The Story of Dorian: First Two Weeks

One woman's journal of the storm, the aftermath, and the recovery.

Editor's note: Heather Johnson is one of our favorite people. She started posting on Facebook about the hurricane as soon as it happened and kept up the regular reports. One islander recently called her "Ocracoke's poet laureate" in reference to these posts. We are sharing them here with Heather's permission, in three posts. This one covers the first two weeks after Hurricane Dorian brought an unprecedented storm surge to Ocracoke Village on September 6, 2019. 

Check in tomorrow for the second part of this series.

September 8, 2019 

It’s 6:30 am, I honestly don’t know what day it is. I’m laying in bed watching the sunrise through my window. Listening to the birds & the hum of generators. Tears are streaming down my face. Tears of sadness, heartbreak, exhaustion, overwhelm, love, & gratitude. Until you experience disaster first hand, you really have no clue. My entire life I’ve seen the aftermath of storms on tv, driven through neighboring towns where people’s entire lives are heaped in mounds on the side of the road. I thought I knew what devastation was. I was wrong. You don’t until you experience it first hand. And even then, the words to try & express what that’s like don’t come. Some parts are easier to describe. The physical being the easiest: siding missing from a house, porches & docks washed away, feet of water in your living room. These are the easy things to say. It’s the emotions that are hard, there are just so many, & many I don’t have names for. Yesterday I saw all the familiar people of our community, but their faces were different. Worn by exhaustion, aged by stress, blank with shock, masked in trauma. It was all just too much to take in. There is beauty to be found too, people coming together. People hugging & sharing their stories with each other, people putting their clean up on hold to help a friend, neighbor, community member. Again, you just can’t describe it, it’s something that can only be felt with the heart & soul. 

We have another long, back breaking day in front of us. We will continue to band together, no man left behind, until we are back, better than ever. It will be a long road. 

I am so grateful to be a part of such an amazing community. Ocracoke, you are strong!! And I love you with all my heart. 

And for everyone who has reached out to see how we are doing, & for those offering help with supplies & fund raising. Thank you. I can’t tell you how overwhelmingly loved you make us all feel. 

September 9, 2019 

What’s more than overwhelmed? Because that’s what we are right now, physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually. There’s so much to do that you get caught up in this false idea that if you just keep pushing, just keep working, just keep going, by the end of the week things will be ok. But they won’t. One day yes, but not by the end of the week, month, year. We know this & we keep going because we have to. Because it’s easier to stay busy, to keep moving. You don’t have to think about the reality when you’re ripping up carpet, bleaching the floors, moving furniture, helping organize the massive amounts of donations that have come pouring in. It’s when you stop to rest that all the emotions come flooding in just like the water did in the storm. Your mind needs to stay busy, but the body has to rest, how & where do you find the ballance? I wish I knew. I’ve been laid up, unable to walk today because of a mysterious swollen ankle. Frustrated & annoyed I can’t be helping my community. Overwhelmed with all the thoughts & feelings that have arrived now that I’ve had a chance to stop. Again, overwhelmed is too small of a word.  

The amount of love & support we are receiving is incredible. It’s brought me to tears numerous times over the past few days. It too is more than overwhelming, but I’ll take that overwhelm any day!!! All the love.

September 11, 2019 

Every night you crawl in bed, hoping that when you wake in the morning it will have all just been a bad dream. It’s easier to sleep now that the power has been restored. You realize just how much you take for granted in times like these. Flushing toilets, hot showers, charged phones, clean laundry. We are so spoiled, & until now, we didn’t even know how spoiled we are. You can’t help but think about the people who have never had these simple luxuries, & luxuries they are, we’ve just grown so accustomed to having them. 

There’s a brief moment every morning when you wake up & before your brain has time to remind about the reality awaiting you, you feel what use to be our normal. We have a new normal now. Get up, get dressed, put on the same dirty cloths you’ve been living in for days, covered in mud & dirt, sweat & tears. Eat something. Don’t forget to eat something. The day will be long & you will need every ounce of strength & energy to get through it. Many are waking up in unfamiliar places, hotel rooms, cottages, friends houses. You know once you walk out that door it will be at 8-12 hours before you return, for some even longer. As you close the door behind you, you set out to see what needs to be done for that day. Tomorrow holds a whole new list of tasks. It will be this way for what feels like forever. There is just so much to do. Remember to eat. Remember to stay hydrated. The sounds of clean up start early. The beeping of heavy machinery are our new alarm clocks. The sound of chain saws fill the air. People buzz around like bees, stopping to help whoever needs it. Moving furniture, gathering trash, demolishing floors & walls. 

Once you’re out, instead of being greated by the beautiful landscape we are use to, you see your families, friends, neighbors lives all heaped in trash piles along the roadside. You can’t look, because you don’t have time for a melt down right now. There is still too much work to be done. 

I’ve allotted myself time at night, right before bed & time in the morning right after waking up to cry. As my Mother always said, “It’s good to cry, it’s what washes you clean”. You have to cry, you NEED to cry! It’s too chaotic to try to begin to process all of this, that will have to come later. But the crying helps. So please, allow yourself this simple release. 

#OcracokeStrong second by second, minute by minute, day by day, we will get through this. And we will be stronger for it on the other side.  Big love to you all!


September 13, 2019 

This time last week I stood on my porch in disbelief as I watch the water rush in, altering our lives forever. I knew as I watched the rising tide that things weren’t going to be good. I had no way of preparing myself for just how bad they truly were. It’s been a week since Dorian made his way across this tiny sand spit, bringing with it total devastation. 

This has been one of the longest weeks of my life. Everyday waking up to the same heartbreaking reality. It’s like Groundhog Day, but this version isn’t a comedy, it’s a nightmare. A week in, & it feels like an eternity. But there has been progress. However slow it feels, progress is being made. Last week our streets were quiet & empty, now they are lined with piles of couches, appliances, debris & wood piles. The streets are filled with emergency vehicles & trucks of men lending a hand to whoever might need it. Houses are gutted, & more are being ripped apart every day. Almost 400 houses still without power. People have started to settle in to their new temporary homes. An amazing amount of people have shown up to support us, some are here physically to lend a hand, many are far away offering support through donations. All are appreciated equally. We’ve grown closer as a community, grief & trauma pulling us all together. I’ve cried everyday. Tears of joy for being one of the lucky ones who didn’t loose everything. Tears of sadness & heartbreak for those who did. I’ve filled my days lending a hand to those who need it. Helping friends clear out their belongings & disinfecting their homes. Delivering food to those working none stop to try & salvage what little they can. Offering hot showers, washing clothes for people, in an attempt to offer them a small piece of normalcy. Volunteering at the Fire House helping people get the supplies & services they need. These have been the longest, hottest, most backbreaking days of my life. And today will be no different. We are all exhausted, & everyday it gets harder to get out of bed. But we rise, & we continue to push forward. Little by little, day by day. Yesterday was my best day so far. I spent it with family, all working together, hauling trash, salvaging furniture, watching the most impressive tree cutting I’ve ever seen. It felt good to be with my people. To feel the love of family. It was refreshing & restoring to my soul. I felt so lucky to spend time with them, as some don’t have the same luxury. As a community we’ve all become family, & this has been beautiful to witness. 

Today is another day. Today we continue to power through this. Take breaks when you need them, eat when you can, keep yourselves hydrated. Take some time to find pleasure in the little things, the sweet embrace of a loved one, a smile, a joke with a friend, the kindness of a neighbor. Continue to see the good, because through all the destruction & devastation, there is still plenty off good to be found. 


September 14, 2019

Tomorrow is Sunday. Everyone PLEASE!!!!!! Take some time off!!! I don’t care if it’s only for a few hours hour. Give yourselves some rest. You’ve been working sooo hard, you deserve a moment to take care of you. Have a midday nap, go see the beach, sit in the shade for a while, share a meal with your family, sleep in. Whatever it is that calms, quiets, & restores your soul, DO THAT. You need it. You’ve earned it. You owe it to yourself.

September 15, 2019

Day 9, I think. Time has little relevance here. The days all blur together. My day was filled with friends family, & the small communities within our community. Day after day I’ve witnessed the people of this community come together in the most beautiful ways. Everyone coming together to help each other out. To take time from focusing on their own homes to help a friend, or neighbor in need. There are groups of men cooking & feeding the whole community. Others are going around helping with fallen trees & debris removal, under pinning, wall & floor removal. There are so many things. So many aspects I was ignorant to before. The Women! The women are out there getting it done as well. Some in the dirty trenches with the men, hauling garbage, moving furniture, demoing houses. There are the Mothers who are cooking to make sure their boys are fed. The Women at the Fire House organizing supplies & work groups. Everyone navigating their own experience. Their own emotions. I’ve seen some of the strongest men I know cry, & this has made them stronger. This is making us all stronger. Native, resident. White, Latino. Old, young. O’Cocker, dingbatter. We are all Ocracoke Strong!!! We are all doing this together. That. That is beautiful. 

The contractors showed up today. They are beginning to remove the heaps of garbage & debris from the roadside. This is also a beautiful thing. We are one step closer to having our beautiful landscape back. How refreshing that will feel! It’s hard to go outside every day having the rot & ruin staring you in the face. Cars are still being removed. Soon we will have more space. Then we can begin to heal.

September 16, 2019 

I woke up to a message from a dear friend this morning, telling me how grateful they were for my posts. How they helped them feel connected to us when physically they can’t be here. This has me thinking again about the communities within the community, & the magic of Ocracoke. Our community is made up of so many wonderful, amazing, & talented people. Not all of whom actually live here. There is an entire community of people, all over the world, who call this place home. Those far away, are here in spirit. They too are grieving our losses. They stare at computers in disbelief as they see images of our devastated home. They sit on the other end of phone lines, heartbroken as we break down in tears to them about what the island looks like & how difficult this past week has been. They may not be here physically, but they are also working hard to help. Starting fund raising accounts, shipping needed supplies, not so patiently waiting for their chance to get here to lend a hand. The biggest help they have to offer is the ability to hold space for us. To lend an ear & caring heart to us as we slowly begin to process this experience. Ocracoke is so special, & for those who understand that, Ocracoke never leaves them. No matter how long it’s been since they’ve lived on the island, they still hear her call, still feel the yearning to come back, still know her as home. 

Ocracoke has this beautiful way of attracting people from all walks of life. She brings people of different backgrounds, different ages, different cultures, all together. I’ve had the honor of working along side some of my Latino brethren these past few days. And as always I’m blown away by them. These men & woman contribute so much to the community, & this has been no exception. They are out there in the trenches with us, breaking their backs with clean up, sweltering in the heat cooking us food, volunteering at the Fire House. They too have lost everything, & they too are working tirelessly to get us all back on Our feet. They are such a huge part of our community, & we are stronger & better because of them. #OcracokeSolido 

For those so eager to help our community, I ask that you think of EVERYONE in need. Some of our Latino brothers & sisters will not receive the same assistance most of us will. But we cannot recover without them. I ask that you consider offering your support to them as well. Gift cards to places such as Lowe’s & Home Depot is a great way to offer support. Many of the men lost tools that will need replacing. Many will need materials to rebuild their homes. The women will need new equipment for cleaning, vacuums & such. We are all in this together, & we all need help. 

If interested in purchasing gift cards, you can have them sent to me & I will make sure they get distributed to those in need. Heather Johnson, PO Box 1161, Ocracoke, NC 27960. You can also send an e-card via email to  Thank you! And now we get back out there again today, & continue to kick ass!!!

September 17, 2019

“I don’t know what in the hell we are, but we’re VERY.” These are some of the truest words I heard today. We ARE very! Very appreciative of all the love & support we are receiving. I am literally brought to tears at least once every day by the kindness & generosity that has been so graciously given to us. In too many ways to name. It is VERY kind, & makes us feel so VERY loved. Thank you all, with every bit of Our hearts. Thank you. 

We are VERY exhausted. Almost 2 weeks in & we have been going none stop. It’s VERY hard work, physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s VERY emotional. We are having to let go of so much. The walls of the houses that raised us, the dining room tables we have gathered around as families, some for generations. Our most cherished items; photos, gifts, quilts our grandmothers made. Shop owners having to toss beautiful art, restaurants have lost the equipment that has fed so many. Our cars, golf carts, bikes. So much loss. We are now beginning to grieve. Grief, like recovery, is a long road. 

We are VERY determined. We have been pushing just as hard as we can push, & we’re still going strong. The cars & debris are being gather & hauled away. It is VERY impressive to see. The men driving the tow trucks & roll backs have been snatching cars up & loading them as fast as they can. Maneuvering in tight places, so agile. The trash crews are out with their giant claws picking the debris up & dropping into giant containers. There is just something VERY fascinating to me about heavy machinery. 

Did I mention we are VERY exhausted? Day after day of hard physical labor. Every muscle hurts, the joints ache. Our brains are fried, yet somehow still functioning. Our hearts heavy, but still beating. 

We are VERY much any & every emotion you can imagine, & we are VERY STRONG. 

A VERY goodnight to you Ocracoke. And to all of those far away who love you.

September 18, 2019

The shock has worn off. You’re almost a little immune to seeing the garbage piles lining the road. Tension is beginning to flare here & there. It’s to be expected. It’s like a giant rotting onion, there are many layers. And it stinks.The island seriously smells horrible. The scent of gassy marsh mud, rotten food. Dead things. Mold. Dust. Gas. Its smelled from the beginning, you almost don’t notice it anymore. Then you pass a pile of rubble, or the wind blows just right, & it chokes you. Sour old septic. It was windy today, & the gusts blew in a little anger. The problem is, anger has no place here. There is no one to blame. Mother Nature simply displaying her power & beauty, we choose to settle & live here. I guess you could blame humans in general for global warming. Which is fair, & should be addressed, but there is no one to blame. It’s a part of life that makes you reconsider what Life really is. It forces you to go deeper. To see different perspectives. To question literally everything. It brings out the best in people, & the worst in people. I’ve heard whispers of theft. If true, shame. Shame on you! I do believe however, this experience has brought out the best in this community & its people. Bonds between families, friends, neighbors, have been strengthened. New friendships are being formed. Old friendships reignited. The amount of love people have for one another. It’s outstanding. There are heartbreaks everyday here now. There are also moments so heartwarming your moved to tears. Complete strangers eager to lend a helping hand, a warm embrace at the post office, a playlist from an old friend. The smallest, kindest gestures bring you to tears, not out of weakness, but out of strength. The strength & resilence of this community amazes me everyday. We are strong. 

Keep going everyone, you’re doing so great!! Remember to eat, stay hydrated. Rest when you need to, we have to remember to take care of our bodies. They are working so hard for us. Goodnight Ocracoke, sleep well.

September 19, 2019

My post comes early tonight because once I’m finished I am turning the phone off, & finding something on Netflix to escape in until I fall asleep, which won’t take too long. I have to unplug from all of this for a moment. For almost two weeks it’s been go, go, go, go, go. From the moment you open your eyes, until you close them again that night. Phone calls, texts, Facebook messages/posts. Not to mention the physical; hauling branches & limbs, furniture, cutting out walls, spraying down floors, bag after bag of garbage. Running back & forth, here & there. You have a conversation with every single person you run into during the day. “How are you holding up? How bad was the water at your place? Do you need anything? Can I help you? Will you help me?” “WHERE THE HELL IS FEMA?!” ...It comes at you from every single angle possible. Some things are starting to feel a little normal again though. I think for the most part, everyone has some form of power now. The trash piles have been being moved to the parking lot at the Lifegaurd Beach. The already narrow roads are beginning to widen some. There is something to be said about “out of sight out of mind.” Not that you can put this out of your mind, even if you could, your heart is still too heavy to ignore. Everyday brings some new heartbreak. The gas pumps aren’t working & we don’t have access to fuel to run the few tools we have, the generators, the vehicles transporting crews. Some businesses are having to close for good. People are having to completely demolish their homes that have raised generations. A flood that lasted only a few hours, has altered our lives forever. 

We are hungry. Our bellies are not empty, but we long for ice cream. For pizzas from Jason's. Tacos from Eduardo's. We hunger to see a familiar landscape. We hunger for what use to be normal. O’Cockers have always hungered for “the way things use to be.” Two weeks feels like a lifetime ago. 

I think what we are the most hungry for is our rebirth, what we will look like when we come out on the other side. We have been demolished, not destroyed. We will rebuild, our homes, shops, restaurants. We will be stronger as a community, family, friend. Eventually we will be cleaner. We’ve been given a half-damaged canvas, & we get to paint in the rest. We can make it as beautiful as we want, & or this talented, skilled, amazing community, the possibilities are endless! Everyday we get closer & closer. #OcracokeStrong

September 20, 2019

Sept. 6, 2019

Today it was us. For 35 yrs I’ve weathered hurricanes. I've watched on the news as places get destroyed. I’ve driven through neighboring towns, brought to tears witnessing their devastation. Every year I’ve had the thought, “one of these days it will be us.” Friday, September 6, 2019, was that day. I stood on my porch watching in shock & awe, as the water rushed like a river down my road. I am one of the lucky ones. The water, carrying all sorts of debris; wood, coolers, golf cart seats. It rushed in like an stampede. In a matter of minutes the yard went from high ground to buried under feet of water. The wind is howling, I can hear limbs snapping. The air is different. Some might call it angry. All of Mother Nature’s power engulfing his sand spit I call home. 

It was a little past 7am, I stood on my porch watching in fear, panic, disbelief, excitement, awe & wonder as the water continues to rush in. 

This is only the beginning. 

I go inside, grab the phone in an attempt to contact my people. Texting loved ones to make sure they are awake, & safe. Check facebook. Things are bad. We’re under siege. Houses are flooding. People are in attics. Brave men are out in boats rescuing people. This only happens on tv. Except this time the characters are my friends, family, loved ones. My community. 

We may not “own” the island, but the island is in our blood. Our ancestors are here. For generations the people of this tiny island have weathered storms together. They have formed bonds that carry over generations. That’s what makes them so special. That’s what makes them so strong.  

I wrote this passage the morning Dorian hit. Two weeks ago today. Little did I know at the time, just how BIG this whole experience was going to be. It gets bigger everyday. Life didn’t stop when the storm hit, it keeps going. You just have to learn how to go with it. Your bills still arrive despite the fact you’ve been out of work for almost 3 weeks now. Many, having no jobs to return to. Our season is over, when we should still have few months left. It will take YEARS to recover completely. We have no bank, no school, no jobs, no homes. It is incredible the amount of loss we are experiencing. Some will never fully recover. 

It’s hard. Every day is fucking hard. I’ve cried 5 times today. Once were tears of joy when I saw ice cream at the store. All the rest, sorrow. The progress is slow, & hard to see through all the rubble. We are in a marathon, not a sprint. Progress IS being made everyday. And everyday continue to grow as individuals, & as a community. 

Thank you Ocracoke!!! Thank you for allowing me to share in your vulnerability. Your grief. Your loss. Your devastation. These are not easy emotions to share. They are not comfortable. They are not pretty. 

But you, Ocracoke, you are beautiful! It takes a special place, & special people to be able to journey through such an event. There is strength in numbers, & as individuals you are already so strong. As a whole, you are even more  powerful than the tide that wrecked you! #OcracokeStrong

The Story of Dorian: First Two Weeks
Crystal Canterbury


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