"THE FURY AND THE SOUND"|
The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)
Under cover of darkness, a mass of water began to churn in Pamlico Sound, trapped between North Carolina's barrier islands and the mainland.
Water tumbled across the bean-shaped sound, energized by a steady barrage of wind topping 50 mph.
Waves surged into the bony fingers of bays, creeks and ditches surrounding boating and fishing communities on the peninsula that comprises Pamlico County, N.C., a region some call the Inner Banks. The swells veered west into the wide mouth of Jones Bay, the low marshy points at its mouth already flooded.
It was Friday, Aug. 26, 2011. Hurricane Irene was on her way.
At first glance, she didn't look like much. Forecasters called for Irene's strength to drop from Category 3 to 1. Her sustained winds were expected to barely reach the 74 mph mark defining the storm as a hurricane.
But Irene was a big girl.
Her winds extended 80 miles from the center - four times as large as a typical Category 1 storm. She plodded along, forecast to head straight up the middle of Pamlico Sound.
The sound is sprawling - 80 miles long and up to 30 miles wide - but shallow, ranging from 3 to 21 feet deep. Prolonged winds can whip the water into a frenzy and move it great distances.
Late that Friday, people on both sides of the sound prepared, lifting appliances onto wood planks, driving cars to higher ground. Some guzzled beer at hurricane parties. Others curled up in bed, listening to the shrieking wind. Many had ridden out storms before. They expected flooding, wind damage and loss. Still, they thought, the storm surge couldn't be as bad as Isabel's. Storms like that 2003 hurricane, which left high water marks never before seen, come once in 100 years.
But during the next 24 hours, Irene's storm surge would crash ashore on both sides of Pamlico Sound with unrelenting floodwaters. She would demolish homes that had defied past hurricanes, astonish storm veterans and alter the landscape of coastal North Carolina.
The low-lying villages along Pamlico Sound's western edge are populated by watermen. Work here is still done by calloused hands, livings earned at the whims of weather and water.
These towns are off the tourist path, connected by winding two-lane roads lined by tall pine trees draped with Spanish moss. Mosquitoes hover in clouds, and fireflies glow at night. Though just a three-hour drive from Hampton Roads, their names are not well-known: Vandemere, Bayboro and Goose Creek Island, a marshy community sliced from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway.
Late that Friday night, Jennifer Popperwill clutched her four daughters as they slept on the daybed that served as a living room couch in their home in Lowland, an inland village on Goose Creek Island. The TV flashed images of the swirling cloud that was Irene.
The Popperwills are no strangers to water. Todd, Jennifer's husband and father to 6-year-old Viviana, 3-year-old twins Molly and Maggie and 1-year-old Sidney, is a fisherman. With his booming voice, he is quick to tell how his girls, though small for their ages, endured 60 mph winds with him on boats. As a baby, Viviana went oystering with her parents, sleeping in her car seat inside the warm pilothouse.
That night, Jennifer shut her eyes but couldn't sleep. The wind was a circling freight train. No matter how many storms she'd been through, the night before was never easy.
Throughout early Saturday morning, howling gusts reached 70 mph. Pamlico Sound's water headed west toward the mainland, laying bare the bottom and leaving fish wriggling for life. In the Hatteras Island villages of Avon and Rodanthe, boats sat on muddy harbor bottoms, the water simply gone. Sand stretched to the horizon.
At a fish house on the working harbor in Avon that morning, a fisherman shook his head and said, "I wouldn't want to be on the other side of the sound right now."
Across the water, near the mainland community of Vandemere, Octavia Gibbs stepped out of her bed and felt her feet squelch beneath her. It was 4:30 a.m., and Irene's eye was 80 miles south. The storm surge had spilled the banks of Chapel Creek, heaving itself through woods and into Octavia's home, tucked away from the sound on a winding road.
The water terrified Octavia, 35. She watched it climb up inside her trailer, listened to Irene's strongest winds buffeting the trailer walls. In the 12 years she'd lived there, the water had never been this high. Outside, trees bowed to the wind's force; a lawn mower and a refrigerator floated past. The road was a river. She couldn't swim or see a way out. She'd never seen anything like this. "I'm going to die," she thought.
The rising water licked the windowsill. Octavia clutched a cellphone and made her way to the window. "I have no other choice," she thought, cracking it open and slipping her wiry, 5-foot-8-inch frame out onto the ledge. She reached up and jumped, thrusting her body onto the roof. She gripped the aluminum as she started to slide, heaving herself forward. Her pants and shirt were soaked.
A floating all-terrain vehicle crashed against the trailer. She couldn't see mailboxes or street signs. There was nothing but water.
"Help!" Octavia screamed into the phone to the 911 operator over the howling wind.
The water continued to rise, winds whipping around her.
She heard a faint sputtering and saw a bright orange Coast Guard boat, blue emergency lights flashing, coming through the water. A man jumped into neck-deep water holding a rope line and trudged toward Octavia. She threw her arms around his neck, squeezing so tightly he told her, "I can't breathe, you're choking me."
"I know, I'm sorry," she said.
He carried her more than a hundred feet through surging water and floating trash. On the boat, cold and shivering, Octavia was wrapped in a blanket.
It was about 8 a.m. Octavia had been stuck on her roof for about four hours. Slow-moving Irene was still offshore to the south, still headed straight for the sound.
As Irene made landfall around 9:30 a.m. at Cape Lookout, the storm surge was smothering Goose Creek Island with more than 7 feet of water. The island was drowning.
In Lowland, Jennifer Popperwill watched water reach her 4-foot-high front porch. "This can't be real," she thought. Old-timers had persuaded her to ride out the hurricane, swearing her family's home had never been touched by storm surges.
Water flowed into her living room, and soon linoleum and carpet were afloat. Snakes swam in. Her husband, Todd, beat three to death.
The Popperwills told their daughters to sit on the couch, now an island in their living room. "Don't move, stay right there," Jennifer said as she and Todd gathered clothing. Then they both took a tiny, blond-headed girl under each arm and began to swim down the road to find a dry place.
Irene's eye was dancing directly overhead. Her eye's low pressure gave a moment of pause, soothing the ferocious wind and calming the waves. The rainfall dissipated, and light peeked through the clouds.
"It's beautiful," Jennifer thought. She and her family had made it to a 25-foot boat and, along with four other people, four dogs and a cat they'd rescued, they traveled across water that blanketed grassy fields.
Despite the calm, it was eerie. Colors were muted, the storm reducing everything to shades of gray. They floated by cars submerged in water. The smell of propane gas from burst tanks was everywhere, its plumes creating a fog on the water. "Everyone put your cigarettes out," Todd said.
Soaked through, the refugees arrived at the Miss Taylor, a 50-foot shrimp boat of which Todd was the captain. Once everyone was transferred aboard, Todd left on another rescue mission. He noticed a horse up to its neck in water as he motored past.
The calm didn't last. As the backside of the eye approached, the winds began to scream.
Jennifer noticed the Miss Taylor rocking as the wind spun through its masts. It listed to one side, stopped, then to the other. Todd was still gone. Her girls, oblivious to conditions, sat in the corner playing hand-held video games. She realized she'd have to keep them from sensing her fear.
The boat rocked faster and faster. Now, the girls were screaming and crying. Finally, Jennifer saw Todd headed up the creek. His voice crackled over the radio: "I see the boat, I see you, I'll be right there."
When he reached the Miss Taylor, Todd tied the 25-foot boat behind it, trying to hide it from blasts of wind. Unlike the Miss Taylor, it had no masts to make it top-heavy. "We've got to get everybody off of here," Todd yelled. One by one, people started to jump from the Miss Taylor to the other boat, which thrust out of the water with the force of the waves. They left the animals behind.
By then, the Miss Taylor had almost keeled over. As water started splashing over, the persistent wind still hollering, Jennifer and the remaining passengers on the Miss Taylor put the four girls in plastic orange fish baskets. Jennifer carried baskets that held the twins, Molly and Maggie. She gritted her teeth and tried to muscle across to the higher side but slid back down.
"Somebody's gonna have to grab one of these babies - I can't get them both," she yelled, and someone took Molly's basket. They threw three of the girls across to the 25-foot boat.
Jennifer kept charging her way up the middle of the Miss Taylor's slanted deck, her toes gripping the aluminum, but the angle was too steep, the deck too wet, and she slid back again and again. Finally, she pushed Maggie's basket toward a bolted-down table at the higher side of the boat. "I want you to hold onto the leg of it. Don't let go," she told her daughter, whose blond locks were plastered wet against her head.
Digging her knees and feet into the thick rope of the nets that had washed across the boat, she climbed up. She grasped the basket with Maggie inside and shoved her into the waiting boat. As they started up the motor, the Miss Taylor crashed onto its side and lunged into the dock, the crack of splitting wood and breaking glass filling the air as pilings pierced the pilothouse windows.
When the Popperwills got to their house in the boat, around 2 p.m., they grabbed a generator, blankets, any food they could find, planning to head anywhere dry.
Then, everything changed.
For 10 hours, hot, moist air had been blasting from the east. Now it swung around. Irene headed away from Pamlico Sound spinning counterclockwise, driving the water from west to east.
The rain still fell, the wind still howled. But water slipped from the fields and streets.
The Popperwills watched their porch and steps reappear. The departing water roiled down the street. It pulled the corner of a neighbor's house off its foundation and scattered belongings.
The water dropped first by inches, then by feet. It was as if someone had pulled the plug in a bathtub.
The water rushed headlong toward Hatteras Island with a vengeance, waves thundering as they pounded over one another.
At midday, Tyler Hooper stood on sand that had held the sound's waters, his hair slicked back by rain, a cigarette poised on his lips. Though his community is now called Avon, to 18-year-old Tyler and his family, it will always be Kinnakeet, the traditional name for the fishing village where they have lived for generations.
The wind kicked up a wall of sand and, 500 yards out, Tyler couldn't see shore, or the friend who walked out with him. All he heard was the whistling wind.
Fish were trapped in puddles, their backs sticking out, trying to stay alive. Some were dead. Tyler had never seen anything quite like it. He picked up a flounder, a speckled trout, a bluefish. He gathered clams in his pockets.
The wind paused, then changed direction. Tyler noticed the ground around his feet transformed from hard-packed sand to muck. At first, the water seemed to be just trickling in, but the next time he looked down, the water was an inch above his feet, then two. He headed in. It was climbing up his calves by the time he reached Avon's harbor.
The waters spilled across the sound and raced into Avon. Just north, in Rodanthe, surges boiled up and over the narrow barrier island.
Night fell, and water continued to climb, even though Irene's center was twirling 90 miles to the north, off Virginia Beach. The line of dunes along the oceanfront, put there for protection from the Atlantic, trapped the floodwaters on the island. As the flood deepened, seething water sought out weak spots in the dune line and rushed through to meet the ocean. Those spots became currents, then rivers. The faster the water moved, the more sand it carried away.
Just north of Rodanthe at Mirlo Beach, the raging water dug under the thick asphalt of N.C. 12, buckling the pavement and tossing clumps of tar aside. Utility poles collapsed, and underground water pipes burst. The tall dunes were heaved out to sea in a mixture of sand and tumbling water, and the highway, the only road to Hatteras' villages and its 3,000 residents, was cut through.
Surging water cleaved the island again, to the north at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Back in Rodanthe, the water rushed across the highway into the North Beach Campground's store. It toppled shelves and flooded the last of the summer's vacation supplies.
A glow lighting the horizon caught the attention of Justin O'Neal, 28, whose family owns the campground. A fire turned the sky from inky black to orange. Worried it was the home of an older woman he knows, he hopped on his WaveRunner and raced up the highway, now submerged under feet of water.
Justin - his skin darkened from the sun, hands and arms strong from manual labor and lugging fishing nets - had always stayed in Rodanthe during hurricanes, though he had sent his wife and two children away this time. He had relatives and the family business to look out for, so he preferred to stay nearby rather than imagine what was taking place from a hundred miles away.
Realizing the fire was not the woman's house, Justin turned back toward the campground. Suddenly, he was caught in the river storming its way from sound to ocean.
He tried to turn out of the current but was swept toward the ocean. In moments, he was carried 1,000 feet past trailers to the bathhouse, then shot around it. He gunned his WaveRunner, but it was overpowered by the current, which pulled him toward the dark ocean.
Irene's eye was twirling 140 miles to the north, off Maryland's Eastern Shore. Unlike Isabel, which traveled out of North Carolina seven hours after making landfall, Irene was still pounding Hatteras Island, where briny water had climbed for nearly 12 hours. The screaming winds and driving rain had lasted nearly 24 hours.
The water carried Justin past the dunes. Justin knew he had to get off the WaveRunner. He jumped off, started paddling and looked back, and the WaveRunner was already out of sight. He tried to stand up in the chest-high water, but it knocked his feet out from under him and rolled him backward. He stuck his feet into the sand, digging his toes in deep, telling himself not to hurry and go one step at a time.
When Justin reached the road, the water was over his head. He started to swim, pushing his aching limbs a little bit further. Debris floated everywhere - trailers, boats, pieces of pilings.
After what seemed like an hour, he made it home and collapsed into a chair, still in disbelief. The water slapped against the house, and he felt as if he was out at sea.
His shed floated in the yard, and his duck-hunting decoys bobbed at the fence posts. He prayed the water would not get higher. Those decoys belonged to his great-great-grandfather.
Justin nodded off.
As both sides of Pamlico Sound rested, Irene spun on. By 2 a.m. Sunday, her eye was 200 miles away. The once-relentless wind finally slackened.
Justin woke up. He glanced out the window again and saw the decoys floating about three feet below the fence top. He breathed a sigh of relief.
As dawn crept over the horizon, there was still a foot of water trickling off Hatteras Island. The western shore of Pamlico Sound was back to normal water level. The early risers opened their doors to let trapped water out, peered inside cars to see whether the flood made it inside, checked on neighbors and family. The air was still and damp, and everything was strangely quiet.
Houses sat askew, listing off foundations. Trailers were ruptured, their contents now debris, and a layer of foul-smelling muck coated buildings inside and out. On Hatteras Island, clear ocean water flowed easily through the broken highway into the sound.
Hearts broke over discoveries. The spots where water never reached were soaked this time. People realized this was worse than Isabel. They took inventory of what they'd lost: air conditioners, iPads, clothes. Photographs of relatives, boats that maintained livelihoods. Homes where generations were raised.
Despite the devastation, they realized it could have been worse. They were alive.
The Popperwills crept out of their home. Jennifer and Todd dragged their kitchen table, which ended up in the front yard, to the middle of the street. They sat on kitchen chairs, drinking coffee as the girls circled on their bikes, surveying the devastation.
"What happened?" the girls asked Jennifer.
The breaches in N.C. 12 cost many businesses their fall tourist season and forced the state ferry system to run emergency routes night and day to Hatteras Island. It took a month to fill the Mirlo Beach inlet and repair the road. Today, ocean tides still flow through the Pea Island inlet, and cars drive over a temporary bridge.
More than half the households in Pamlico County applied for federal disaster assistance. In the hardest hit communities, the storm damaged as much as 80 percent of the homes, causing more than $300 million in damage to homes in Dare and Pamlico counties. Irene caused four deaths in North Carolina, though none occurred in the communities around the Pamlico Sound. Pamlico County is rethinking its emergency plans. County officials estimate it will take at least another year to recover.
In the Inner Banks, Irene's surge surpassed anything in the memories of lifelong residents. The havoc she wreaked caused people in communities like Vandemere and Oriental to call Irene the storm that comes around once in 500 years.
Octavia Gibbs stayed at a hurricane shelter in Vandemere for two weeks. Irene destroyed her home, so she moved to another trailer on her property. She said she plans to evacuate a week before the next hurricane.
For weeks, the Popperwills' daughters had nightmares of drowning and sharks. Their home was a total loss. The family moved to a relative's mobile home before receiving a trailer from the federal government. They live in it now, near the land where their house once stood.
Justin O'Neal found his broken WaveRunner near the Mirlo Beach inlet a few days after the hurricane. He and his family spent the winter and spring rebuilding the campground in Rodanthe. Justin still gets reports of pieces of the WaveRunner washing up on the beach.
Tyler Hooper gave away the clams he collected in the sound. The fish spoiled in the freezer after days without electricity.
Hurricane Irene, which barely had the wind speed to be considered a hurricane, lashed communities in Hampton Roads, up the Eastern Shore, and into New Jersey, New York and Vermont. Because of the destruction she caused, the World Meteorological Organization has retired "Irene" from the list of named storms.
There will never be another Hurricane Irene in the Atlantic Basin.
Bob "The Lone Chicken" Welch
Still corny after all these years!
"To risk letting people see your real self and to discover that they love you...this is one of the greatest joys in life."
-Nancy "Honeytree" Henigbaum