By Philip Howard
September, 2018

Hurricane Florence, a Category 4 storm packing 140 mph winds, was churning away in the Atlantic. The forecast indicated she would make landfall on the coast of North Carolina in a few days. Strong winds and coastal flooding were predicted. Ocracoke, where I live, is a narrow sandy island 20 miles from the mainland. Average elevation is about four feet. Evacuations had been ordered, first for visitors, then for residents.

I stayed.

Various family and friends wondered why I would stay. To some it seemed more than foolish. After all, evacuation orders are designed to save lives, and when ignored can have serious consequences. I knew that.

News programs tracking the hurricane described Florence as a “monster storm” that could cause “serious,” “catastrophic,” and “life-threatening” conditions. Reports said a 12-foot storm surge could cause widespread coastal flooding; strong winds could rip roofs from houses.

I have lived on Ocracoke for nearly 50 years, and have weathered many hurricanes and storms. Not a single Ocracoke resident has ever died in a hurricane. But what were the risks involved in this particular storm, I wondered.

I wanted facts and details, not just scary-sounding adjectives and over-hyped weather reports. Would Florence remain a Category 4 storm, or weaken as it approached land? Would the storm be catastrophic for everyone on the coast, or just for those living in sub-standard housing or mobile homes? Would a 12-foot storm surge inundate houses on the barrier islands, or those along rivers on the mainland?

So, I turned to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for some answers. First, I looked at their “Potential Storm Surge Flooding Map (Inundation)” for Hurricane Florence. Although some sections of Ocracoke Island (right along the shoreline) had a forecast of more than three feet of storm surge, only a few areas of the village were identified for even “more than one foot” of flood waters. As vulnerable as the Outer Banks can be, we know that storm waters come ashore, roll over the islands, and flow into the sound. The process is reversed when flood waters return from the mainland.

On the mainland, however, a storm surge will pile up with no other place to go, inundating communities along rivers, streams, and estuaries. The forecast called for more than twelve feet of water there.

Next, I assessed my house. It is more than 150 years old, and had weathered at least three major hurricanes, in 1899, 1933, and 1944, as well as many others, including Matthew in 2016. In 2005 I did a major rehabilitation of the house. We raised the house, screwed six-foot earth augers into the ground, and anchored the floor joists to the augers with heavy chains. All of the exterior siding was removed, additional studs added, hurricane tie-downs nailed to the rafters and top plates, and an underlayment of plywood applied before the siding was re-nailed. The roof was removed, new and larger rafters nailed to the existing rafters, sturdy plywood laid down, and 40-year asphalt shingles installed. The house was never better prepared for a storm.

Still, I was not naïve. A Category 4 storm could be truly catastrophic. What to do? Outdoor furniture, lawn mowers, and other objects had been brought inside or secured. My carpets were rolled up and placed on chairs. The bottom drawers of my filing cabinets were removed and placed on tables. Family and neighbors were beginning to evacuate. My car’s gas tank was filled with fuel. I had a suitcase and daypack ready to throw into my car if I decided to evacuate.

And so I waited a little longer, and monitored Florence’s track.

The last ferries would leave Wednesday morning. On Tuesday the forecasts converged on a near certainty that Florence would turn south before making landfall near Wilmington, NC. Although Ocracoke would probably be hit by the northeast quadrant of the storm (usually with the strongest winds), it looked as if we would just get the outer bands. What to do?

I knew that hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists would be fleeing from the storm. I was sure that fuel would be scarce, lodging along the way hard to find, and traffic often snarled. I didn’t want to be stranded in a low-lying flood plain. Fatal accidents were a definite possibility. I remembered leaving for Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Although Ocracoke fared well then (as it usually has), it was a nightmare trying to return home. Storm surge and rainfall had flooded nearly all of eastern North Carolina mainland.

We humans are notoriously bad at rational risk assessment. Although many people are afraid of lightning, sharks, or flying, driving on the Interstate at 70 mph, something we do routinely, is one of the most dangerous things we do. I decided to try to think clearly about this situation. Which was less risky…staying on Ocracoke during the storm or driving on the highway for 400 or more miles?

I decided to stay.

The extra time had a number of benefits. It gave me an opportunity to make additional last-minute preparations, including boarding up some windows. I wouldn’t have to drive for hours in an exhausted state. And I could at least make repairs after the storm passed.

I was fully aware that emergency services would be non-existent, and I would have to deal with any injuries or misfortunes myself. I was not expecting others to put their lives in danger for me.

As it turned out, Hurricane Florence had only minimal impact on Ocracoke. Winds did not exceed Tropical Storm velocity, no tidal storm surge inundated the village, and only a few tree limbs were downed. We continued to have municipal water, and power was out for only a few short periods. I know it could have been worse, and some people will continue to think I made a poor decision. That may be, but I will live with it. I respect everyone’s decision in these situations. No one has a crystal ball, and it is never easy or clear what to do. Some leave, some stay. My daughter and grandson, among many others, decided to leave. It was the right decision for them.

I might make a different decision next time, but I am content with the decision I made this time.

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The “Hurricane House” sits at the end of a sandy lane, overlooking Pamlico Sound. Built about 1900, it is a traditional “story and a jump” house with a rear ell. Now a summer cottage, the Hurricane House was rebuilt in 1986 after a severe hurricane tore across the island.

The “Hurricane House”:
Hurricane House

The Hurricane House is a rustic cottage without central heat or air conditioning. Furnishings are simple and basic. There is no television or Internet access. This is an authentic, no-frills island getaway where guests kick off their shoes, open a book, and relax on the screened porch to watch the ferries pass by and savor some of the most spectacular sunsets in the world.

The Entrance Door to the Hurricane House:
Hurricane House Door

An interesting feature of this house (and how it got its name) is a hand-written account of the 1933 hurricane that is penciled on the kitchen wall. These words, now faded and barely legible, are the one remaining account of four that were written on the walls. The other three were lost when the house stood empty for several years, and by damage to the house from the 1986 storm.

Fortunately Dr. William V. Burlingame of Hillsborough, North Carolina visited the house forty years ago, photographed the storm accounts, and recorded his impressions and observations. Dr. Burlingame’s photographs, transcriptions of the accounts, and his report are reproduced below. Dr. Burlingame’s photographs and narratives are all copyright, William V. Burlingame, 2012.

The Account of the August, 1933 Hurricane:
August 1933 Hurricane
(Click on photo, [(C) William V. Burlingame] to view a larger, more legible image.)

HURRICANE
Aug. 22-23
1933

Storm warning 6 P.M. Aug. 21
N.E. wind all night.
Barometer falling.
Aug. 22
Mail boat started to Atlantic,
but returned. Inlet too rough.
Strong N.E. wind until about 11 A.M.
Walked to beach during lull in storm
to view washed up “Victoria”,
wrecked 1925. Water knee-deep
between village and beach.
Storm warning in afternoon.
Barometer falling. Tide very high.
5 P.M. water coming into yard.
10 P.M. water to second step.
Mid-night water to sills.
Barometer 29.51
Aug. 23
3 A. M. wind shifted to N.W.,
4 A. M. wind shifted to W.
Barometer 29.06.
8 A.M. wind shifted to S.W.
Water dropping, barometer
rising.
Major damage
Front of Anderson cottage
blown out.
Lum Gaskill’s fish-house
washed out to sea.
Gary Bragg’s dock gone.
Pamlico Inn dock badly
damaged. Dance hall at end
of dock swept away.
In the lake, the “Marie” badly
damaged and sunk, the “Eleanor M.”
slightly damaged.
Bad mess at the government dock.
Most small boats in the lake sunk or smashed up
Debris all over the island.

The Account of the September, 1933 Hurricane:
September 1933 Hurrricane
(Click on photo [(C) William V. Burlingame] to view a larger, more legible image.)

HURRICANE
Sept. 15-17
1933

Worst storm in memory of oldest
living inhabitant.
Wind estimated at Hatteras at
122 m.p.h. Barometer fell to 28.28.
lowest known locally.
Saturday A.M., Sept. 16, tide flooded island.
Many people took refuge in light
house.
Water stood 7 inches above floor in
this cottage. Porch torn off by wind
and tide and demolished. Roof over
cistern blown off. Fence swept away.
Surf against front of house reached
the eaves.
In the lake, “Eleanor M.” run down
by oil tanker, blown up on shore,
stove in and sunk. Salvaged later.
Capt. Ike’s freight boat beached a few yards
from post office. Too badly damaged to
salvage. Another schooner, the “Tucker,”
lodged in cedars near John Gaskins home.
Later broken up for fire-wood. Practically
all small boats in the lake damaged.
Many tore loose from stakes and were
scattered all over the island.
Worst damage to trees.
Practically all cedars and many
ancient live oaks were either up-
rooted or killed by salt water.
No lives lost on Ocracoke.
Family left island Sept. 7. Reports
obtained from Islanders.
Summer of 1934 spent repairing
damage to house and boats.

The Account of the September, 1944 Hurricane:
1944 Hurricane
(Click on photo [(C) William V. Burlingame] to view a larger, more legible image.)

GREAT ATLANTIC HURRICANE
——————————-SEPT. 14, 1944
STORM WARNINGS SEPT 13. DAY CALM AND HOT. IN EVENING 14 FISH BOATS CAME INTO
LAKE FOR SHELTER.
SEPT 14 — 5:A.M. WIND RISING, N.E. AT 7:00 A.M. WIND REACHED 75 KNOTS. ANOMOMETER
ON WATER TOWER AT NAVAL BASE CARRIED AWAY. LATER WIND ESTIMATED AT OVER 100 KNOTS
BAROMETER 28.40 AT 7:30 A.M. WIND SHIFTED TO N.W. 14 FOOT TIDE.
ISLAND COMPLETELY UNDER WATER. MOST FISH BOATS BLOWN FAR ASHORE CAUSING
CONSIDERABLE DAMAGE TO BOATS, DOCKS, AND HOUSES. MAIL BOAT TOSSED ASHORE
CLOSE TO COFFEE SHOP. SIX HOUSES COMPLETELY DEMOLISHED. PAMLICO INN DAMAGED
BEYOND REPAIR. EXTENSIVE DAMAGE DONE TO GARY BRAGG’S HOME.
THREE FEET OF WATER POUNDED THROUGH THIS COTTAGE. PORCH BLOWN OFF AND FRONT
WINDOWS, SHUTTERS AND DOOR BLOWN IN. PRACTICALLY ALL FURNITURE UPTURNED
AND MUCH OF IT WASHED INTO KITCHEN. SIDE KITCHEN WINDOW SMASHED. FRONT
ROOM FLOOR TORN UP.
9:25 A.M. — WIND VELOCITY DROPPING. COMPLETELY CALM BY 12:30 P.M.
WORST STORM EVER TO STRIKE ISLAND. NO LIVES LOST.

The Account of the August, 1949 Hurricane:
1949 Hurricane
(Click on photo [(C) William V. Burlingame] to view a larger, more legible image.)

“Harry’s Hurricane”
August 24, 1949

Storm warnings Aug 23. Wind rising 0430 NNE. Velocity estimated
60 knots 0800. Barometer Reading 29.14. Winds increasing 0900 estimated
80 knots. Water coming up road in front of house. Everything secure
at 0910. John Gaskill in water up to waist 40 ft in front of house.
Almost swept away. “Aleta” and “Lindsay C. Warren” did not sail.
Jeep drowned out at Scarborough’s Store. Wind NE, 80 knots at 0915.
Wind shifted NNW at 60 knots 0945. Rain slackened. Tide going
out slowly. Storm shudders [sic] up at Kuglers, not up here.
Water in the streets, debris over island. Bridge washed out over
At Aunt Minnies gut [Aunt Winnie’s gut]. Is belived [sic] we got tail-end of hur [hurricane]. Just as
The man for whom named — ineffectual!

The Hurricane Boards, (c) William V. Burlingame, Ph.D.:

I can date my early encounters with the hurricane boards to the mid-1970s when an island resident first showed me the boards in the seemingly abandoned Folger cottage in the Down Point district of Ocracoke village. To reach the cottage we had to push through dense brush and navigate a collapsing porch to reach an interior room where the narratives were carefully and legibly written in pencil on a whitewashed wall of vertical pine planks. It required two flashlight beams for me to focus my camera, but I was able to capture the narratives on black-and-white film on that fall day. I returned to Ocracoke a year later and photographed the narratives in color. Unfortunately they had deteriorated considerably. The roof was leaking, the floor was shaky, and the whitewash was flaking off. Portions of the narratives were no longer legible, and I can remember thinking that they would not endure much longer. I then returned a year or so later — only to discover that someone had cut the pine planks and taken several of the relevant boards. I wondered if anything of worth could have survived the removal from that wall — given their fragile condition of the year previous. They are indeed still missing, as attested by an inquiry in “The Mullet Wrapper,” the newsletter of the Ocracoke Preservation Society. In the Spring 2003 issue there was a newsletter item requesting their return. The cottage itself had been moved a short distance to the sound and was renovated in 1986. It is known as “The Hurricane House” and serves as a weekly rental cottage. A careful examination of an interior wall reveals that one of the narratives has survived as a two-line very faint notation of one of the storms. The hurricane narratives are also partially reprinted in Alton Ballance’s Ocracokers (1989).

As of this writing, there is some verified history regarding the origin of the boards. Oral tradition held that the cottage was owned and maintained by a UNC faculty member and his family who came to Ocracoke during the summers for many years. It is said that the cottage was built about 1900 and was purchased in the 1920s by Ray and Eleanor Mosher. Ray was indeed on the faculty of UNC, and one of the narratives notes that the family left on September 7, 1933, following their summer on Ocracoke. Information regarding that September storm was secured at a later point from islanders. An analysis of the several texts suggests that they were crafted by educated persons whose spelling was nearly totally accurate and who observed the niceties of punctuation and grammar — even though various abbreviations, ellipses, local expressions, nautical terms, and place names appear. Eleanor Mosher was a social activist ahead of her times and it was she who reportedly documented the two hurricanes of 1933. This history was provided to Julia Howard, the museum director in 2003, when she interviewed Paul Mosher (one of Ray and Eleanor’s two sons). According to Paul, the Moshers had acquired the cottage in the 1920s from a Gallagher family for $1000, and sold it to the Folgers in 1945 or 1946. From the Folgers the property proceeded to its present owners, the Woodwells.

Based on stylistic differences in the handwriting as well as the history provided to Julia Howard, there appear to have been three authors. According to Paul Mosher, the 1933 narratives were written by his mother, Eleanor Mosher, while the 1944 narrative was drafted by a navy lieutenant who was stationed on Ocracoke and resided in the cottage during wartime. It was he who documented this worst of storms  (in capitals, unlike the earlier narratives). The author of the 1949 narrative is not known. He or she is the only author who uses the military convention for recording time, while he also mentions that a bridge has been washed out at “Aunt Minnie’s gut.” “Gut” has a seventh order definition as a narrow waterway and may have been used primarily as a nautical term; this author also made the unusual error of rendering “shutters” as “shudders.” Collectively, the authors were impressed with the force and devastation of these tropical storms — detailing their fury and destructive power and characterizing these qualities by the choice of colorful adjectives and verbs and in the recitation of damage. As noted. the narratives appeared to have been written in pencil on whitewash. Two of them are inscribed on a single plank while the other two span two planks. In places the accounts are additionally colored by the whorls of sap from pine knots which have leaked through and into the whitewash. That one author was an informed and educated man is further suggested by his apparently droll sense of humor. He documents a relatively  weak 1949 hurricane which he identifies as “Harry’s Hurricane.” He then proceeds to characterize it as “ineffectual,” “as the man for whom named.” There is no further clue as to the identity of “Harry.” but perhaps this is a reference to Harry Truman, then President of the United States, and seen by some at the time as a tepid successor to the deceased Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The images of the hurricane boards were made in 1975 with a Nikon F2 fitted with a Nikon 1.4/50 mm. lens using Kodak Tri-X film. The film was developed and printed in my Hillsborough darkroom. The narratives have also been commemorated in a folk lyric by J. Michael Bramble which is included as “Storm Board” on “Ivanhoe Sessions,” by Bramble and Sunderman. 1988.

————————————————————————-

Dr. Bill Burlingame has donated photographic prints of the four hurricane narraties, together with information panels, to the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum. Bill is a retired Clinical Professor of Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently in private practice in Chapel Hill in a practice which serves children, adolescents, and families. As noted, he photographed the penciled inscriptions in the 1970s. The images were printed by Andrew Stinson of Greensboro.

We have learned that the tropical storm that passed over Ocracoke in August of 1949 had hit Florida a few days earlier. Because President Harry Truman was visiting Florida at the time, the storm became widely known as Harry’s Hurricane, just as Dr. Burlingame suggests.

Two small streams (or “guts”) originally flowed from Silver Lake Harbor (Cockle Creek), and divided Ocracoke village into two sections, Down Point (on the lighthouse side) and Around Creek (on the Howard Street side). Wooden foot bridges spanned the guts. The bridges were buried when the Navy dredged the harbor in 1942 and filled in the guts. The 1949 storm uncoved (or “washed out”) the bridge that spanned Aunt Winnie’s Gut (named after “Aunt” Winnie Blount, who lived near the gut).

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