North Carolina’s Hickory Point: Small Towns, Big Floods

By | August 30, 2011

For Mavis Powers, a lifetime of work and keepsakes were washed away when Hurricane Irene drove a 13-foot storm surge up Muddy Creek and through her home.

The 77-year-old doll maker and collector held her head Sunday as she assessed her ruined house. Her 82-year-old husband, a World War II Marine made frail by age, sat on the front porch, trying to stay cool in the heat and slowly inhaling in the oxygen he needs to breathe.

Powers had hooked up his last tank that morning, and she worried he might run out soon.

As the wind-driven water began to lash at the glass back doors of her house early Saturday morning, Powers said she pressed her body against them to try to keep it out.

“A big wave came in and took the doors and me and the dining room and pushed everything into the living room,” she said. “That was an experience.”

Powers was among scores of homeowners who suffered serious flooding in and around the small town of Aurora, located on a peninsula jutting out into the Pamlico Sound. Chief Kevin Bonner of Aurora Fire and Rescue said his department pulled 48 residents from their flooded homes during the storm.

At an area on the Pamlico River coastline called Hickory Point, more than 200 homes were ruined, many missing walls or flattened by the storm surge. Large commercial fishing boats lay on their sides, rolled by the force of the hurricane. Bonner said the homes were searched late in the day and those who had stayed said they didn’t believe anyone was missing.

Located well inland from Irene’s center, few residents in South Creek heeded the call to evacuate as the hurricane approached. The surge rose so fast, few had time to flee. It then receded nearly as quickly, leaving devastated homes in its wake.

Many residents spent the day after the storm laying out family photos, rugs, clothes and other belongings in the sun to dry. As is typically the case after a hurricane passes, there was not a cloud in the sky.

Residents in South Creek said they had not seen anybody from the state or federal government on Sunday, though National Guard troops were nearby in Aurora. People who had working cell phones were trying to contact their insurance companies.

Joenisha Brown, 27, waded out in the chest-deep water surrounding her house during the storm to take shelter in the nearby Jones Chapel Free Will Baptist Church. Her four children — ages 8, 6, 5, and 3 — clung to her neck and arms.

“I just sort of picked them up and towed them out,” she said Sunday. “When you see water like that coming, you have to get out.”

Brown had not yet been able to return to her house. Large trees fell across most of the roads in and around town and many were still blocked. Local officials used boats to try to check on people they hadn’t heard from yet.

The storm tore away docks and washed some boats as much as a quarter-mile inland. One man was still searching for a 53-foot-pleasure yacht that broke from its moorings and drifted away.

Workers at the nearby Carolina Fisheries farm scrambled to keep alive more that 2 million fish growing in 47 big outdoor ponds that need electric aerators to oxygenate the water. All the farm’s equipment, including its big emergency generators, were swamped.

Michael Lannon, 49, got 4 feet of water into the house he had just finished remolding. He and his wife rode out the storm in a second floor bedroom with three dogs, a cat and a cockatiel.

As the water rose, he swam out to catch his boat, which had floated off its trailer in the garage, and tie it to a tree.

He worked in his yard Sunday to get one of his three flooded-out vehicles to run. “They tell you not to touch anything until the insurance man comes and sees it,” he said. “But I think I can get this old Dodge running. It doesn’t have all those electronics in it like my new truck.”

Powers tried to find as many of her 800 dolls as she could and laid them carefully in the sun to dry. Many she had made herself, while others were collected from all over the word.

Her favorite was one her mother had made her after her wedding day, the doll’s dress sewn from the lace of Powers’ veil. It was nowhere to be found.

Born in a house across the street, Powers said the worst flooding there anyone had seen came from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. After that storm washed water into the crawl space under her house, she paid to have the structure jacked up on a new foundation 9 feet above the level of the nearby tidal basin at high tide.

It wasn’t enough to weather Irene. The line marking the water’s depth inside her home was more than 3 feet up the interior walls.

“Maybe this is something that happens once a lifetime,” she said. “In my case, I certainly hope so.”

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