“Come on. It’s okay. You can do it. I promise you won’t get in trouble.”
It was an argument that Lori Smith was losing. There she was, kneeling down on her garage floor, in the middle of a hurricane. The power was out. The rain was coming down. The wind was blowing in every direction. And Lori was pointing her flashlight on a “pee-pee pad” trying to coax her 3 month old Golden Retriever, named Harley, into using it.
“She wasn’t going to do it. It was almost like we trained her too well. “
And so, with no other choice, Lori grabbed a leash, and then a robe. She step into the nearest shoes she could find (her teenage son’s size 12 boots) and for safety, just as they were walking into the storm, she promptly put on motorcycle helmet.
By all accounts she looked ridiculous!
Harley didn’t seem to mind. As the pup sniffed around trying to find the perfect spot, some terrifying thoughts started to form in Lori’s mind. What if a branch falls down and crushes us? What if the house doesn’t hold up? What if the street floods?
And then, imaging how silly she must look at that very moment, the most horrific and frightening question popped into Lori’s head. “Oh, my God! What if my neighbors are looking out their window right now?”
This is a story about the people who ride it out with us. It’s true that in every life storms will form. They are unavoidable, no matter where you live. The worst ones are remembered for the destruction and scars that they leave behind. But as much as they can tear things down and rip them apart, storms can also bind things together. This is a story about shared experiences, shared emotions, and shared struggles. This is Lori’s Hurricane Florence story.
“We decided to stay. I know this may sound goofy, but we stayed because we wanted to experience a hurricane. You know, just to experience one, so the next time we know what to expect. Things are so much scarier when you don’t know what to expect. Besides, everyone else was staying, too.”
Lori Smith and her husband, Chad grew up in the Atlanta area far away from the Georgia Coast. When they moved to Wilmington a few years ago it was with the fantasies that everyone has when they come here. They thought about all those weekends they’d spend near the ocean and all those romantic walks on the beach. Maybe their kids would take up surfing. Maybe they’d buy a boat.
And now, four years later, a massive storm was forming off in the Atlantic and making a beeline for Wilmington.
“We don’t live in a community that was a big threat for the storm surge. So we boarded up the windows, bought a generator, went grocery shopping, got 11 cases of water, and did laundry… because we weren’t sure the next time we’d have clean clothes.”
Wednesday, the night before the storm, when everyone was kind of freaking out, second-guessing themselves, and wondering if they did the right thing, someone on Lori’s street came up with the idea to throw a pre-hurricane party. Five families decided to stay put and they wanted to do something to make them feel normal.
And so they all got together. They drank beer, the kids ran around. The dogs ran around. And Lori made it a point to put on makeup. Somehow makeup put her at ease. “Yeah, it’s silly but me having makeup on is what I do every day, and before the storm I just wanted to feel normal.”
All at once living in a neighborhood can be uniting and dividing. We all share the same street name, the same zip code and we watch each other’s children grow up. But there are divisions, too. Fences mark property lines and squabbles keep people from talking to each other for years. And then something happens, something goes wrong, and whether it’s in your front lawn or down the road… suddenly, none of those divisions matter.
“Whenever someone had any type of obstacle, it was like it was all of our problems and we were all trying to fix it.”
The crisis started sometime on Friday. Water started creeping into the garage of one of the homes across the street. Suddenly everyone was out with brooms and squeegees, they were rearranging sandbags and someone else was hooking up a pump to a generator. Compared to the damage that was happening in other parts of the town, this really was no big deal… but it happened here. It happened to us! And it could have been worse.
A short time later, a tree fell on top of a fence. Several trees fell up and down the road, but amazingly none of them hit a house. It just so happened that this fence belonged to a woman, who up until the storm, basically kept to herself. But none of that mattered. Because when the rain stopped, the neighborhood brigade showed up with chainsaws. At one point Lori looked up and saw the homeowner in tears. She wasn’t crying because of the damage, she was just touched that people cared.
Lori’s home came through unscathed. She was grateful for that. But she took real peace in knowing that had something gone horribly wrong, the front doors of four others homes would have opened and taken her family in.
“We were friends before, obviously we were neighbors, but during Florence we became family. My home was their home. Their home was my home.”
Eventually, all storms pass and move on. That’s when you start taking inventory. Some will count up what is lost or what has changed forever. But the true impact is sometimes best measured, at least it is on Champlain Drive, in what was created and formed.
“I am sure it will go back to normal, you know on some level. But in some ways, it will never be the same because we’ve all gone through something big together.”
A few days after Florence left her mark, Lori and her neighbors decide to throw another block party. Everyone is there, including the woman with the broken fence. There are no sandbags to fill this time, but there’s beer to drink and the kids and the dogs are running around. Lori’s got her makeup on again, too.
It occurs to her that she hasn’t told the story from the other night. “I couldn’t get Harley to pee in the garage. I had to take her out in the middle of a storm with these huge boots and a motorcycle helmet on.”
“Oh, my gosh,” laughs one of the neighbors, “I wish I would have seen that.”