Pat Garber’s ‘Marsh Haven’ home on Ocracoke Island, NC, in better times before it was flooded by Hurricane Dorian Sept. 6, 2019.
Pat Garber’s ‘Marsh Haven’ home in better times. Photo by Pat Garber

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Editor’s note: This story was first published in the August print issue of the Observer. Pat still does not know if she will ever be able to raise her house.

By Pat Garber

On the morning of September 6, 2019, Hurricane Dorian, having only a few days before wreaked havoc in the Bahamas, swept across Ocracoke Island. In less than an hour, it changed everything–the landscape, the village, the lives of all who called it home.

I wasn’t there. I was in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York where, only two weeks before, I had lost my older sister to cancer. By the time I got back to the island the downstairs of my house had been gutted by volunteers.

My front door, ripped from its hinges by a seven-foot wall of water, still lay twisted askew. Most of the flotsam–boards, trees, junk, and somebody’s dock–had been chain-sawed and trucked away, also by volunteers.  

My once lovely yard looked like a dead zone.

Fortunately, good friends were able to salvage most of my cherished personal items. Not all were so lucky.

Since then I, like so many other islanders, have been trying to maneuver the channels of government and volunteer organizations in order to restore my home.  A letter from the Hyde County building inspector said it should be elevated on pilings before I could move back in. Everything would have to be rebuilt and refurnished, and I would need a new roof.

There followed long hours spent at the Hurricane Dorian emergency trailer, where I lined up with other residents to fill out forms, submit papers, and wait. And fill out more forms. And wait some more.  All of us wondering, “Where will the money come from? Where will our endurance come from?”    

I am finding that the storm has changed not only my house and my island, but also myself.

I, like many others, have found myself helpless and in need since the hurricane struck. I have always prided myself on being independent and self-sufficient. I have never had a lot of money but have always been proud of working hard and living on what I made. I cannot do that anymore.  

It feels strange to be asking for and accepting help. I am seeking assistance from the state, from the federal government, from the community and from the churches. It is a feeling I do not like. The generosity of so many is heartwarming, but I have always tried to be on the side that was doing the giving, not the taking.

It is a humbling experience.  

My flood insurance company has denied my claim. Now I have a pro bono attorney and two caseworkers trying to intervene for me. I never had any of these before.

There is money in a special account for house repairs, new appliances, and furniture. But I have yet to figure out the wherewithal of getting my house raised, and without that, I cannot move back in.

I continue on with more phone calls, more forms to fill out, more unanswered questions.

I contacted Congressman Greg Murphy to find out the status of my FEMA grant, but the response gave me no answers.

I am not alone. Many on the island struggle as well.

Slowly, day by day and week by week, there is progress. My friends, here and elsewhere, have been amazing with their generosity. Thanks to them I have a place to live, delicious meals, an occasional freshly caught bluefish, and lots of emotional support. One friend helped me reattach the front door and another nailed down boards to cover the holes in the floors. Others are helping me replace the blown-out screens on my porch.

Someone has volunteered to be my contractor and will hopefully guide me through this. Now there is a huge stack of flooring material waiting in my driveway to replace the floor, and I finally got a new roof.

In the midst of this pandemic and the unrest of our nation, none of us is unscathed.

Here on Ocracoke, in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian’s devastation, we are doubly traumatized. Even those who did not lose their homes or businesses may have lost cars, tools, and other possessions.

The sight of the island’s devastation has jarred everyone. Some of us lost everything, and many of us, 10 months after the storm, are still displaced from our homes.  These are indeed, to use a much-coined phrase, “trying times.”

Photo: P. Vankevich

Pat Garber is a writer, naturalist and member of Ocracoke’s stunned turtle patrol team. Her most recent book is “The Birchbark Chronicles: An Adirondack Journal.”

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