florence was coming to our Topsail Island area and it was time to prepare.
We’ve lived on the island a few years but have never been through a major hurricane. Our home was built in 1960 and has withstood some of the big ones. However, who knew how much she had left in her.
My husband and I went about our preparations, all while both working our normal full-time jobs.
At this point we weren’t sure if we needed to evacuate or not. This is such a tough call; preparations are different if you stay or if you leave.
Having pets, it’s a bit more difficult to find a place to evacuate to, and you also want to be sure you can return quickly and easily when it is safe to do so.
PREPARING OUR PROPERTIES
Monday morning at Ward Realty brought a lot of unknowns. Since we were in the middle of high season, most guests had just arrived two days earlier (on Saturday). The weather stations were still calling for a Category 4 storm to hit us sometime between Thursday and Saturday. This meant there were hundreds of families in homes across the island who needed to be kept updated about what they needed to do, and things were changing very quickly.
Once evacuation notices started on Monday afternoon, we were launched into full emergency management mode. We handled things like:
- Keeping guests updated on evacuation status, when they had to leave, and what they had to do as they checked out of their vacation home.
- Answering questions about refunds for unused portions of vacations and the filing of claims for travel insurance.
- Answering questions from guests scheduled to arrive during the coming week – at this point we had no idea the severity of the coming storm. Would we be hit hard? Would there be a lot of damage to the area, to homes, and to roads? Would there be flooding like during Hurricane Matthew (2016) which was "only" a Category 1? Should they come to Topsail or not? If not, what about refunds?
Over the next few days our staff was also working hard on other very important areas:
- Communicating with our homeowners, helping to ensure that their homes would be secured for the coming storm. We helped arrange the boarding up of windows and doors and brought deck furniture inside, all while the current guests were checking out.
- Arranging shelter for ourselves and our families – deciding where to go that would be safe, but also not too far away so we can get back quickly when it’s over.
- Securing our own homes and helping our neighbors.
- Packing up our own families and pets in order to evacuate by 1:00 pm on Wednesday.
By Tuesday the three towns on Topsail Island began calling for mandatory evacuations. This was effective immediately for visitors and by Wednesday for residents. Now we had more big decisions to make.
- Packing belongings for travel and for offsite storage – with a Category 4 predicted to directly hit our area, we feared our home would not be left standing. Were there things we could take with us or move to a safer place for storage?
- How do you decide what are the very most import things to you that you’d save?
- Where to go? Selecting a location that was far enough inland, but not near rivers and other areas prone to flooding that would prevent us from returning quickly (we’d seen the previous year's flooding that kept people from returning for another week after Hurricane Matthew).
We packed our dogs, valuables and clothing in the car, plus enough food from fridge and freezer for several days.
I worried about leaving a colony of feral cats behind that I cared for daily. I left 2 heaps of frozen fish and big bowls of food and water under shelter and hoped for the best.
The police were going door to door inquiring about evacuation plans. They wanted everyone gone. They were asking those that were staying to provide the names and numbers of their next of kin. It was like a ghost town on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, when just days before it was prime vacation season with visitors everywhere.
I can’t describe the feeling of leaving it all and getting in the car and driving away, wondering what would be there when we came back. At this time, we were still thinking it would be a Category 4 storm – would there even be a structure left? Would our roof be gone and everything inside destroyed? We were coming to terms that it's only stuff that we can replace as needed.
Our friends from Charlotte own the home next door to us and they had guests that wouldn’t leave. They wouldn’t let us turn off the water and power to the house as we were leaving. These guests insisted that it was a beautiful day and that they rented the home for the week and were going to enjoy it as long as they could. They promised to turn everything off, so we crossed our fingers and headed out.
It was a solemn ride over swing bridge. The days of stress and fear finally catching up to us. Tears silently sliding down our cheeks as we were both lost in our own thoughts.Sandi Monroe
THE HURRICATION BEGINS
We sought refuge at a wonderful dog-friendly extended stay Residence Inn at Southern Pines. We didn’t know when we would be going back home, so we booked our stay on a day-to-day basis.
The first days were beautiful. We used the pool, dined out, and went for walks. My husband worked, having a high-pressure validation project underway, and I was kept busy with ongoing communication with our guests and homeowners, family and friends.
While the hurricane was hitting Topsail Island, the days were filled with wind and rain in Southern Pines. We lost power at the hotel. Stores and restaurants closed.
By the end of our stay, the weather nice was again.
We met some wonderful people staying at the same hotel. Some were families from right here near home, others were service men and women from all over. We met Duke utility crews from Florida who were just waiting to head to the coast. Each of these groups pitched in by cutting fallen trees at the hotel, sharing gas cans with those traveling home, sharing food brought from their freezers in nightly cookouts, and providing information on safe travel.
THE STORM APPROACHES
While it was nice to meet so many wonderful people, there was still a lot of time to worry and wonder about what was happening back home. I was still trying to do my job of informing our Ward Realty guests about their upcoming vacations and updating homeowners on the status of their homes, all while anxiously awaiting news on our own home – as were all of my coworkers, wherever they were staying.
In order to keep people updated, I scoured the news channels as well as the three town’s websites and Facebook feeds. I kept in constant contact by text with anyone I knew who stayed closer to home, and shared the information as I had it.
We saw live video from Virginia Preparedness as he drove the streets of Surf City late in the week. They even took requests from residents to drive by their homes and report back. But, downed power lines and flooded streets kept him from reaching many areas. Still, those areas that he could show provided so much hope for residents and at least a sense of what was happening.
Little did we know that for many of us, the worst was yet to come.
We saw live video out of Chadwick Shores, sharing information about flooded areas and downed power lines in the Intracoastal area, and occasional updates from the few others who were on the island. Only a handful stayed and there was very spotty cell service for the duration of the storm, with virtually no news coverage of the island until Tuesday.
Only one video kept playing on repeat: the washing out of a home on North Topsail Beach.
OUR FIRST LOOK
On Monday, September 17, 2018 – nearly a week after we drove away from our home – we had our first look of the island. As news helicopters flew from North Topsail Island to Topsail Beach, Tom and I held hands (and our breath) as we waited to see our street and home.
The first thing we saw was that the beach was literally covered in broken stairways. I don’t think there was a single set of beach stairs remaining from one end of Topsail Island to the other. I can only imagine what a sight that must have been, to see the ocean surging up the beach and tearing out thousands of walkways like they were made of matchsticks.
As the north end of Surf City came into view (the 9th Street to Broadway area) we saw where the dunes had been breached. Sand was pushed back into the streets for blocks. This area is less than 2 miles up the beach from our home. As the footage got closer, we saw some mostly intact roofs with just a few shingles missing. But then ... we’d see entire roofs caved in.
As they covered the last half mile of beach before our home, we saw some terrible devastation. Not only were stairways gone, but entire decks with hot tubs, gazebos, and the front halves of homes were all lying smashed on the sand.
The footage was approaching our neighbor's house and we saw gaping holes in his roof. Then, we finally saw our house. We held our breath and waited.
We saw no stairs, of course.
Dunes scraped right to the very edge of our deck.
The hot tub cover was missing, but… that was it.
We still had a roof, and our home was still standing. The deck was still there, and the hot tub was where it was supposed to be.
We both took a deep breath and said, “Well, she’s still standing. We can work with that.”
If we only knew.
We continued to watch as our friends and neighbor’s homes and businesses came into and faded out of view. We saw various levels of destruction that went on and on.
THE WAITING GAME
When we evacuated the previous Wednesday, we were told we might be able to return by Tuesday but also that we would have to wait and see.
Now that the storm was over, town officials made their way onto the island to inspect for damages. What they found was a mess that would need days to clean up before residents could safely return. Power lines were down, sewer lines were compromised, and water lines couldn’t be turned on. While the flood waters had receded from the streets, there were tons of sand left in its place. Sand was covering entire sections of the island, making streets impassable and repairs difficult.
With power out and other services disrupted, it was difficult for City officials to communicate to residents regularly. Our only information came from email and text notifications from our towns and little bits of information we could get from the news. We learned that the resident return date had been pushed back to Thursday.
Meanwhile, as we still sat in Southern Pines, I worked with our staff to keep incoming scheduled guests updated on the status of their visit. Which at this point was “Don’t plan on coming…”. We just didn’t have any information or any idea what we were going to find when got back on the island.
We knew there would be a lot of work ahead of us – not only as a property management company but also for our homeowners, to get our properties ready to receive guests again.
At that time, we had no idea the amount of devastation that would be caused by what I call “Secret Water”. Nor did we know that the island would remain closed to visitors for more than a month while beaches were cleared and streets were cleaned. Even so, some areas still had sand and debris in the streets for months.
Thursday was the day. Finally, we’d be allowed to return to Topsail Island.
Only residents and business owners were allowed across the bridge and only with a hurricane key card pass. The feeling was surreal, like passing thru a roadblock.
Before we left Southern Pines, we plotted our route, having heard that many roads were washed out and with so many rivers cresting, there were detours everywhere.
We heard horror stories of neighborhoods being flooded out, with water rising to the second stories. Water rescues were being performed by the Cajun Navy and local Marines, and the shelters were overflowing. Some areas still had no power or sewer.
When we finally arrived back home, we stood on our deck, which, while still attached to the house, was sort of hanging in mid-air.
Our stairways were gone.
The beach, for as far as the eye could see, looked like a war zone.
Huge pilings from the end of the Surf City Pier lay in front of our house.
Whole decks had fallen off and tumbled down onto the beach.
Bales of seaweed were strewn everywhere, tangled up with wooden pickets and dune fencing.
Broken glass and roofing shingles mingled with seashells and sea fans.
We took a walk on the beach and saw, up close, the homes that had lost whole rooms off the front. Rooms that had fallen onto the beach and washed away.
It was so much worse than when we’d seen it on the news.
We stood there, speechless, just taking it all in. Not even knowing where to begin.
SECRET WATER DAMAGE
Secret Water Damage happens when you get what looks like only minor damage to your roof and/or soffits and siding, allowing driving rain to enter your home.
Florence poured rain on our island for days, and brought strong winds that pushed it into every crevice.
Remember I said we had only a few shingles missing, and we thought it wasn’t so bad?
When we got home, we found standing water on every floor, water running behind paint, and water dripping from ceilings.
We had so much internal water damage that we ended up gutting our home down to the studs. We were literally an empty shell – new roof and siding surrounding empty stud walls with no floors or ceilings.
After being soaked through, and then sitting in the 90+ degree heat for days, homes on the island became filled with mold and mildew. Drywall and insulation, carpets and bedding, flooring and ceilings. All of it had to be removed.
Then began the heartbreaking roadside piles.
There were damaged personal belongings alongside piles of moldy drywall and building materials. Bag after bag of rotten refrigerator and freezer contents along with broken shrubbery and decking.
The piles of personal belongings and construction debris remained for weeks until the cities could begin hauling them away. But they would reappear as quickly as they were removed.
Then, dumpsters started to arrive in front yards, and blue tarps were on every other roof.
Where to begin.
First, we called our insurance company. The first call of many that are still happening today, over a year later, to settle our claim. Then, after taking out all the visibly damaged and moldy furnishings, we just started at the top. Our neighbors were all scrambling to find reputable roofers, first to get tarps on homes and then to get in line for new roofs.
Securing people for demolition was easy, but finding dependable contractors was not. We looked to each other for recommendations on handyman-type people who would do work on the side – small jobs just to keep things moving forward.
We did some work ourselves, just to save money that wasn’t coming from insurance. We waited for roofers who didn’t show. We waited as materials were not available. We waited as builders were too busy to get to everyone. We had to redo work as disreputable tradespeople did poor quality work, or didn’t finish work as new winter storms came rolling in, adding more rain to already soaked homes.
The biggest problem that most homeowners ran into was hidden damage. Once you started removing drywall or flooring, you would find water or mold in the next layer, making it necessary to keep removing layers until you’d find dry materials and no mold.
Often homes were inspected and thought to initially be ok, only to return a few weeks later and find that mold had been behind the drywall and was now coming through.
We have an old home that has many additions. Once we removed one layer of paneling, we would find another layer of paneling, then a layer of insulation. Our floors had several layers of materials. Everything was wet and moldy.
Those with rental properties sadly turned away guests – first, because the island was closed to vacation rentals for a period of time, and then, because work on homes took much longer than anticipated. When possible, guests were moved to other accommodations that were scheduled to be completed first, occasionally to be disappointed when repairs for these homes weren’t completed on time either.
Homeowners, just like local residents, were doing everything in their power and within their budgetary means to repair homes as quickly as possible. Rental companies also wanted repairs completed as quickly as possible. There were no winners when things moved so slowly. We were all at the mercy of available skilled tradespeople and materials.
We moved back into our home in April of 2019 – having lived in our own Airbnb rental unit above the garage for 6 months (losing income the entire time). Once we moved back into our home, we didn’t have a working kitchen for 6 more weeks and we lived in just two rooms – our bedroom/bathroom and my husband’s office – he works remotely from home. We still had dumpsters and storage pods in our yard, and painters and drywallers working in the house.
Even after they all left, the final tile work and landscaping was only completed in September of 2019 – more than a year after the storm hit.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
When Hurricane Dorian recently passed several miles off our coast and left us with little new damage, we were thankful but found ourselves suffering flashbacks to the fall of 2018.
The anxiety and preparation required ahead of Dorian was the same as before Florence. Perhaps even a little worse, as many had lingering memories of the devastation and the yearlong process toward recovery.
We tried to implement the lessons we learned from Florence by preparing ourselves for power and sewer outages, evacuations, long rental black-outs, and beach debris. While it was a relief when Dorian passed us by, we were all left a little breathless and extremely exhausted, both physically and mentally (for video coverage taken of Hurricane Dorian as it passed Topsail Island, visit our Facebook page).
In our area there are many more stories that could be told. Stories of folks who still have blue tarps on their roofs and still cannot live in their homes. But they show up for work every day, opening their restaurants, retail shops, cleaning homes, and building beach stairs.
We know that tourism is a major part of our economy and the island needs visitors to thrive. We love sharing where we live with all of you. And we truly appreciated all the concern and prayers that you sent our way last year and over this past year.
We just want you to know that on the few occasions that homes weren’t ready when we thought they would be, we were just as upset as you were – on your behalf for a vacation hiccup, and for the homeowner who was doing everything that they could to finish their home – both for you and for themselves.
Now, it's Fall of 2019 and for the most part, Topsail Island is back up and running smoothly. The beaches are clean, and the water has been the most gorgeous clear green and blue all summer. Shops and restaurants are open, and an estimated 90% of rental properties are up and running, with more coming back every day.
We appreciate your patience during our recovery and want you to know that any issues that were related to hurricane recovery are not issues that are likely to affect your vacation next year.
As for us and our home, we are finally all back together and enjoying our life again. We are still dealing with insurance claims and some minor work but we consider ourselves fairly lucky. We know there are some folks that are just getting started. We learned a lot about our community, our leaders, and our visitors over the past year.
We pulled together to clean up and repair our towns and we welcome you all back with open arms.