On Saturday, August 27, Irene came to call as promised. For a week, we had been hearing about this major hurricane that appeared to be following the classic northeasterly path, laying waste to the islands of the Caribbean. As the days passed, we watched as it drifted substantially eastward, sparing, for once, the Florida coast, but bearing straight down on the Outer Banks, the barrier islands of North Carolina. Lovely as they are, those unstable sandbars where never serious contenders when we thought of moving to North Carolina. We settled instead on what is called the “Inner Banks,” the land directly north and west of the Albemarle Sound, off the Little River, which is one of the 5 major rivers that drain northeastern North Carolina and feed the Sound. (A “sound” is basically a bay. Chesapeake Bay could be called Chesapeake Sound and it would mean the same thing. Rehoboth Bay? Rehoboth Sound. That’s the easiest way to think of it. North Carolina's two major sounds, Albemarle and Pamlico, are enormous bodies of water that separate mainland North Carolina from the Outer Banks and the Atlantic Ocean.) We decided on this inland area because it is inland, relatively protected from the coast-hugging storms that frequent this part of the country at any time of the year. As unpleasant as Irene turned out to be, it could have been a lot worse, judging from the damage sustained on the Outer Banks themselves. We definitely made the right choice.
But of course we didn’t know that as we watched Irene approach. We had already experienced two major storms here: the already-legendary nor’easter of November, 2009, while we were still in the Edenton rental house, and Tropical Storm Nicole in September of 2010. It was during Nicole that we first witnessed two opposing phenomena: first our back yard filled with water as Lunker Creek, normally a gentle meander but now swollen with rain and pushed by the wind, crept ever higher into the wetlands that surround the rear of our house and eventually into the back yard; and then, as the eye passed and the wind reversed, the water disappeared from the yard and indeed, from the creek itself. It was the most graphic illustration imaginable of the wind tides (as opposed to the lunar tides the rest of the world is familiar with) that drive the waters around here.
Could Irene be any worse? Well, yes. For one thing, there’s always Hurricane Isabel to remember. This 2003 storm is the local benchmark for meteorological devastation, and our more seasoned neighbors always have it in mind when they hear of the approach of another Big One. We’ve seen the pictures of downed ancient trees and ruined homes; their fear is well-founded. And then of course there were the frantic reports of the TV talking heads, without which no storm of any consequence is complete. We hung on to their every word, avidly watching the various modeled storm tracks. On Friday, the day before the storm hit, we were told that it would make landfall early the next morning on the Outer Banks as a Category 2 storm (with winds of 96-110 mph), and then, strengthened as it made its 13 mph procession northeast over the local intra-coastal waters and got closer to us, momentarily increase to a Category 3 (111-130 mph). Whew!
By the time we heard that, we had already prepared as much as we could. We laid in extra food, secured in one way or another anything outside that could move, taped all the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that line the back of our house, and primed the generator (and stocked 25 gallons of gasoline to run it—we could have limped along on lights, fans, the gas cooktop and the TV for weeks). The thought of leaving never entered our minds--we wanted to be here in case anything untoward did happen so that we could remedy it on the spot. We’d never have rested easy worrying about our boat, porch furniture, etc., from a distance. We felt secure in our decision to ride it out for several reasons. We knew that this house was well-constructed and would weather the storm. We also knew that it was built high enough off the ground so that for creek water to breach the back deck, much less enter the house, this storm would have to be of truly horror-movie proportions. As worrisome as all the reports were, they never indicated anything approaching that magnitude. Last, but by no means least, we have a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) here, neighbors who have had specific training to deal with these very eventualities and offer their informed assistance. (We mean to take that training ourselves; unfortunately the most recent was the day after we’d hosted a big neighborhood party and could barely motivate ourselves out the door. This storm clearly demonstrated the usefulness of the training. Next time!) Storms, no matter how big, don’t last forever. We felt safe.
Saturday morning dawned blustery and very rainy. Our weather station, which measures conditions at the end of our dock, had collected about 3 inches of rain overnight, but the water at that time had not yet gotten into our yard. We lost electric power at about 9 AM, but the generator kept us going, and phone and internet service were so far uninterrupted. I spent much of the morning taking pictures and posting up-to-the-minute progress reports to our far-flung friends and family on Facebook. (Steve donned in his yellow slicker suit and took movies outside.) Internet and phone service went down at about noon, and then our only connection with the outside was the TV and very spotty cellphone service. (Up to then, I had been so prompt with my Facebook updates that I really became more concerned about our friends worrying about us than about anything in our immediate situation.)
The storm continued glacially upon its path and the hours rolled by. It had weakened to Category 1 (74-95 mph) by landfall (which occurred almost exactly where predicted) and never gained strength over the Sound, but the wind and rain were still steady and ferocious. The one bit of excitement for the rest of the day was around food (of course): I had planned on roasting a chicken for dinner but we discovered right away that the generator couldn’t support the draw of the electric oven. The generator conked out and it seemed to take forever to figure out how to make it work again. (We were neglecting a pivotal circuit breaker.) I ended up frying a 6 lb. bird. (Today’s chickens are regular Dolly Partons—it’s a mystery to me how they can stand on their spindly chicken legs carrying all that breast meat.)
Between 4 and 5 PM the eye passed us, over the Sound to the southeast of Elizabeth City. That’s quite near us but we did not have that other-worldly experience of seeing the clear blue sky and utter calm of the eye when it is directly upon you. The rain subsided a bit and the sky lightened, but we remained in storm conditions. We finally tired of the incessant yakking of the weather people on TV, so we watched a movie. By the time night fell, we knew that the wind had reversed and the storm was moving on. Steve suited up and took a flashlight to the end of the dock, and came back to report that the creek was emptying. That was the best news of the day, a sure sign that the worst was over. At around 9 PM, the house was still feeling clammy and too warm, and we were wondering how sleeping would be without air conditioning. As if on cue, the humidity and the temperature dropped as the strong back winds of the storm came in from the northwest. Sleeping was wonderful.
Sunday dawned gray but relatively dry, and with the normalization of the wind, the creek had filled up again, temporarily rain-swollen. (Our weather station had collected a total of 6.5 inches of rain.) Water was about 4 feet into our back yard at 7 AM; by the end of the day it had mostly receded and now, Tuesday, everything is where it’s supposed to be.
We came through pretty much unscathed, with one skinny, already-dead tree down in the wooded area of the front, and another tree and a couple of large wax myrtles fallen in the wetland on the south side of the house. The cleanup still feels massive, however, what with all the downed limbs and pine tails littering everywhere the eye falls. We got half of the front cleaned yesterday; today’s rain gives us a rest from all that stooping and loading. We’ll get back to work tomorrow and by the time we’re done it will be looking like nothing ever happened. (We are creating the mother of all burn piles, however!) The neighborhood as a whole came through well, and luckily Isabel remains a benchmark as yet unmatched. There are some downed trees here and there, and a couple large ones actually uprooted in the common area near the community boat ramp. But all the houses are undamaged and the main thoroughfare was never impassable due to downed trees.
We are all safe and sound, thanks to the vagaries of Mother Nature’s steering currents, and to the planning inspired and advised by our ever-wonderful neighbors. The wisdom, born of hard experience, of our “pioneers,” (anyone who’s been here longer than us!), and their willingness to share it, is priceless. We never want to go through something like Hurricane Irene again, but of course, we will, and there’s no doubt some future storm will be worse. We chose to live in this storm-prone region. How lucky we are to be in such a community.