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Jon Coleman awoke around 4:30 the morning before Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wilmington.
He shined his flashlight outside of his mother’s mobile home to look at what he was afraid of: multiple pine trees swaying dangerously in the howling wind.
He went to his mother’s bedroom in the back of the trailer. “Mom, I think you better get out of that bedroom and come to the front of the house,” he told her. It’s a good thing she listened.
Coleman had come down to ride the storm out with his mother, Betty Coleman, who had refused to leave town before the storm.
Just minutes after his warning, the mother and son recalled, two of the pine trees snapped at their base and crashed through her bedroom — essentially severing her small home in two. It sounded “like a bomb went off, cause of the glass breaking,” Betty Coleman said.
The rain from the massive, slow-moving storm continued for three more days, dumping water through her roof. The noise of the wind was constant. Mold quickly began growing, covering her walls and her furniture. Her bedroom had to be blocked off by a tarp.
A week after the trees fell, the county came by and put a pink letter on her porch — condemning the home. She understands: “You can’t live with mold … it will kill you,” she said, noting she still hasn’t walked back to her bedroom. On top of that, she still doesn’t have power and her shower was rendered useless by the trees.
So, after living in Wilmington her whole life — 71 years — the toppling of two trees means starting over.
In the next few days, she will pack up all of her belongings — heirlooms from her mother, furniture and family “treasures,” as she calls them — and drive about an hour away to move in with her son in Kenansville, a small farming community in Duplin County.
Weathering the storm
Port O’ Pines Estates, where Betty Coleman lives, is a large mobile-home community north of the Wilmington city limit. The pine trees there were devastated by Hurricane Florence — and possibly a small tornado if you ask residents — with many uprooted or snapped in half.
Betty Coleman’s trailer, which she bought used around a decade ago for $13,000, wasn’t the only one to be ripped apart by falling trees. At least two others were sporting gashes and pink letters on Friday afternoon and many others had bad roof damage.
The sounds of humming generators filled the park, making her soft voice hard to make out at times.
“They say it’s one of the nicer mobile home parks, whatever that means,” she said. “Though, we’ve asked (the property manager) to cut down these trees before,” her son countered.
But, despite the worry over the trees she didn’t evacuate.
Why? Well, she never has.
“I mean I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve been through everything from (Hurricane) Hazel (in 1954) on,” she said. “And I mean, as long as he was here, I felt safe,” she added, while looking at her only son. She was also worried about people taking her stuff while she was gone.
“I’ve never gone to a shelter, but now before I lived here, I lived in a brick house,” she said. She was proud of that house and had worked her whole life, raising her son alone, to buy it.
But she had to sell it.
Betty Coleman moved into Port O’ Pines after selling her home in the nearby King’s Grant neighborhood in 2008. She had recently retired from the New Hanover County Schools, where she worked in administration, and money was tight. The expenses from the home were too high, she said, including the fact it needed a new roof.
She was on a fixed income, the economy was barely recovering from a recession and she had refinanced multiple times, so she didn’t make much on the house, which sold for $129,000, she said.
The trailer she moved into weeks later couldn’t be insured because it was too old, she said. It’s basically worthless now.
After sleeping on her reclining chair for the past week, with just a bath towel for a blanket, she wishes she had evacuated. Especially, she said, because she has lung issues already, and the smell of mildew in the air is making her nervous.
But regardless of whether she was there or not, the trees would’ve fallen, and if she hadn’t been there people would’ve taken her things from her demolished home, she said. Now she at least still has two rooms worth of belongings to start anew.
Betty Coleman is a proud and stubborn woman, you can tell that from speaking to her. She’ll tell you she’s worked her whole life and was raised to rely on herself, so it’s humbling to need to ask for help. She hesitated to speak openly about her situation, but she wanted people to see how rough it is after the storm is gone.
“It’s devastating because I feel like I am too old to start over, but I’ve got to start over. I don’t have any option and it’s going to be a slow process. I just desperately need FEMA to help me because I don’t want to wreck his life,” she said, about moving in her with son. “It just makes me feel lousy and helpless.
“I just feel like someone knocked my legs out from under me.”
Jon Coleman knows this is hard on his mother. That’s why came down — with his dog Jake and a large generator in tow — and stayed with her.
“I try to make her laugh,” he said. “She can’t see much humor in the situation and really I don’t see how she could.”
Jon Coleman has been a lifeline for his mother the past week. He took off eight days from his job — he works as a mechanic on heavy equipment — and has spent around $300 in gas to run a generator at the trailer so they can keep the refrigerator on and the apartment somewhat cool in Wilmington’s intense humidity. He’s not the only one helping. Church groups have dropped off food and his aunts help as well.
“We’ll make room, you know, (we have) three bedrooms and two baths, pick one,” he said, trying to reassure his mother that she’d be welcome at his house.
But she worries. She feels like she is ruining something for her son and her two grandsons, who are 18 and 20. The three of them are just about to move into a new place in Kenansville.
“I kinda hate it because I don’t want to invade their space,” she said while wiping a tear from her eye. “I called my older grandson this morning, and I said ‘Honey, I am so sorry … you know I am not trying to take away from you or your brother.’ I said ‘I’ll make this as temporary as I can and yet get a place so that I can stay close to all of you.’ ”
Jon Coleman is adamant the four of them will make the most of the situation. “You only get one mom,” he said later.
Tomorrow’s troubles; today’s peace
Betty Coleman said she won’t miss the traffic that has come with Wilmington’s surging population in recent years, but she will miss her neighbors and the routine she has developed around Port O’ Pines.
“I’m gonna miss everybody. But I’m a stay in touch with them,” she said. “And I’ll make friends. I’ll snag me a friend.”
It’s unclear when she will finally get out of Port O’ Pines, and she doesn’t know if the county will force her out because it is condemned. They desperately need a truck to move all of her stuff, and her grandson’s truck was flooded by Florence. They are hoping someone like Samaritan’s Purse might help.
Betty Coleman said living among the chaos that is her trailer is causing her to stress. She’s barely eaten anything since the hurricane came through because she feels her nerves would just make her throw it up. She feels isolated because she hasn’t been able to watch the news, which she does religiously every night.
I’ve always been a worrier, she said. Her nerves are making her think of her friend Bonnie, who was always there for her when she worried. Bonnie passed away last year.
“She knew I am a worrywart,” she said of her friend of 52 years. “She found this little sign (for me) that says ‘Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles, it takes away today’s peace,’ ” she said.
“When I get worried to death about something, I’ll read that.”