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By Peter Vankevich
Sometime during the long, slow process of getting Ocracoke somewhat back to normal after Hurricane Dorian hit on Sept. 6, someone must have created a check-off list of what needs to be accomplished.
In the days following this devastating storm, for variable times, the island was without electric power, an open bank, grocery store, post office, school, library and a health center. The water was under a boil advisory. Through all of this, the island somehow got by.
One big and vital check in the accomplished column and good news for the island—is that the Ocracoke Health Center on Back Road reopened in early December.
The building, like so many others, sustained damage for the first time from a hurricane, and that was right after the center just completed replacing all the floors.
Dorian set the health center back but didn’t knock it down.
After the hurricane struck, a first aid station staffed by state and county paramedics was immediately set up in the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department (OVFD) which served as the hub for all activities relating to the disaster.
And by Sept. 12, the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services set up a temporary clinic in the health center’s parking lot.
“We’ve replicated Dr. Erin Baker’s clinic in the parking lot,” said Dr. Jeff Williams, medical director for the Wake County EMS who was one of a 10-member medical strike team on the island during the emergency.
The mobile unit, with three little emergency room-type bays with gurneys and portable dividers, initially was for urgent care, he said and the first aid station in the OVFD was staffed with paramedics for less serious health issues.
By Sept. 24, the health center’s staff were fully trained to work in the “small box,” as Dr. Baker categorized the mobile unit, and they took over from the emergency relief teams. She was not able to do all the medical procedures that she can do in the building but said she could do a lot.
“It was really cool,” she said about having the mobile unit.
Ocracoke does not have a pharmacy and prescriptions are delivered weekdays from Beach Pharmacy in Hatteras village, which continued doing so after the storm, initially dropping them off at the OVFD.
Hatteras village, including its pharmacy, also suffered damage but not as extensive as on Ocracoke, Steve Evans, the pharmacist, said during one of his trips to Ocracoke. Water got into his building but quickly got cleaned up.
Three days after the hurricane, prescription delivery resumed via the Hatteras ferry, which used the passenger ferry route all the way into the Silver Lake harbor since a lengthy section of N.C.12 was battered, closing access to the South Dock terminal.
“Steve was incredible,” Baker said about his diligence in ensuring the medications be delivered. Dave Quidley, with FedEx, also helped as a courier with LabCorps out of Elizabeth City. Part of a tag team, he would meet the first courier at the ferry dock and make deliveries to and from the health center.
Meanwhile, contractors and volunteers worked feverishly inside the building, mucking, again redoing the flooring, replacing the heating and ventilation system, drywall, rewiring data lines and extensive cleaning.
“I think all of the faith-based volunteer groups rotated through at one time or other to help,” said Cheryl Ballance, the chief executive officer.
While pre-hurricane preparation involved the staff putting lots of items up high and covering them, some cabinets got flooded, Ballance said. So, in the rebuild, changes were made, such as having metal stands instead of cabinets and routing wiring along the ceilings instead of the floors.
“We could be going through this again with the global warming and climate changes,” she said.
Financially, the Center did not suffer as much as others. “We had flood insurance and were able to get some storm recovery grants,” said Ballance.
Among Dr. Baker’s many concerns are those displaced from their homes and those who are older.
“They had one to two to three steps into their house and now they’re 12 to 16 steps in the air, which is a mobility impact,” she said. “And then of course, there is the emotional, financial and traumatic stress.”
A fundraising seafood festival for the health center, held Labor Day weekend (a week before Dorian) at the Berkley Barn, saw great weather and a good crowd. It cleared $95,000, Ballance said.
And they didn’t have to touch any of that for the Dorian repairs.
“Overall, I thought it was a very good festival,” she said. “We had a lot of volunteers.”
The center will designate that money for some future services to be determined and expects to hold another fundraiser again this year in late summer.
Editor’s note: Hurricane Dorian coverage cut into our coverage of island events, one of which was the Health Center’s Seafood Festival on Aug. 1. Below are some photos from that successful event at the Berkley Barn: