After Florence, exhaustion sets in around Wilmington

Claire Galofaro
Associated Press

Wilmington, N.C. – The sun rises blazing hot over Wilmington, and the line for ice is shorter than it was the day before. The lines across town for tarps and bottled water have dwindled, as well, and Brian Gray takes that as a hopeful sign that desperation is giving way to something else.

Hurricane Florence had marooned this place since it roared ashore last Friday morning. Wilmington and its 120,000 residents survived the horror of the storm – which snapped telephone poles and sent trees into bedrooms – to find that the roads leading into the port city were flooded, leaving it an island with almost no electricity that no one could get into or out of.

Ice became their most precious commodity, traded like cash, and Gray, a handyman, took a temporary job hauling bags of it to cars that stretched for blocks for days.

Now, finally, far fewer cars are waiting.

“The emergency, the adrenaline, is wearing off,” says Gray. “Now we’re all just exhausted.”

Almost a week after the hurricane hit, several roads into town are accessible again. Gas stations and grocery stores are flipping closed signs to open. The backyard parties, where everyone grilled the food in their fridges before it could spoil, are mostly over. The wind and rain have stopped, though the smell of rot and mildew is settling in.

It’s no longer about just getting through the day, but contemplating what’s happened to this community and what comes next.

“I’m over not having power. The trash is starting to stink. The food in my refrigerator is starting to rot. I just want a nice warm shower,” says Gray.

He had held it together, despite cuts inflicted from climbing trees to saw down limbs and even as he hauled all that ice to cars filled with distraught families. Then a little thing became too much: He couldn’t find his flashlight the other night and wandered through his pitch-black house for a half-hour, bumping into things and growing angry.

“We’ve got a lot of people on the edge.”

Like most of her neighbors, Pat Coffman, an accountant, has not had electricity for six days, and the fear and isolation have morphed into fatigue. She spoils herself by watching television on her phone, which she’s constantly trying to charge.

“I had to forget about all this stuff for a little while,” she says, stopping to pick up some ice from Gray before heading to her son’s neighborhood, where Florence uprooted trees and sent them shooting like missiles into homes. One bag of ice goes into the cooler of Renee Beccue.

Beccue had been sleeping early Friday as the storm raged around her. Something woke her up around 6:30 a.m. She looked out the window and saw tree limbs flying through the air and the giant maple in her front yard bending. She got out of bed, wrangled her cats and decided to wait out the storm in the hallway.

Not five minutes later, the maple tree came crashing in. The roof caved, dumping shingles and insulation and branches into the bed where moments before she’d been sleeping. Beccue gathered her shrieking cats and ran across the street to her neighbor’s house, where she has stayed ever since.

If there is a silver lining to this, she says, it’s that her neighbors have been getting together and talking more than ever before. There’s little else to do once the sun goes down. The nation’s roiling political divisions don’t seem to matter all of a sudden. They are united in shared desolation.

It’s hard for them all to sleep through the boiling hot nights, and they’re afraid of looting if they leave windows open; a Family Dollar in Wilmington was burglarized in the days after the storm.

“It’s starting to set people off,” says Beccue, a hospice nurse. “We’re just tired. I got up this morning and I thought, ‘I don’t want to clean my yard one more day. I don’t want to look at my house anymore. I don’t want to think about this storm.’”

She puts things into perspective by reminding herself that at least 37 people have died in the storm. A mother and her infant were killed five miles away in exactly the same way that almost killed her. People who lost their homes to Hurricane Matthew in 2016 have lost their homes again. Hundreds have been rescued from their rooftops and cars. Babies have been swept away by floodwaters.

Downtown, a block back from the Cape Fear River, Eli Ellsworth reopened his bar Monday, using candlelight until the power finally came back on. The Barbary Coast is the oldest tavern in Wilmington, and “people need to feel normal,” says Ellsworth.

People have seemed in good spirits considering the circumstances, says Ellsworth who reopened his bar Monday. “We’re exhausted. It was the adrenaline keeping us going, but it’s been six days – and that can only last so long.”