After Irene, life goes on for victims

Published 1:11 am Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Neal O’Neal, owner of O’Neal’s Drug Store in Belhaven, points Tuesday to the high water mark left by Hurricane Irene. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

BELHAVEN  — It seems everyone in Beaufort County has a Hurricane Irene story.

On Tuesday, these individual stories continued to emerge — stories of people wading into chest-deep-or-higher water to divert surge-driven debris from their homes, stories of people whose houses were smashed by falling trees.

Some people who live on the Pamlico River watched huge waves roll into their yards and water gush under their doors. Others listened to the roofs being rolled off their businesses, and they scrambled to save what was left of their stock after the storm pulled out of eastern North Carolina on Saturday.

A few of these stories have already been told in the pages of the Daily News, but there are many more to be told.

Located on the Pungo River and Pantego Creek, Belhaven was near the eye of the storm, and this town has plenty of stories to tell.

Joyce Ebron is an account technician with the town’s government.

As Irene barreled toward the coast Friday, Ebron evacuated to her brother’s house in Greenville. Her brother’s house lost power Saturday as the hurricane whipped through the east.

“Normally, when we go to his house, the power doesn’t go out,” Ebron said Tuesday. “But it went out this day.”

Ebron returned home Sunday afternoon to find water had intruded under her house on Elm Street. A tree fell on a home two streets away.

“It’s like those great big, old trees that are 200 or 300 years old, those are the ones it uprooted,” she said.

Ebron has lived in Belhaven since 1988.

Irene was the worst storm she’d seen since moving here, she said.

Forty-two inches of water sloshed into O’Neal’s Drug Store in Belhaven during Irene’s passage.

The water was higher inside the store than it was during Hurricanes Fran and Bertha in 1996, Hurricane Bonnie in 1998 and Tropical Storm Dennis in 1999, said Neal O’Neal, owner of the store.

In addition to the flooding, Irene unleashed an aerial assault.

“We have this (flooding) and, generally, we have just water in here,” O’Neal explained. “Of course, it goes out. But this time the roof blew off. We had water that was coming in from the top that was raining on the stuff that we had put upstairs for safekeeping.”

O’Neal’s lost $25,000 to $30,000 worth of stock in its refrigerator alone.

Damaged goods, shelving, display cases and a Pepsi machine lined the sidewalk in front of the store, mirroring the wet carpet, couches and boxes that had been placed out on sidewalks around town. Workers labored on replacing a window that had been knocked out of O’Neal’s.

“So, we’ve had quite a few days,” O’Neal said. “It’s better today than it was yesterday.”

And this was the theme of the day: cleaning up, starting to recover and trying to move on in the wake of Irene’s punishments.

Though business as usual might not return for a couple of months, the drug store was partially open Monday and fully open Tuesday. O’Neal expects his store to be restocked by the end of this week.

He praised the Town of Belhaven for restoring electric power by Sunday afternoon, despite the incursion of water and the destruction of trees and utility lines.

On Tuesday, neighbors were helping neighbors, dump trucks were hauling limbs out of the immediate area and the American Red Cross was serving 600 military meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, to people who needed them.

“I think as far as the community itself, I think everyone has kind of pulled together,” O’Neal said.

Town Manager Guinn Leverett might agree with that statement.

The town government is “on an even keel, running at a pace that we can maintain,” he said.

The town had its own workers plus a contractor’s three trucks and four men on standby before Irene roared through. The power was restored relatively soon because these crews were on go and able to solve most — but not all — of Belhaven’s power issues in a hurry, Leverett related.

“I hate to use the phrase well-oiled machine, but I feel a whole lot more comfortable now,” he said.

Though a state of emergency, declared Friday before the storm, remained in place Tuesday, life seemed to be getting closer to normal on Main Street.

And, though the weather was extremely hazardous as Irene’s western eyewall bashed Belhaven and eastern Beaufort County on Saturday, there reportedly were no lives lost in Belhaven or elsewhere in Beaufort County as a result of the storm.