By Scott Mooneyham
When my oldest son returned to Fayetteville after a stay in the mountains with fellow UNC-Wilmington students who had fled Hurricane Florence, the friend who drove him home remarked to my wife and me, “I guess you all have never seen anything like this.”
I had to laugh a little.
Obviously, Hurricane Matthew, two years ago, did not bring the kind of widespread destruction of Florence, even if the damage here in Fayetteville – as well as in places like Lumberton and Linden – was every bit as bad or worse.
But we had also lived through Hurricanes Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1999 as residents of Fayetteville. As vacationers on Ocracoke Island, we experienced the sudden blow up of Hurricane Alex in 2004.
Then there was the fact that I had spent a part of my career not running away from hurricanes, but purposely running into them. As a journalist working for the Associated Press, that came with the territory.
So when my wife was riding out Fran and her 80 mph winds alone in our Fayetteville home, I was pulling a late-night shift from the main state AP office in Raleigh, calling county emergency management directors and compiling reports on the damage that then helped feed news stories appearing across the state and across the country.
When Floyd’s eye crossed Wilmington around 4 a.m., I was in a hotel room there waiting for it to pass and for the morning light to come so that I could push out the stories of its wrath.
In 2003, after Hurricane Isabel brought its own measure of ruin to the Outer Banks and inland coastal communities including Edenton, I took a helicopter ride with then-Governor Mike Easley over Hatteras and Ocracoke islands to assess the damage.
And in 1998, photographer and friend Brian Strickland and I – then working for the Goldsboro News-Argus newspaper – sat in a Wilmington Waffle House as Hugo stormed ashore in Charleston and largely missed Wilmington despite a forecasted path that had us eating with large throng of media from around the country.
It should not be surprising that, when spending time sticking your face into hurricane winds, all kinds of odd and funny things happen, even if they don’t seem so funny at the time.
While Hugo may have mostly missed Wilmington, it did cause enough damage on Wrightsville Beach to warrant a tour of the blown-out windows and doors at the Blockade Runner hotel. That tour ended with me, unable to see due to the horizontal rain, walking straight into the pool and being soaked from head to toe. Meanwhile, many of the national media members who had come to Wilmington from Charlotte, where they had been covering the high-profile trial of televangelist Jim Bakker, had to pick their way back to the Queen City to cover the destruction there.
On my helicopter ride with Easley, one of his aides and I wondered about the governor’s future as he perched himself in the open helicopter window. He was, fortunately, harnessed into the aircraft.
In Ocracoke in 2004, after being somewhat involuntarily enlisted to provide a first-hand report for The News & Observer of Raleigh on riding out Alex, I was less than thrilled with an evacuation order that came after the storm even though our car and condo room had survived without damage. With the blessing of the condo manager, we evaded the evacuation order by claiming to be the owners and keeping a relatively low profile until it was lifted.
While those personal stories are fun to recall now, they don’t really do much justice to the real job of reporting on disasters like Floyd and Florence. They certainly don’t convey the experiences of those who suffer real loss. And they don’t take full measure of the collective loss, and how to continue from it.
As a journalist in those places of loss – whether it was traveling the flooded-out roads of Brunswick County after Floyd and talking to those whose homes were sunken beneath a never-before-seen river tide or looking over a new inlet created by Isabel that would separate people from their homes for weeks – that was the job, telling the story of loss and then recovery from that loss.
After seeing this latest storm do its best to drive people from the places that they love and call home, I can say that all those years covering other storms showed me how rarely that actually happens.
So much about our common human experience ties us to the communities where we live. We become attached to place, to the land under our feet. Even drastic natural disasters don’t easily rip apart that connection. It’s why we rebuild and restart.
In my 20s, when I was a much younger man, one of my favorite albums included a song called “After the Flood.” Florence caused me to give it a listen again. It tells the same story that I saw in all those other storms.
After the flood
After the flood
The land it washed away
Felt like my flesh and blood
I'd rather be shovelin'
Through the slush and mud
Than to leave my home where I grew up
Life goes on after the flood
Scott Mooneyham lives in Fayetteville and is married to CityView editor Catherine Pritchard. Bill McFadyen’s column will return in CityView’s next issue.