Story of Dorian: Grief, Loss, Change

The debris mound takes up over half the parking lot at the lifeguard beach.
The debris mound takes up over half the parking lot at the lifeguard beach.
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. Part Two covers September 21-29, as Ocracoke begins to face our new normal. Read Part One here 

September 21, 2019

The island feels different today. Calmer, quieter. I went to the dump first thing this morning & the roads were almost empty. No giant claws picking up debris, no large crews scurrying about. I passed a few familiar faces out on their daily walk. It felt so good to see the “normalcy” of routine again. For two weeks our routine has been survival & reaction. We are now building new routines. The chaos seems to be settling down some. The island felt like home again this morning, familiar, recognizable. Visually it’s the same it was yesterday, still littered with debris piles, but the energy was different. It’s almost like the island collectively decided to take a day off without announcing it. I’m proud of you for this Ocracoke. Knowing when to stop & recharge is important. Of course there are those who are still working, still pushing forward. And that’s ok, too. We all must do what we need to. I for one am “resting” this weekend. I’m cleaning & organizing my own life, & having nap breaks, looking for a new show on Netflix. "Unbelievable" was powerful, if you’re looking for a recommendation. 

Many showed up to the Fire House to be seen by Congressman Murphy, & to hear what he had to say. Which at first wasn’t much. It’s a process, we’re working on it, blah blah blah. Nothing very helpful. The whole thing felt a little anticlimactic. A couple hours later, however, it felt very much like something. The man in office finally signed the paper. Approval for public assistance. This is a VERY good thing! It gets all the trash & debris outta here!!!! And hopefully some of the smell! It also means that we are one step closer to individual assistance, which is what’s truly needed. Ladies & gentlemen, here comes FEMA! [Editor's note: Congressman Murphy was wrong; FEMA public assistance wasn't declared until October 4.]

O’Cockers are proud of their history & heritage. For hundreds of years we have survived. Remote as we are, small as we may seem. We’ve survived. After hundreds of storms, we’ve cleaned up & rebuilt. This time will be no different. Our historic homes & buildings took the brunt of the damage. Sad as it is, they are only damaged, not destroyed. Assistance is needed here. Rebuilding & restoration will be costly, & will not happen over night. 

Many have asked when the island will reopen. Simply put, we don’t know. There has been no official word. I’ve heard something like 90% of the structures on the island were flooded. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but it can’t be far off. As if housing wasn’t already an issue, Sigh. Our entire community is displaced. Living with friends, family, in rental homes that survived & 2nd+ story hotel rooms. The crews working here have either brought their own trailers for lodging, or are in the few remaining available places. There are no restaurants, an off-island food truck showed up today to feed us, & give the Ocracoke Strong Cooking Crew a break. The Variety store as always, is miraculous. They have worked hard to address the building's damage, & are receiving small deliveries. We are still a long way from being ready. Months at the soonest.  

We continue to feel the love & support from absolutely everyone. Near, far, friend, stranger. The outpouring of love & support continues to flow in everyday, & everyday we are moved by it. Everyday we are grateful & thankful for it. Everyday we are stronger because of it. 

September 23, 2019 

It’s Monday, the first day of fall, the beginning of my favorite season. Part of why I love the fall & winter so much is it forces you to rest. The days get shorter, colder, it forces you inside, to rest & rejuvenate. It feels hard to look forward to that this year. There is SO much work that needs to be done, so many homes gutted. It’s hard to think about resting right now. We will be forced to, & that will be a good thing. 

We are merely humans, imperfect. As individuals & as a community we are experiencing trauma. We are scared, we are fragile, defensive, afraid. We have been cracked at the core, & now some of our ugliness is beginning to seep out. That tends to happen when things are vulnerable, they lash out. It’s a defense mechanism, it’s not personal, it’s natural. There are those that prey on the vulnerable, those that take advantage of delicate situations. Sometimes it’s hard to know who these predators are, & we are feeling very protective. 

The outpouring of love & support continues to flow in. I received 7 boxes of donations today, it felt like Christmas at the Post Office. Some gifts from friends far away, other kind generosities from strangers. It still makes me cry. Good people do exist!! And THANK YOU ALL so much for loving & supporting us!!!

If only the government responded as quickly as you guys did! The Governor was here again today, we’re still waiting on FEMA. All the paperwork has been turned in, it’s being reviewed in Atlanta, & then will be submitted to the president for approval. So we wait. In the meantime they are going to begin repairing the dune line, which is the first step in getting Hwy 12 repaired. Everything is a process, though it is hard, we must trust the process. 

Most importantly, we must remember to laugh. They say laughter can cure what ails ya, & we’ve been mommicked some!! Luckily we’ve got a good sense of humor, 'cause we’re gonna need it. 

We will also need to have patience. A whole helluva lot of patience. With ourselves & each other. 

We are juggling so many thoughts, feelings, jobs, roles. It’s easy to get burnt out, to lash out, to get ugly. And this is why we have to continue to take care of ourselves. Why we must take breaks & rest. We are pouring from a mostly empty cup as is, we can not run completely dry. We must stop & refill the cup the best we can. This is how we stay #OcracokeStrong Goodnight everyone. Big love.

September 25, 2019 

Life feels very big right now. Big physical changes to the landscape. Big emotions, & everyone trying to navigate them. Big losses, big grief. Big changes, everywhere, everyday. 

It’s a lot. And we all have every right to feel all of the emotions that we’re feeling. It’s ok to be upset. It’s ok to be angry. Frustrated, tired, worried, stressed. It’s ok to not be ok. 

YES! We will get through it. Yes, we will eventually be ok. Yes we are all going to take care of each other, to make sure we all make it out ok. But we aren’t there yet. Being positive is important, & necessary, but so is allowing yourself to feel the not so pretty things. Good, bad. Light, dark. Pretty, ugly. Yin, yang. Whatever you want to call it, there’s always a balance in life. You can’t have one without the other. I give you all permission to feel exactly how you feel at the time you are feeling it, no matter how bad or ugly that may be at times.  

We are a community of pack rats, hoarders, collectors. We save things, we recycle & reuse things; plastic bags & containers, nuts & bolts, old car & boat parts, pipes & lumber, furniture & photos, baby toys & grandma's blanket. We hold onto things, & we have been forced to let go. The items may be gone, but the memories still remain. Yes, there were some items that we saved for function, but mostly we save for sentimental value. It was less about the thing, & more about how it made us feel. Maybe we couldn’t feel how weighed down we were, until the weight was forced off of us? It can be argued that we just traded one weight for an even heavier one, but that too will only be temporary. It’s all temporary, & one day we will feel the weight of prosperity again.  

It will take BIG money. Big effort, a lot of time, before we are back on our feet. This too is scary. FEMA still hasn’t come through yet, many are uninsured. Our community is rich in many things, but we are hard working middle class at best. If we can’t afford to pay the insurance in the first place, how can we afford to completely rebuild & furnish homes, business’s? Big questions.  

The overwhelming amount of love & support continues to be felt & appreciated. One of my witchy wuwu sisters sent a box of sage today, I will be dispersing it to other wuwu sisters. Three weeks in, we are overdue for an energy cleanse. Supplies & donations continue to arrive. Organizations are still raising money. Every bit, BIG or small, is needed & greatly appreciated. It is saving lives. I don’t know how you properly thank some one for that, but thank you. Every single one of you, thank you. 

Goodnight Ocracoke. You are exactly where you need to be, & tomorrow you will be one step closer. Strength takes energy, sleep well. 

September 26, 2019 

Every big story is made up of lots of small stories. The story of Ocracoke & Hurricane Dorian is no different. There’s the story of how naive we all were when preparing for the storm, how we all thought we’d get a few days off from work & then it would be business as usual, with some minor clean up. There’s the story of how we were wrong about this one. The stories of the brave men who raced around in boats during the storm to rescue people. The stories of those who had to hide in attics, or swim through the flood water to escape. The stories of how we all watched as the water kept rising. We are an island of storytellers, & we all have many stories to tell about our experience. We have our individual stories, & we have our collective story as a community. Over the past 3 weeks I’ve heard hundreds of stories, but so far my 3 favorites are those of a missing leg, a bitten-off finger, & a pig hippo. All because they have made me laugh. I’m not laughing at others' misfortunes. I laugh because sometimes things are just so perfectly fucked up, you have no choice but to laugh. 

We are a wild island. Wild landscapes, wild ponies, wild stories. For generations our ancestors farmed this island, raising livestock, growing gardens. This is how they survived, being so isolated. These traditions still hold today. Not from the same need, or on the same scale, but they are still present. We pride ourselves in being self sufficient (this has been an incredibly humbling experience) & we enjoy the labor & love of it. There is something so rewarding in growing & raising your own food. Primal. There’s a native gentleman on the island who has dedicated years of his life planting & growing fruit trees, & raising chickens, quail, pheasant. He also happens to have a pig. So he, like everyone that morning was standing at his door, looking to see what the storm was going to bring. The tide started coming in & it just kept coming in. Getting deeper & deeper, & he knew he had to change his plan about the animals. He goes outside to the pen to open it. The birds will have a better chance of surviving if they can be free, natural instinct. He goes outside, down the steps, to the pen, opens the door.... “and there’s the pig, looking like a hippo, just sitting in the water!” 

The pig survived. 

We are an island of Wild Women. 

For those unfamiliar, a Wild Woman makes her own definitions on what it means to be a woman. Raw & beautiful. Fierce. Ocracoke is full of them. These women are powerful & inspiring. Each with their own fascinating story. There’s this beautiful women, a writer, mother. Incredibly intelligent, funny. It was love at first sight for me. You cant help but notice her. She’s gorgeous, loud, has two prosthetic legs. It was post-storm, she decided to go to the beach for a swim, relax, wash the experience of the trauma off. The ocean then takes her leg. Snatched off & carried away. Gone. She’s, well, hobbling around on one prosthetic leg, on a devastated island. The call goes out, MISSING LEG! Just so happens, another Wild Woman has gone to the beach, to replenish her soul. To connect with the ocean, ground down in the sand. Walking along, she finds it! A leg had washed ashore, & she knew just who it belonged to.  

We finish up with the finger, but continue with the Wild Woman theme. This woman is incredible. Hilarious. Spunky. I’ve had the pleasure of watching her grow into the amazing woman that she is, & is becoming. She has taught me a lot about life. Did I mention she’s hilarious? She had an unfortunate incident with some dogs. Her finger got bit off. It’s gory & hard to look at. It’s tragic. Two dogs got tangled up & she tried to separate them, & one of them ate part of her finger in the process. Somehow, it’s HILARIOUS! And the jokes keep pouring in, starting with herself. I heard that someone asked her if she still had the finger, her response, “Nahhh, she gone.” While at the beach the other day, a group of dogs would occasionally play a little rough & get worked up. The dogs would bark, & some one would yell, “SOMEONE PUT A FINGER IN IT!!!” A group text went out, staff meeting & dinner. A picture of a rubber glove missing a finger comes back, “Don’t worry, we’ve got ya covered to start back to work!” 

I’m sorry if you don’t find the humor in this, but it’s hysterical. And sometimes you just gotta laugh it off. Goodnight Ocracoke. Tomorrow’s a new day!

September 27, 2019 

I am no stranger to loss & grief. Some of my earliest memories are funerals. We had a lot of pets growing up, some were stolen, some ran away, many died. My mother would go on these menopausal cleaning frenzies & go through our rooms, getting rid of clothes, toys, anything on the floor. I’ve totaled cars. Loss is life. It wasn’t until I was 23 & lost my Mother that I really started to understand this lesson. 

Hurricanes always make me think of my Mother. She was a gardener, & had a million potted plants. We’d have to haul them all into the porch that had been boarded up & enclosed. It became a jungle, plants filling up the entire space, with just a goat trail to maneuver through. As a very small child, this was magical. My brother, sister, & I would play hide & go seek in the house to pass the time, & being the smallest, I’d hide amongst the plants.

I remember being taught at a very early age how to prepare for storms. Clean up the yard, board up the house. Cooler, food, ice. Radio, batteries, flashlights, lamp oil. After Mom was done cooking the storm feast, she’d fill all the pots up with water, & the bath tub. I remember asking why & her explaining it to me, it wasn’t until Dorian that I learned first hand. She would always buy a jigsaw puzzle, with the most amount of pieces she could find. She knew how to keep us busy & out of the way.

The only storm we ever evacuated for was Floyd, & we made a mistake going to my Grandmother's house outside of Greenville, NC. The Tar River flooded & we got trapped there, meanwhile it was sunny clear blue skies on the island. I was a teenager & we were all miserable, I vowed to never leave for another storm after that. I’ve since changed my stance. I think it was Hurricane Emily, I was still very little, Mom sat for hours in a beach chair on the porch, reading a book & smoking cigarettes. This may not sound glamorous to you, but she was so beautiful to me in that moment. There was a gap in the wood covering the porch door, the wind & rain howling outside. She was in her element. I asked “Mommy, what are you doing?”, she replied, “Honey, I’m watching the storm, look, isn't she beautiful?” I learned my love & respect for nature from her. The last thing we’d do before shutting ourselves in the house, was go to the beach. After the storm passed, she’d take us back to the beach, where we would pick up trash & collect shells. She would always make me pick out my favorite find of the day, this was the one you left as an offering. I still leave offerings, just not always the best find of the day. 

I’ve been thinking about my Mother a lot these past few weeks. I can’t help but feel that she would know just what to do, just what to say. I miss her hugs. This week we had to tear down her greenhouse. My Mother had this dream of using plants to make the island even more beautiful then it already is. When I was in middle school she decided to live her dream & build a greenhouse & offer landscaping services. She & her closest friends decided to also make Christmas wreaths using local cedar trimmings. After she died I took her place in the wreath making. In her greenhouse, amongst her closest friends, on her old wreath machine, I felt connected to her in a way I couldn’t everyday. For the past eleven years I’ve done this. I’ve gone out into nature to cut the same trees she did, to walk in her steps, to spend time with those who knew her best, & she loved the most. It has helped me heal the grief of losing her. Tuesday I stood & watched a man on a tractor tear her greenhouse down, & drag it away to be added to the ever growing pile of rubble that is all our lives.  

I think about my Mother every single day. Losing her has been my greatest loss. I thought it had also been my hardest grief, but now I’m not so sure. Seeing my entire community in shambles, the landscape of the island so drastically damaged & changed. Seeing people’s lives forever altered. Witnessing an entire community experience great loss & grief all together. It’s definitely one of the hardest things I’ve done in life. 

I’m reminded everyday the lessons & ideals my Mother instilled in me. A love & respect for the ocean, Mother Nature, storms. The importance of gratitude. To be kind & caring. Help people when they need it, & know when to ask for it yourself. It’s ok to cry. Learn to enjoy being alone, but know how to charm a crowd. Always fill the bath tub with water before a storm. One of the greatest lessons she taught me was to appreciate life. Often times we don’t appreciate things as much as we should, until after they’re gone. Without loss, you don’t really know appreciation. Another big lesson she taught me was how to let go. You have to get rid of things in order to create space for other things. Where there is life, there will always be death. And with death, there can be rebirth. 

We are in the process of being reborn. As an island, a community, as individuals. It will be hard, & ugly. It will take time, resources, money. Patience, kindness. Grief & gratitude. But we capable, strong, determined. We will rebuild, & be more beautiful than ever. 


Goodnight Ocracoke. Don’t worry, we’ve got this!

September 29, 2019 

The funk is festering. The physical funk; the smelly, maggot-filled, rotting food that people decided to just leave in the freezers they put out on the roadside, baking in the heat for weeks. Fungus popping up in yards & potted plants that were flooded with septic water. Dead animals decaying in unknown locations. We need a good rain to help wash us clean. 

There’s the energetic funk that is marinating as well. Three weeks in, we have been going just as hard as we can, it’s taking its toll. We’re exhausted, edgy, cranky. We’re frustrated, miserable. 

Everyday it’s something new. A completely different view of the harbor where all the trees are missing, a ferry schedule change, everyday new problems arise & solutions are needed. There aren’t always answers. We are having to readjust all day everyday. It’s hard. You wake up knowing that the day will be long, it will require a lot of energy, it will be difficult, & every single person you come in contact with is having the same day. And this is just how life is going to look & be for a while. It’s depressing if you actually allow yourself to stop & think about it. 

Bit by bit, progress is being made. We have a spaceship for a clinic now, school is scheduled to start back this coming week, a few restaurants will open with limited menus. Most of the homes & buildings have been gutted, treated, drying. We are in a lull. We await what’s next. Every next step requires a million other steps to get started. We’ve got it all out, we’re working on getting it hauled off, now we are trying to figure out how to put it back together. We are waiting for the funds that we so desperately need that are going to help with this. FEMA hasn’t been approved for individual assistance, organizations who have raised money are just now forming committees responsible for distributing funds. Everything is a process, & the process is slow. 

It’s a hurry up & wait situation, & that is frustrating. Our souls feel an urgency for normalcy, but even when we get it, it will not be the same. The only constant is change, & we are facing big changes everyday. It’s only natural to feel raw, exposed, agitated, sad, angry, defensive, vulnerable. Lonely. It’s hard to talk to people right now. You don’t want to complain to your neighbor, coworker, friend, their lives are crap too. It’s hard to talk to friends & family off island, who’s lives are “normal.” Some are experiencing survivors' guilt, PTSD symptoms. We all must look after our mental health right now, as well as our physical health. There is no shame in feeling the feelings you have, & no shame in needing help with that. Now is not the time for flippant egos, do whatever it is you need to do to take care of yourself, mentally, physically, emotionally, & spiritually. You are no good to anyone if you’re not good to yourself first. 

Last but not least, another HUGE THANK YOU to all of those looking out for us from afar!!!!!  You ALL are so appreciated, we couldn’t be doing this without you. The supplies, ever changing, continue to come in. Food trucks come to feed us. Volunteers helping with grunt work & other important services. I said it before, & I’ll say it again. Each & every donation is literally saving lives, I cannot express enough how grateful & thankful we are!

Everyday I fall more & more in love with this island & its people. Their resilience, determination. Their love for their home & each other. Their strength. I respect these people, I am inspired by them. I am honored to live my life alongside them. I couldn’t go through this sort of trauma with any other group of people. Thank you for being there for each other, lovin’ & supporting each other. Thank you for making home feel safe. 

Rest up everyone, eat a good dinner, get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow begins a new day. You’ll be ready for it!


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