ROCKY MOUNT, N.C.— Like many trailer parks around here, the King's Way in Little Easonburg sits in a serious flood zone. For this reason, neighbors Mae Powell, Marcella Smith, and Reathella Richardson find themselves gathered around a book of word-search puzzles at Englewood Baptist Church, waxing rhapsodic about the food.
"I ate more here than I ever ate at home," Mae says. "These people feed you so much."
Reathella mmms her agreement. "Almost suppertime, and I ain't hungry yet." Meals at Englewood come in many forms. The Red Cross delivers some prepared meals as well as cold staples; Chick-fil-A provided 40 sandwich combos at a steep discount; on Friday morning, Hardee's donated 55 sausage biscuits; the Westridge Grill brought gallons of sweet tea. Best of all was last night's dinner: a pulled-pork meal with trimmings donated by the Arlington Baptist Church down the way. (Arlington had planned a pig-pickin' fundraiser, canceled due to seriously inclement weather.)
I've spent the morning driving around with the Red Cross in Wilson, N.C., visiting shelters and makeshift command centers set up to house evacuees from Hurricane Irene. In between, I've tuned into WNCT 107.9, which is collecting reports, jokes, and grievances from across eastern Carolina. Betty in Elizabeth City gives thanks to God for such abundant deliverance from the forest fire in the Great Dismal Swamp. Earl in Greenville complains that "morons" have been joyriding pickup trucks through flood zones.
When not praising the food, Mae and her friends swap memories of hurricanes past. "The fire department came knocking on Thursday night," Raethella says. "They were comparing her to Hazel." She nods, remembering October 1954, when Hurricane Hazel coiled its way up the state. (She was 5.) "I guess that's what scared me."
Mae and Marcella, meanwhile, have spent the morning sweeping the floor and bringing food to those in wheelchairs. Mae has also kept busy playing babysitter for a lady who arrived at the shelter with two great-grandchildren in tow.
"They're napping right now," she says. "And I don't want to wake them up, but those kids need to run around. Else there's no way they're sleeping tonight."
The Raleigh Road Baptist Church—the main shelter in Wilson—isn't yet at capacity, but it hosted 160 people last night and took in another 20 this morning. The food situation is like the one at Englewood. The Pizza Inn on Raleigh Road donated 21 pies. A local coffeeshop brought doughnuts and doughnut holes. Today they cooked up 160 hot dogs. Brenda Pender, a volunteer coordinator at Wilson Red Cross, takes a phone inventory on dinner. "Mark it down," she calls with a measure of triumph, "175 chicken plates from Major Waller at the Salvation Army." As at Englewood, the vast majority of the crowd is Hispanic. There are also seven exchange students from Romania. Things are quiet, all things considered, but everyone's busy. Weather permitting, there will be a service tomorrow.
Gaby Alvarez, 17, is a junior at Beddingfield High School and a parishioner at this church, and today she finds herself acting as chief translator for the shelter. She signs in non-English-speakers (of which there are many) and fills the other usual roving-ambassadorial roles. She is unfazed by the job.
"We came from Palominos," she says, referring to a nearby trailer park that she evacuated with her mother around 5 p.m. last night. Palominos is also on a flood plain. "I brought my binder and my schoolbooks—you know, biology, geometry, English 3."
Less worldly kids play table tennis and pool, while the younger ones take advantage of the ample arts and crafts materials from the Sunday school. Gaby makes quick work out of her sign-in duties but allows herself one complaint about the shelter: "It's really boring."
The only person at the Wilson shelter who refuses to sleep indoors is the Rev. Hans Myors.
Myors spends six to 10 months of the year biking around the country on his touring recumbent bike, named "Alice," and since April has covered nearly 5,000 miles. Among his ballast on the trip is a sturdy REI tent that he has pitched, to the skepticism of the staff, in the rear courtyard of the building.
"As long as I have housing that I carry with me," he says, "why take space from someone who doesn't have anything?"
Myors also has the only visible laptop in the shelter, on which he has spent the morning updating his blog. His home base for many years was Americus, Ga., but he spends most of his time on the worn seat of his bicycle, traveling the country to perform various acts of ministry. A week ago, his plan was to pedal down the Carolina coast as far as Myrtle Beach. Irene interceded, so the Reverend cut inland at Currituck, N.C., rolling into Wilson yesterday afternoon. Like the rest, he helps keep things running. There's always trash to be carried, meals to be served, tables to be swept. This afternoon, there is also the tent to be drained. It's perched on an incline, but there's no such thing as a dry patch of grass this weekend. Will the Reverend consider staying inside tonight?
"Not unless the tent blows away."
Jennie and Robert Culpepper left Nags Head yesterday at 3 p.m. in their 1990 Chevy S-10. They're natives of the Outer Banks and have weathered many hurricanes there in a house built by Robert's grandfather. (The Culpepper roots go yet deeper: Robert's great-great grandfather is on the 1870 census for Nags Head.) Robert, 50, last evacuated during Gloria in 1985. They're not big on fleeing, so the fact that they're here in Wilson says something.
"We're used to those old-fashioned hard northeasters," Robert says. "It's usually Ocracoke and Hatteras that get it, never us. But we were impressed that the president took the time to tell us we needed to evacuate. It sounded like it'd be worse than Gloria."
Jennie and Robert's co-pilots on the five-hour drive were Sassy, a one-year-old feral cat, and a two-year-old pit bull named T.C. (stands for "Too Cute"). For now, the animals are sitting in kennels under a tarp in the truck. Winds topping 40 mph haven't prevented Robert from taking the pets out for excursions over the course of the day, though Jennie remains inside nursing a crushed disc, the souvenir from a car accident that fractured her spine a couple of years back. Money, too, is a concern. Robert pulls in $950 a month as a school custodian, plus some $300 every two weeks from moonlighting at Kmart.
"When we rolled out," Robert says, "we had $30 in the pocket and a tank of gas."
Of the few possessions Robert and Jennie packed for their westerly trip, many got soaked when the bed of the pickup flooded under the tarp. (Robert battened things down with his fishing rods, but rain always finds a way.) Sentimental curios remain intact: a photo album, booklets from her grandparents' funeral, letters from his grandmother. ("I loved her handwriting," he says.) Jennie, 51, brought a jewelry box with her mother's things in it. She also brought her most prized possession: an Xbox, to which she became addicted following her back surgery.
Family who stayed behind in Nags Head report no real damage thus far. That will most likely change after Irene passes north, when the wind switch will bring rain water, and the withdrawn water of the sound, back with force onto the western shore of the isthmus. Fifteen-plus feet of flooding is projected. The couple's house is 10 feet above sea level. I'm wondering why the two seem so relaxed.
Jennie looks at Robert. "Really honestly and truly," she says, "we've been married 15 years, and we've never been able to get away, just me and him."
She smiles. "So this is our honeymoon time."