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Ocracoke Island rebuilds and waits for aid while FEMA ‘gathers all the little bits’

Newt Sharver rode a golf cart up to his demolished home and walked inside, pointing out where he and some friends had cut away soggy walls.

“Everything’s gone,” Sharver said, walking past a closet where his wife Melissa’s dresses were still hanging. On the curb outside, appliances were piled high, along with everything else that makes up a life. An SUV sat in the driveway with all of its doors open, the only one of the Sharvers’ three vehicles that was potentially salvageable.

Ocracoke Island was among the hardest-hit areas during Hurricane Dorian two weeks ago, with residents describing a swift storm surge catching many off guard between 8 and 9 a.m. on Sept. 6. Many of those same residents are growing frustrated as they wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to approve a request from N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper for public assistance in 13 North Carolina counties and individual assistance in four counties. Ocracoke’s Hyde County is on both lists.

“We’ve had people in here, people doing a good job, but we need FEMA and that bunch in here,” Sharver said, walking through the skeleton of his home. “People are hurting, this whole island. It’s not just one or two buildings, it’s the whole island.”

Monday, Cooper visited Ocracoke to speak at a distribution center set up at the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department, positioning himself in front of food and tarps and gas cans. Even as Cooper spoke, the sounds of hammers banging nails into roofs and saws tearing wood away spilled across the island.

“I know that many people are still hurting and trying to figure out exactly what to do,” Cooper told assembled media and residents. “This place is so special because it’s been here for so long and people have lived here for generations. Not only is it a tourist spot, it’s a home for so many people and Ocracoke Island also is a place that causes a lot of pride for people all across the state. “

Now only accessible by air or ferry, Ocracoke suffered a storm surge of four to seven feet as Dorian passed overhead. The water came from the Pamlico Sound, shoved onto the often-tranquil island by winds on the storm’s back side.

FEMA requests

In Hyde County, Cooper wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump, local and state emergency response teams found 11 homes that were destroyed, while another 67 suffered major damage and 54 minor damage. In total, 307 homes in the county were impacted in some way, nearly all of them on Ocracoke.

That letter, sent Saturday, requested individual assistance for Carteret County, the site of a devastating waterspout at an RV park; Dare County; Hyde County; and New Hanover County. It came on the heels of a previous request for FEMA to provide public assistance in 13 counties, aid that helps governments repair their facilities, roads and bridges, as well as remove the debris from the storm.

Neither request has yet been granted.

FEMA is processing the state’s request for public assistance and is in the process of gathering information for the request for individual assistance, said Libby Turner, the agency’s federal coordinating officer for Hurricane Dorian in North Carolina.

Asked how long it takes the agency to process those requests, Turner said, “It varies, according to the information that was provided, whether there was additional information needed. When you have something like a Katrina or a Florence where there was just obvious catastrophic damage, sometimes that moves more quickly than something where you’re having to actually gather all the little bits.”

While FEMA teams are gathering information, Ocracoke is trying to return to normal after a flood higher than any ever seen on the island.

Walking past workers dressed in white uniforms with respirator masks over their faces, Hyde County Superintendent Steve Basnight described how the school district plans to spray down and then heat the floors leading to staircases at Ocracoke School’s elementary building, allowing the school to use the top floor as classroom space.

Ocracoke school will be back in session next Monday, Basnight announced, with pre-K, kindergarten and first grade at a nearby daycare center, second through fifth grades upstairs in the elementary building and sixth grade through high school at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

“Our community needs it, our students need it and our parents need it,” said Basnight, who in two years on the job has led recoveries from Florence and now Dorian.

Surviving Dorian

Standing beneath the garage doors of the volunteer fire station-turned-supply-distribution point, an onlooker could see a white boat tied to a wooden sign. It had Woccocon Oyster Co. painted on its side in red letters and was sitting where Fire Chief Albert O’Neal tied it once the surge, which had come in so suddenly, receded almost as quickly.

Waiting for Cooper on Monday, Teresa O’Neal, the chief’s wife, recalled peeking out of her home’s windows throughout the night as Dorian passed over to see if water had spilled onto her driveway, a favorite floodgauge.

Teresa O’Neal was getting dressed shortly after Dorian’s eye passed over when her husband let out a shout.

“I realized there was something on my feet and it was water. In the house. It was percolating up through the air registers,” Teresa O’Neal said.

The couple rushed to put their belongings on counters before realizing that the water was coming so swiftly the effort would be fruitless. Teresa O’Neal grabbed the couple’s dog, Albert O’Neal their cats and they prepared to wade the 100 yards to Albert O’Neal’s parents’ house.

There, they found his father and mother on the bed, which was floating. Teresa O’Neal stayed with them while her husband waded through the flood to his boat, the same one he used to pull people from their homes throughout the day after he had rescued his parents.

Now, the O’Neals’ house is one of five in the family that must be mucked out. The family is rushing to finish what they can because Teresa O’Neal is scheduled to start chemotherapy treatments later this week.

Nevertheless, everything paused on Sunday.

The O’Neals and many other families on the island decided that after more than two weeks of waking up to a list of important chores and going to bed with tomorrow’s list already looming, it was important to take a break.

“We gave ourselves permission to not face the flooded house, to not face muddy molded walls and wet items and not have to make those decisions for the day, but take a nap if you needed it,” Teresa O’Neal said. “It was just wonderful because when we were out driving around, it was quiet.”

Monday, the noise of chainsaws and generators returned.

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner is a Report for America Corps member covering North Carolina’s recovery from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, as well as efforts to prepare the state for future storms. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews, where he covered multiple beats, including the environment.
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