This article appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Wildlife Journal. It also appeared in “Surviving the Eye of the Storm: Essays in the Aftermath,” a book compiled by Coastal Carolina Press to benefit those left homeless by Hurricane Floyd.
It received the third place 2001 OWAA Excellence in Craft Award in the Conservation/Environment Magazine category.
At 110 miles per hour, raindrops have the power to break glass. Propelled by hurricane-force winds, they become liquefied bullets. On the eve of Sept. 16, 1999, we were once again under fire.
In spite of the howling wind, I was asleep. Climbing a ladder to armor second-floor windows with sheets of plywood against wind-driven missiles has become a routine occurrence here in Hurricane Alley. My need for rest from such hard labor overpowered my normal response to noise the night Hurricane Floyd arrived.
Wilmington, North Carolina has become Ground Zero for hurricanes. It is located at the “heel” of the Tar Heel State, kicking out into the Atlantic Ocean to snag these awesome storms that brush by more southerly destinations parallel to the coastline.
My wife, Carol, son Justin, and I live in The Tides community. Facing the Atlantic, we are protected from the surf by tiny Masonboro Island. We can ear the roar of the surf when the wind picks up and see waves washing over the dunes to chase sea birds aloft from their rookeries.
Our biggest concern during a hurricane is our marina. Seventy homeowners keep boats moored in a basin adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway. We had frantically removed boats from the marina as sea gulls overhead fled the cloud bands that heralded the approaching storm. Just ten families stayed to ride out Floyd’s fury.
In the last four years, we have been struck by five hurricanes. Houses, utilities, docks, boats and automobiles have been damaged. Lost work hours due to preparation, cleanup and days without electricity have grown beyond counting. The emotional toll is severe when watching a hurricane approach on radar images. Having lived in Wilmington for 21 years, I am used to hurricanes. But preparations for Floyd followed the landfall of Hurricane Dennis by only two weeks. I was already worn out from cleaning up the mess Dennis left when we had to board up again.
Floyd was hyped on the Weather Channel as Storm of the Century. In spite of the apprehension of watching him target us for a week, I was asleep when he roared ashore. A thud and a moan awakened me. Carol had leaped from the bed and tried to hide inside the closet, but hit her head on the doorjamb in the dark. Power grids had been short-circuited by lightning strikes.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Didn’t you hear that tree falling?” she replied. “I thought that one was going to kill us for sure.”
Carol doesn’t sleep during hurricanes. Her preparations of doing all the laundry and buying canned food are less physically demanding than securing boats and boarding windows.
After having eight trees tossed onto our house by five hurricanes in less than four years, Carol fears things that go bump in the night. The trees that hit our house were huge. They included a mockernut hickory, six laurel oaks and a willow oak. After she woke me, I didn’t go back to sleep. We watched the storm’s progress on a batter-operated television until the wind subsided at fawn. Together, we went out to assess the damage.
We were lucky. The falling tree missed our house this time. Justin counted 102 years of growth rings on the shattered loblolly pine. A pine is normally harvested for saw logs at 35 years of age. This old-timer had weathered a dozen hurricanes, including the infamous Hazel. It sprouted before the first automobile arrived in town. But Floyd snapped the pine like a kitchen match.
A squirrel scolded from a top a wooden fence that was bisected by the pine. His home had been a leaf nest in the tree’s branches. Our home was still intact. His was destroyed.
It’s poetic that weather forecasters give names to hurricanes because each has its own personality. The last five to make landfall at my front door were named Bertha, Fran, Bonnie, Dennis and Floyd. Each comes with extraordinary amounts of wind and rain. But how much and how long they visit has a great deal of impact on the amount of human misery these storms create.
Dennis had arrived on Labor Day weekend, which is known as “Opening Day” to my family. We had pulled on our raingear and braved 50-mile-per-hour winds to participate in the season’s first dove hunt.
Anyone who has hunted these rocket-propelled birds can imagine that the shells-fired-per-bird-bagged ration made ammunition manufacturers’ stock prices soar. The doves flew incredibly well, feeding ravenously in the grain stubble to store energy for migrating away from the storm.
Dennis hit, deluged, moved offshore, shifted into reverse and drowned the Coastal Plain again. But his wind-speed was that of a lightweight.
The rivers were full to bridge bottoms when his bully of a brother menaced everyone along the Atlantic Seaboard. Floyd was awesome, nearly a maximum designation of Category Five on the Saffir-Simpson scale. This scale was formulated to allow disaster teams to make evacuation and relieve plans based on the velocity of a hurricane’s winds. A Category Five is the worst o the worst, having winds of at least 155 miles per hour. In non-scientific terms, winds of that velocity will huff and puff and blow your house down. New houses hereabouts are built to withstand winds of 115 miles per hour.
“The storm was large enough to cover four run-of-the-mill states. That is why we elected to stay inside the bull’s-eye. Caution, but experienced, I asked some neighbors who were hurriedly packing their cars so they could leave the immediate coast, “Where are you going to hide?”
In fact, it had been impossible to run. Television showed traffic snarls that left in doubt our ability to get out of town before the storm hit. We decided to take our chances at home, rather than get caught exposed on a flooding highway.
Fortunately, by the time the storm struck, Floyd had diminished above ocean waters cooled by Dennis. What powers the engine of a hurricane is warm water underneath it. This gave us reason for optimism as we went to bed. Floyd’s central eye arrived at our house Sept. 16, 1999 at 2:30 a.m. with winds downgraded to category two – just bad enough to damage residential buildings and uproot trees.
After weathering a night that pounded picture frames off the walls, we removed branches and leaves from boats and automobiles secured in the backyard. We chainsawed the remains of the storm shattered pine. A check of our docks showed they were intact. Bu the marina parking lot was knee-deep in marsh grass and other flotsam from the 12-foot storm surge.
Wind had not been Floyd’s strong point. But what he lacked in punch, he made up for in persistence. Up to 25 inches of rain were dropped onto an already saturated landscape. With nowhere for the water to go, entire towns were flooded for weeks. Over 30,000 homes and 50,000 automobiles were lost.
People died. Eight hundred roads flooded. Two hundred bridges washed away. It took days for water levels to subside enough for most of my neighbors to return to their neighborhood.
After so many storms in such a short while, it seemed there should have been no more trees to blow down. The sad part is, more trees were lost. It didn’t concern me that my shingles had blown off, that my boat’s inner hull was now waterlogged, that the pine tree crushed my wooden fence. Money and labor could replace manmade structures. It hurt far worse that prime specimens of all timberdom, the trees with the fullest crowns and best wildlife values – oaks, hickories, dogwoods, cypresses, longleaf pines – were the trees that caught the most wind and fell.
Attention to human needs was foremost after the storm had passed. However, what damage occurred to our private wildlife refuge and the mobile home that serves as hunting and fishing camp was, to us, a question mark. Our hundred-acre woods were located in the worst area of Floyd’s flooding.
I took two weeks of water levels subsiding before I stood on the bank of Holly Shelter Creek, 40 miles inland in Pender County. I counted 167 years of growth rings exposed in the trunk of a broken overcup oak. The tree had shaded our canoe landing. We sacrificed for years to buy that slice of property. When the deal went through, I hugged that tree. I wanted to cry. Carol did.
It is also a somber event to wildlife to lose an oak. Eighty percent of the oaks in the swamps had been lost to previous storms. Now, half of the remaining twenty percent are gone. Squirrels have been hit hard. Without food and shelter provided by mast-bearing trees, their numbers have decreased by ninety percent. Squirrels won’t return to their former abundance within my lifetime, a shorter span that it takes to grow an oak.
Ducks that formerly landed in our swamps to feed on acorns will have to fly to some other region. Deer were forced to high ground, although some of them died in the floodwaters. We saw survivors feeding by the dozens in our flooded field of rotting corn. On returning to the low areas, they will find only brown, drowned vegetation this winter.
Animals like rabbits and quail were hardest hit, according to Vic French, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Biologist in the Floyd Zone. “The smaller the animal, the worse they suffer,” he said. “They can’t swim far to escape floods like larger animals.”
Everyone seemed worried about black bears, whose future was once grim, but whose numbers have now increased by one thousand percent due to help from wildlife managers like French. Bears climb trees and swim very well. As omnivores, they survived by eating dead animals drifting by on the current.
Since factory-style hog farms and poultry farms have recently proliferated in North Carolina, more than two million farm animals were serving as food for bears and vultures and putrefying the water. Turkey barns flooded and lagoons holding millions of gallons of hog waste were inundated, fouling floodwaters with filth that choked out life-giving oxygen. Organic matter and flooded municipal wastewater plants contributed decomposing nutrients that burned the oxygen from the water.
While terrestrial creatures seem to roll with the punches given by hurricanes, fish are hit really hard. The water line on a surviving cypress at our canoe landing was twenty feet above my head. Everywhere that floodwaters had receded, we could see the remains of bluegills, catfish and largemouth bass. Redbreast sunfish, those living jewels of blackwater streams, had not yet recovered from the population depletion caused by previous hurricanes. It takes four years to grow a redbreast the size of my hand and there were no redbreast alive in Holly Shelter Creek after the floods of Floyd.
Primitive fish like gar and bowfin are adapted to oxygen levels that approach absolute zero. They will last as long as there is a puddle in which to gasp for air.
Chad Thomas, NCWRC Fisheries Biologist in the Floyd Zone, said. “Many individual fish were lost. However, we have to remember that fish evolved to survive events like this. Some find pockets of oxygen where they can survive. It is too early to estimate the damage done by Floyd. But when suitable conditions return, the survivors will repopulate the impacted waters.”
French echoed the assessment in regards to terrestrial animals. “Although small mammals are hardest hit, they also have the highest reproductive potential. Once the water goes back down, they will return to replenish the areas they left. Events like fires and floods are something animals have evolved to live through. It’s nature’s way of starting over again.”
Once spring arrives, the fertile ground left by the retreating floodwaters will generate lush greenery for deer and rabbits to thrive upon. Songbirds will flock to new openings where forests once stood. Insects they feed upon have already hatched out in abundant supply, especially human pests like flies and mosquitoes.
What is important to realize is that animals have been coping with “disasters” such as Hurricane Floyd as long as Mother Earth has cradled them. Creatures survive – some even thrive – with catastrophic change. They evolved to cope with water and wind, no matter the quantity and quality of each element issued to them. They shift their populations to fill a void or vacate a territory that no longer fulfills their needs.
Only human beings draw lines on maps that designate their individual homes – their territories. When a human habitation is destroyed, we label it a disaster. When an animal loses his home, he simply moves to another territory. Animal populations adapt to any situation because once water and air return to “normal” status habitats renew themselves. What is labeled a “natural disaster” by a human being is, to an animal, merely “normal.” Our backyard squirrel simply built a new nest in a surviving dogwood tree.