By Richard Taylor
Gov. Roy Cooper made a special point on his return trip to Ocracoke on Monday to visit some islanders whose roots go back multiple generations and who had life-threatening encounters with Hurricane Dorian storm surge.
He found those stories from Trudy Austin, a ninth-generation descendant of Blackbeard’s quartermaster William Howard, and Mickey Hoggard, 85, a 10th generation descendant of Howard.
Records show William Howard purchased Ocracoke Island in 1759. He had six children and lived here until his death at age 108 in 1794.
Austin and Hoggard met with Cooper and his entourage on Kelley Shinn’s front porch. Shinn had helped arrange Cooper’s stop and whose own two-story, ca. 1913, house was flooded and undergoing repairs.
Like a family gathered after Sunday dinner, Cooper listened intently to their stories about storms past and present.
Hoggard said that when Dorian hit, due to health reasons, she was unable to climb to the upstairs in her home on Lighthouse Road.
“I have a small house,” she said. “I managed to get a few things off the closet floor. The water was coming up so fast that I couldn’t get through it–the pressure of it. So, I sat on the couch. Then I saw the water creeping up. When it got into my lap, I thought I was going to drown.”
Cooper asked Hoggard what went through her mind.
“I can’t tell you how I felt then, Governor,” Hoggard said. “I just said ‘Lord, I’m going to drown.’ About the time I got those words out of my mouth, my grandson and my great grandson came through the back door. They got me a boat somehow,” she said.
This storm was reminiscent of the time her own father put her in a boat during the infamous unnamed hurricane of 1944, when she was 10 years old.
“We’ve had tide rise before, but usually slower,” Hoggard said, “but this one came in like a wave. When I saw the refrigerator and the braided rugs on the floor floating by, I was amazed. Of course, I lost everything. Twice I’ve been hauled out from a storm in a boat. I don’t think I’m ready for a third one.”
Austin, who lives across from Hoggard on Lighthouse Road, told how she and her sister, Tammy Tolson, had to break her storm door glass pane to get out of her house.
“I looked over to Mickey,” Austin said. “Me and my sister wanted to get over to her, but the water was rushing so fast, we couldn’t get over there. Me and my sister swam over to the house behind us, with the water up to here,” Austin said, pointing to her neck. “We were holding on, locking our arms, and made it safely to our (rental) cottage.”
Cooper asked about the current.
“The current was very strong,” Austin said. “It was behind us and pushing us around my deck.”
Shinn interjected, “I called her right before she got in the water swimming. I said ‘Trudy, how’s it going over there?’ And she said, ‘We’ve just cut the door down and we’re getting ready to swim. Call me back. Please call me back.’”
Austin said, “The current was so strong it would have swept anybody away on the road.”
Shinn invited the governor inside to see her damaged walls and torn up floors. She said she was living elsewhere while Samaritan’s Purse volunteers tore out water-damaged sections of the floors and walls in her house.
Out in her yard, Shinn explained how the rushing tide had picked up her lawn mower and moved it yards away. While chatting along a backyard canal, Shinn told Cooper how island men built sheds along that canal long ago, where they could tell tales, drink beer and cook freshly caught crabs.
Shinn told Cooper about how one of her prosthetic legs was lost while swimming a few days after the hurricane, but then it was found down the beach the next day and returned.
Cooper chuckled at her lost-and-found story.
“That’s amazing,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
“It gave the whole village something to laugh at, something to distract them,” Shinn said.
Back on the porch, Cooper’s photographer posed the group for an official souvenir photograph.
For that brief period Monday afternoon, the pressing needs of state government seemed far from the governor’s mind; he was visibly touched by what he saw and heard.
As Shinn spoke to a reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer in her front yard, two state helicopters were visible over Pamlico Sound in the distance, whisking the governor’s group to their next meeting.
Cooper saw devastated homes and businesses and piles of debris from the air and on the ground Monday afternoon. He also witnessed first-hand, the community’s determination to rebuild and make this magic island even more “Ocracoke Strong.”
The governor promised additional state assistance in the weeks and months to come and promised to come back.
Prior to his visit with the women, Cooper’s entourage stopped briefly along Back Road to see the damaged Ocracoke School. He then toured the modular mobile medical unit brought in by the state emergency services department and met briefly with Dr. Erin Baker and the volunteer and permanent staff as demolition workers carried storm tear-outs from the Ocracoke Health Center out to the road.
A health center employee said it could take several months before repairs to the building are complete.