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OCRACOKE, N.C. — Celeste Brooks handed out bottles of water at the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department the afternoon of Sept. 9, pitching in even after she lost everything during Hurricane Dorian.
She was wearing an orange T-shirt from the Fish Hooks Café in Belhaven, given to her by a friend. Her shorts came from somebody who knows her from her job as the local postmaster. On her feet she wore her stained lawn-mowing shoes, salvaged after the flood subsided.
“You’ve heard of the proverb, ‘they don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of?’ Well that’s me,” she said.
But she was grateful she made it out alive.
Hurricane Dorian’s back side winds blew the Pamlico Sound water into Ocracoke village on Sept. 6, higher than anybody can remember. In some places, the depth reached 7 feet.
The water rose almost like a tsunami, rushing down streets and rising into homes. Brooks and others here were surprised by how quickly it swelled.
Brooks and her two teen grandchildren were frightened for their lives as the flood rose to their knees and then higher. They retreated to the attic of the little one-story house.
Her grandson told her as they scrambled upward he was only 13 and too young to die.
“I told him, Sug (short for Sugar) I’m not going to let you die,” Brooks said.
She was herself not so sure, but wanted to keep calm for their sake.
She made a desperate call, and minutes later her friend’s husband arrived at the door with his boat. Brooks and her grandchildren descended from the attic, waded through chest deep water and climbed in. She is now staying on an upper floor of a local inn where other storm victims are living. The inn’s ground floor was flooded.
“Every one of us here have lost,” she said at the fire station where her grandchildren were also working. “We’re all here, and we’re doing what we can to help others.”
With help from friends near and far, with donations of goods and cash, the people of Ocracoke Island begin the process of recovery from Hurricane Dorian.
The fire station on Sept. 9 was filled with rows of supplies — water in jugs and bottles, toothpaste, toilet paper, bug spray, bleach and stacks of other essentials.
The Red Cross was there handing out snacks. The Salvation Army served hot meals. The North Carolina Ferry Division ran supplies and helpers day and night. The National Guard unloaded trucks of supplies and helped people carry the soaked and soiled couches, chairs, dressers and curtains from their homes.
The flood inundated shops, markets and motels. Trees were uprooted. Fences were broken.
The number of volunteers approached 200, said Tom Pahl, a Hyde County commissioner who represents Ocracoke.
The town squeezes within the south end of the island, about 15 miles long set between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound. Most of the narrow island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and undeveloped.
The supplies in the fire station were only 10 percent of the donations, Pahl said. The rest was safely stored. The island needs more generators, he said. The Outer Banks Community Foundation is accepting money for Ocracoke relief.
When word got out how bad it was in Ocracoke, organizations and individuals collected money and goods and began taking it over on North Carolina ferries or on private boats.
It has been hard to keep track of it all, Pahl said.
Patrols on the water attempted to keep out people coming in for a look or bringing more supplies. Officials closed the airfield to all but those essential to the recovery.
People slipped past anyway, sneaking in to drop off donations. It was like reverse piracy on the island where Blackbeard was killed 301 years ago, Pahl said.
“We’re doing everything we can to get our feet under us,” Pahl said. “The response has been absolutely overwhelming. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to us.”
Many of Ocracoke’s 1,200 houses are vacation rentals, Pahl said. About 950 people live here year round. Most homes built in the last 20 years are set high on piles and were not badly damaged. The majority of flooded homes were older ones where permanent residents live, Pahl said. Power was restored except to homes that were unsafe for electrical power, according to the Tideland Electric Membership Corporation Facebook page.
The rest of the tourist season including fall festivals are in jeopardy, said Amy Howard, owner of the Village Craftsman. She and her family evacuated.
Dorian’s flood at least matches levels from the storm of 1944, she said. About a foot of water entered her shop.
Small wooden signs are nailed to the side of her building marking each storm. Dorian’s level beat Hurricane Matthew by about three feet. Matthew’s flood topped Hurricane Alex of 2004. Storms seem to be getting worse, she said.
“I’ve never heard islanders say they were this scared before,” she said.
Christian Mabry was staying in a friend’s house when he saw water coming up the street. Before long it was in the house and rising. He put on waders and tried to go out the back door where the water was chest deep. The only way to the second floor was to go outside and enter a side door, but first he had to push aside a hot water heater that floated from a nearby house and lodged against the gate.
Once upstairs, he heard a motor outside, went to the side door and saw his friend on a personal watercraft motoring up what once was a street. He hailed him down and caught a ride to safety.
“We didn’t think it would be this bad,” Mabry said. “No one did. I will not take any storm for granted again.”