Evacuation: A Personal Story

Crystal Canterbury
On the ferry, coming home
On the ferry, coming home

It’s been just over two weeks since Ocracoke's mandatory evacuation began.

On Monday, September 10, I, along with millions of other people, began really bracing for what was forecast to be the storm of our lifetime. After closing up shop, I raced home and continued packing. Prior to the evacuation order I had decided that I didn’t want to be anywhere near Ocracoke when Florence made landfall. After the fear I experienced during Hurricane Matthew (2016), I wasn’t about to wait it out as wind whipped the trees and water began to rise. During Matthew, water almost came in our house; several other residents lost vehicles and others had flooded homes. Matthew was a great learning experience for me, and that knowledge coupled with the grim forecast of Florence had me anxious to go.

Will, my husband, didn’t really want to go. Evacuating isn’t cheap. We spent about $1,300 in hotel costs alone, plus gas and other expenses. It also isn’t easy or fun. Preparing for the emotional, mental, and physical loss that is experienced because of a disaster is a skill I have yet to master. We frequently hear that what we leave behind is just stuff. That’s easy to say when it isn’t your stuff. When you look through your own home, what would you leave behind and why? What would you take and why?

As I looked around our home, trying to decide what to take and what to leave, I was overwhelmed with sadness. Every single thing displayed in our house is of value to us. Some of those items were obtained recently; others are from decades ago. There is a pelican my Grandpa (my dad’s dad) carved; wall quilts crafted by my mom; a piece of Wedgwood jewelry from England; our wedding invitation; a stuffed orange dog my parents gave to me shortly after moving to the States; turtle decorations local friends surprised me with just because I love turtles; coins presented to me from officers in the Royal Canadian Navy and British Royal Navy. The list goes on and on. Baby blankets my mother-in-law made for Will when he was born; wedding quilts – each unique and beautiful – made my Will’s Momma (grandmother) Linda and another by my mom; baby blankets, some of which were made by local friends for Grady, one of which was knitted by a friend from the WVU marching band; shell art my mom and I made when we re-decorated my room to be beachy many many years ago; an ocean-themed vase that survived the 2016 flood in Historic Ellicott City.

Grady with his doting grandparents
Grady with his doting grandparents

To me, all of that stuff is irreplaceable.

There is a large WVU pillow my dad surprised me with at the beginning of my freshman year that I tried to stuff in my “things to take” bags, but I gave up and moved it up higher in the event our house did flood. My trombone, which my parents bought me when I was 13, had to stay. Shot glasses and lapel pins that I’ve collected over the years of travel with family and friends had to stay. Will chose to leave his Dave Matthews Band posters and Carolina Hurricanes memorabilia behind. Large framed memories don’t pack well. The items Will has purchased over the years to craft his homebrew had to stay, along with the engraved mugs Thomas and Madeleine Cunningham presented us in 2017 before the 75Thceremony at the British Cemetery. The things we didn’t take we put up on couches, beds, inside Grady’s crib, on countertops, etc. Belongings that could easily blow away were placed in containers and secured under heavier items. Will moved a few things – the quilt his Momma Linda and the one my mom made, plus a few family trinkets – to Zillie’s. Even though everything is fine, I still feel tremendously guilty for leaving behind what we did, to the point I tear up thinking about it. 

Over the course of 24 hours I did a fair amount of crying. When I wasn’t crying, I was an efficient packing machine. I accomplished what I think many doubted could be done: I figured out – using Will as the guinea pig – how to fit two adults, two large dogs and their crates, an infant, clothes, food, toiletries, important documents, a pack 'n' play, diapers, wipes, shoes, my camera, and a thumb drive that holds Halcomb and Canterbury photos from the 1930’s to present day into a Nissan Altima. I know there are items we packed I haven’t included in this list, but in case you’re wondering what a Nissan Altima is like with that many bodies and that much stuff packed in, imagine a large can of sardines that sometimes barks. I was quite honestly surprised by how much we were able to fit in the car. 

The next task that needed attention was deciding what ferry to use. Pea Island had flooded the previous day, so we assumed going to Swan Quarter was our only option. We also realistically only had through Tuesday to leave. With a new round of visitors having checked in on Saturday and Sunday, and the amount of residents wanting to leave, I became quite concerned we would find it hard to leave the island. I don’t think anyone knew for sure how long the ferries would remain in operation. Much of the ferry personnel don’t live on Ocracoke, so while they were shuttling us all to safety, they still had yet to make their own storm preparations. Thankfully, a friend who lives on Hatteras told me NC-12 was dry the whole way up to Whalebone Junction. My parents and I were also checking the NC DOT highway cameras (if you haven’t used this tool before you should check it out) and friends who’d recently traveled on the highway posted on Facebook about the good driving conditions.

So, we decided to go north via Hatteras. Shortly before our departure I learned the hotel we planned to stay in for the storm was in the area of Chesapeake expected to be placed under a mandatory evacuation order. We quickly canceled that reservation and booked a place in Columbia, Maryland, because if we have to go farther north, I reasoned, why not go hang out in my hometown and near my parents. Time-wise, Chesapeake is more than halfway to Columbia from Ocracoke, and by that point, I just wanted to hug my parents. As we exited our house, we took one last photo together on the front steps. I really believed that would be the last time we saw the house undamaged and livable. Then we loaded everyone into the car – with only a few minor injuries sustained by Will courtesy of our dogs – and were soon on our way. Once four of my favorite beings were secured in the back seat, I turned on the car and began backing out of our driveway; Ellie Goulding’s rendition of “Your Song” was playing as I slowly maneuvered over the dips in the dirt road and made a left onto Back Road.

Grady and Will
Grady and Will

The car felt so heavy. The 4-cylander engine seemed louder than normal as it worked harder than it probably ever had to accelerate to 55 (okay, 60) mph. The dogs were panting and nervous; Porter was on the floor in between Will’s legs, and Harley’s big square head was blocking my rear view. Will was trying to get the dogs to chill. Grady was secured behind me, happy and content in his car seat. I was teary-eyed. We were quite a sight. It’s almost comical to think back on how five different beings reacted so differently and somewhat dramatically to the same situation. We arrived at the north end at 11:09 Tuesday morning and at 11:10 were loaded onto the ferry. It was a wonderful ferry ride. I called my mom for about the 100th time that day and then proceeded to cry for about the 200th time that day. But, there was a nice breeze, it wasn’t too hot, the sun was out, and there were fluffy clouds dotting the sky. That scene made it hard to comprehend the destruction that was going to occur in North Carolina in a few days.

The first part of the trip was really fairly nice. Once we got closer to Chesapeake and Norfolk, however, things changed drastically. The usual heavy traffic was made even heavier by evacuees, and then, in the midst of said heavy traffic, I missed an exit (in my defense, it wasn’t marked well AND trees were covering a good chunk of the sign), so we ended up going through Norfolk on a bumpy road with traffic lights instead of on the interstate. 15 minutes later we merged onto I-64, but construction always makes travel a nightmare during high-volume times. It was especially awful with the added vehicles and stress being experienced by drivers evacuating to higher ground. I could almost feel the nervous energy. It was like being at an exciting game where the atmosphere is electrifying, but instead of that fun I’ve experienced during an especially exciting game, I felt dread and exhaustion.

Then, we went through bands of rain. Some bands were light, others were torrential. As we approached Williamsburg traffic became very heavy. Long stretches of the interstate were turned into parking lots. I became desperate – I cannot accurately stress how desperate - to find a restroom, and moving at 2mph with no exit in sight indicating public facilities, I became a bit antsy. When I finally did see an exit that indicated public restrooms were nearby I thought I was going to burst. I took the exit, followed the signs, and ended up at a barricade on some side of Fort Eustis. My sheer desperation to find a daggone restroom motivated me to make a u-turn and backtrack instead of losing my mind right then and there.

When we found the Wawa 9 miles later I was so relieved I raced in – as fast as I could, anyway – and used the handicap stall, something I only do in true emergencies. The relief was indescribable. I soon noticed there wasn’t any toilet paper, but I knew there was another woman in the restroom. So, I asked her to hand me toilet paper, which she very kindly did. After wrapping things up and washing my hands I learned that she too was evacuating, also with her husband. By the time I walked out of the Wawa I was feeling a bit happier (and a bit lighter), and just wanted to get to a hotel.

Will and I decided traveling to Columbia in one trip would be too much. We were worn out, it was getting close to sunset, and more bands of rain were forecast to be in the area. We decided to make it to Fredericksburg, but could not find a pet-friendly hotel, so we went back to the idea of reaching Columbia that night. We told my mom what was going and that because we couldn’t find a hotel we’d decided to push on to Columbia. When my dad returned home from his run, she relayed to him what was going on with us. He quickly went upstairs and found a La Quinta north of Richmond off I-95N. Mom relayed this to us and Will called, booking a room for the night. With only an hour to go before we reached the hotel I became more optimistic. We exited I-64W and merged onto I-295 towards Washington. Dark clouds were around us, but so nothing more than sprinkles were being released. Then, just a few miles from the I-95 interchange, the bottom dropped out. Traffic suddenly came to a crawl and I worried that we’d be merging onto I-95 in a torrential downpour.

After what seemed like an eternity, the torrential rain stopped as abruptly as it started, and not a minute too soon. Just a couple minutes later we merged onto I-95N and reached our hotel. We ordered delivery from a local pizzeria and chatted with some fellow evacuees. A woman from Pennsylvania who traveled with her daughter and daughter’s friend were disappointed to leave Hatteras and cut their vacation short, but she expressed such gratitude that they were able to visit at all and see the ocean. Another woman I met evacuated with her husband from their vacation home in Topsail Beach. She told me about how horrible she felt leaving behind a display case signed by all their children and grandchildren. After having such an eventful and stressful day I knew Wednesday would be much better.

When we awoke Wednesday morning I felt significantly more relaxed than I had the previous days. Even the thought of traveling on I-95N on a weekday – a thought that usually makes me a bit anxious _ didn’t faze me. Perspective. Usually, when I’m frustrated about the current state of affairs in the country, my dad will say something like, “Well, at least you’re not in London during The Blitz,” which is a fair point and absolutely gives me some perspective. Wednesday morning, we only had about two more hours of travel time before we reached Columbia, making the drive seem like a cakewalk compared to the stress and anxiety we felt on Tuesday. Like I said, perspective.

We merged onto I-95N full speed ahead. Cruising around 70mph made me feel like we were really getting somewhere. I was super excited about seeing my parents and be hundreds of miles away from the impending doom. Traffic was moving smoothly, getting heavier near exit/entrance ramps, but still no real delays. Then we reached Fredericksburg. Once again an interstate was transformed into a parking lot. We were in the far left lane, moving and stopping with traffic. Behind us I noticed the driver of a gold SUV liked to wait to last second to stop the vehicle. Through the rearview mirror I watched her make an especially last-minute stop and exclaimed to Will, “That person behind us is going to hit us!”

I thought that after the long trip from Ocracoke to Richmond, Wednesday had to be better. The universe, however, was like, “hold my beer.” About two minutes later, she hit us. The bang of her bumper hitting ours was really loud, surprisingly loud considering we were in stop-and-go traffic and traveling at fairly low speeds. I quickly turned on my hazard lights and gestured for her to pull over on the left shoulder. I also asked Will to have his phone ready in case the driver didn’t pull over so he could get photos of her tag and the make and model of the vehicle. Fortunately, she did pull over. No one in our car seemed injured, the air bags weren’t deployed, Grady was looking around at all the trees, Harley was looking at all the vehicles outside, and Porter was still curled up in between Will’s feet. I, however, was fuming. As I exited the car the urge to yell at the young driver was overwhelming. The feeling of being overwhelmed in general was becoming the norm, but – and I deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for this – remained surprisingly calm. But the anger and frustration I wasn’t verbalizing was transferred to my body and I was shaking uncontrollably. We exchanged insurance information and phone numbers and she left shortly thereafter. Once I finished speaking with Geico I looked up to notice traffic was moving and I was now going to have to merge back onto I-95 from THE LEFT SIDE OF THE HIGHWAY. I turned on my blinker and within a minute a driver moved over one lane, giving me plenty of room to accelerate and merge. Mission complete. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Getting around Washington, D.C. was easy; almost too easy. Traffic on the Beltway slowed in the usual places, but it was nothing like what we experienced on I-64. And then, in the distance, displayed on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, was the sign I’d longed to see since Tuesday morning, the one welcoming us into the great state of Maryland. We were now on the home stretch. I breathed another sigh of relief.

We exited the Capital Beltway to pick up I-95N again. I always get excited when I see signs for Baltimore; that means we’re getting close! Then, out of literally nowhere, I see people swerving from the middle lane to get into the right and left lanes. As we got closer I saw a Maryland DOH truck parked in the middle lane, light flashing, cones out, the whole nine yards. As we passed the truck we saw a group of men FILLING IN A SINKHOLE! I mean what are the chances that in the distance of less than 400 miles we’d miss an exit, have a restroom emergency, go through more traffic jams than you can shake a stick at, drive through treacherous bands of rain, get rear-ended, AND pass a newly formed sinkhole on I-95? I’ve made the trip from Ocracoke to Columbia a lot and not once have any of those trips been remotely as frustrating or eventful as this one. And it all seemed worse because of why we were making the trip.

I wrote all of this because despite what people from afar think, deciding what to do is hard, and no matter what people decide to do, everyone else just has to give their opinion. You don’t just wake up and joyfully decide to leave your home and everything in it, just like those who stayed probably didn’t wake up and look forward to Florence making landfall. We had our reasons for leaving and those who stayed had their reasons. Far too many people didn’t have a choice but to stay.

The point is that no matter what we/you/anyone decides, there is stress and fear and financial burden involved. Evacuating isn’t cheap, but neither is staying and not working. As I wrote at the beginning, I really believed Florence was going to be the end of Ocracoke. I think a lot of people did really, and by sheer luck Ocracoke wasn’t severely impacted. But if there’s one thing I’ve really learned from living in a place that experiences these storms, it’s that until or unless you’re in a specific situation you don’t know for sure how you will react and what you will do.

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