Driving into the Hurricane

I was home for less than a week when I started hearing the hype about Hurricane Florence bearing down on the North Carolina Coast. A couple of good friends of mine live in the area projected to be hit by Florence.  I immediately began thinking about Hurricane Katrina. During Katrina, I felt helpless; sitting in the quiet comfort of ‘home’ and watching it all unfold on the TV was heartbreaking. This time, I had a choice. I didn’t have to sit around helpless. I didn’t have anything that I had to do that would keep me from going and helping.

Somehow during my internet searches, I found crowdsourcerescue.com and I downloaded the communication tool that they use (zello) and began listening to the chatter. In addition, I filled out all the online forms for the Red Cross. I wanted to be there….wanted to help.

Yes, I’m a nurse by profession but honestly I’m fully burnt-out on nursing and I didn’t want to volunteer as a nurse. Over the course of the next 24-36 hours, I worked on  getting certified to volunteer with the Red Cross and continued to communicate on Zello with other civilians that were looking to help. It’s all kindof a blur to me right now. On Wednesday, September 12th, I went into the local Red Cross office. I realized then that they would require me to take a flight arranged by them which would leave me without a vehicle and unable to contact my local friends. I made the rash decision to just go….knowing that something would work out so that I could help.

Before leaving, I gathered the supplies that I could. I cleaned out the local dollar store of their tuna and chicken salad snacks, and filled my trunk with cases of water. In addition, the local Home Depot gave me 50% off on flashlights. I packed up somewhere around 50 flashlights and bought batteries to go with them.

The next step was to tell my family that I was leaving. It was already approaching evening when I finally got to Dad’s and then Mom’s to tell them I was going to volunteer. By midnight, I was loaded up and on the road heading to the coast. Florence and I were both on the path to Wilmington, her from the east and me from the west. My hope was that I could get to a safe location in Wilmington before she hit…I was pressed for time. I drove all night and was in West Virginia for sunrise on Thursday, September 13th. Florence was tracking at a category 4  just off the coast. I’d been communicating with the Cajun Navy volunteers via Zello and one of the group was in SC needing a ride into Wilmington. It was a 3 hour detour, but I decided to go and get him.

The three hours of detour had us arriving in Wilmington just as some of the outer bands were hitting the shore. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in all of my life. Having never experienced a hurricane and not knowing what to expect I focused my thoughts on driving and getting to safety instead of the impending storm. The wind and rain were increasing…

We met up with another Cajun Navy volunteer In Wilmington and the 3 of us ended up staying the night at the shelter at Eaton Elementary School. My two comrades had a much better idea of what the Cajun Navy protocols were than I did, so I followed their lead. We spent the night in the school cafeteria doing dispatch on rescue calls coming in through crowdsourcerescue.com  Triage is something that I know. Nursing taught me this. I made unknown amount of phone calls to the rescue requests to confirm and get more information: “Are you in imminent danger?” “How high is the flood-water?” “How many are in the house?” It was emotional, and I tried to stay calm and re-assuring to the lives on the other end of the line. I had to put away the visions that their stories created in my mind. There would be time for processing this another day.

The weather was getting increasingly worse. Winds and rain both increasing in their intensity. I was mostly locked away from what was actually happening, on the phone in a room that was safe and away from the flooding that the lives on the other end of the line were battling. Occasionally, I would hear the pounding of the wind and rain through the roof. We continued dispatching until the early hours of the morning. I’d lost all track of time and even now, I can’t tell you what time we called a halt to the dispatch.

Word came through the zello channels that the conditions were too bad to continue rescue operations. We had no choice but to stop dispatch. There were a dozen or more souls that we had told that we were on the way, that someone was coming to help them, that we couldn’t get to. The visions of their stories flooded my mind, knowing that their situations were only getting worse and that we couldn’t help. I pushed the visions away, it wasn’t time to dwell on what we couldn’t do. We did everything that we could. Lives were saved. One of the team that I was with broke…which likely helped me to keep it together. I told him “focus on the living…we did good”. It was easy for the anger and the sadness to creep in, but instead the exhaustion took hold and I slept . . .

The Next Morning