North Carolina County Recovers from Trio of Disasters

By TOM BREEN | September 7, 2011

Driving along the back roads of Bertie County, it’s hard sometimes to tell one disaster’s damage from another.

That huge old tree, its limbs chopped and stacked after falling across a road, was definitely toppled by Hurricane Irene. But what about that house, with half its roof crumpled and one of its walls fallen in? In less than 12 months, this county, home to around 19,000 people, has become North Carolina’s calamity corner, receiving two federal disaster declarations and one federal emergency declaration.

Last September, Tropical Storm Nicole dumped up to 24 inches of rain on the area, causing days of flooding that damaged or destroyed more than 200 homes and businesses. Rescue boats cruised over streets in Windsor, rescuing people trapped in the upper floors of buildings.

About seven months later, the worst of the recent disasters came. On April 16, tornadoes ripped across the state, slamming big cities like Raleigh and rural areas alike. Bertie County got the worst of it: Of the 24 people who died in the storms, half were killed in the county. Sixty-seven homes were completely destroyed and scores other suffered major damage. Five months later, the damage is plainly visible, from vacant lots where houses once stood to patches of what used to be woods.

Then came Irene. Compared to the tornadoes, the hurricane wasn’t bad: only two houses completely destroyed, said Artie Johnson, a resident who also was among the volunteers helping with cleanup. But roads were blocked, thousands lost power for days and damage to the tobacco and cotton crops – the two major cash crops in this farming county – is already estimated at around $17 million. Passing by many fields, the damage is plain in rows of tobacco either flattened or bent at crazy angles, the remaining leaves tattered and limp. On Sunday, Gov. Beverly Perdue said Bertie is one of 33 North Carolina counties eligible for federal disaster assistance, meaning families and business owners in those counties can seek low-interest loans or grants to help them recover.

“With the tornado so fresh in everyone’s mind, a lot of people just left and went to hotels when they heard about the hurricane,” Johnson said.

Residents here are resilient, though. It will take more than disasters to get them to think about leaving.

“I love it here,” said Tricia Jernigan. “It’s country. Nobody bothers you. Where else would I go?”

Jernigan was watching Samaritan’s Purse volunteers – some from as far away as Florida – remove a huge old tree, once struck by lightning, that had fallen on a newly built garage, smashing the tin roof and crushing the belongings within. Even so, sitting on a swing on her porch, Jernigan felt lucky.

“We heard it fall over, heard it crash,” she said. “I said, ‘There goes our new garage.’ But nobody was inside. They wouldn’t have made it.”

In downtown Windsor, which has a natural flood danger in the form of the nearby Cashie River and a manmade hazard in the form of a 1950s dam that sends water spilling down King Street during a good storm, the sentiment was the same.

Bunn’s Barbecue is such a landmark that after Nicole, people in other neighborhoods cleaning up their own flood-damaged homes asked visiting reporters: “Is Bunn’s going to reopen?” Bunn’s reopened, of course, as it did after eight previous floods in the time the Russell family has owned it. Irene makes 10, but it won’t be much of a memory.

“We had four inches of water, compared to five and a half feet after Nicole,” said J.W. Russell Jr., who owns the barbecue joint with his brother, Randy. J.W. was spraying sand off the sidewalk in front of Bunn’s, getting ready to reopen. Four inches doesn’t even cause him to break stride; the health inspector had already approved reopening, which J.W. said would likely happen shortly after Labor Day.

“We always try to stay positive, because we know it’s just an act of nature,” Russell said. “And good things happen when you stay positive.”

Back at Jernigan’s, the tree was pulled down from the garage and chopped up. As is customary, the Samaritan’s Purse volunteers gave Tricia a signed Bible and formed a circle for a prayer. The crew chief offered thanks to God for the chance to help the Jernigan family, and then the orange-shirted team was off to the next house and the next debris.

Moments like that are why Johnson volunteers, and why he’s not worried about Bertie County sagging under the pressure of so much trauma in such a short span of time. Once the hurricane debris is cleaned up, then the crews go back to building houses for the tornado victims; as Johnson sees it, it’s just natural.

“It’s like the old saying,” he said. “You’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”

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