Pantego ‘queen’ aids with storm recovery

Published 12:55 am Thursday, September 8, 2011

Miss Independence Elizabeth Harris sweeps the sidewalk in front of Gingerbread Bakery on Main Street in Belhaven following Hurricane Irene. (Contributed Photo)

Elizabeth Harris, the reigning Miss Independence, shatters any preconceived notions that she could be anything like a stereotypical “beauty queen.”

For starters, the titleholder, who will celebrate her 19th birthday Sept. 19, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She did just that recently helping Belhaven residents clean up damages left behind by Hurricane Irene.

Her efforts didn’t end there. She met with Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal and members of the Town Council to help her better understand the difficulties the community faces. She then volunteered her time to answer telephones and accept pledges during a telethon hosted by WITN-TV in its Greenville studios. The telethon raised funds to help eastern North Carolina in its hurricane-recovery efforts.

Harris, the daughter of Walter and Lisa Harris of Pantego, returned to her Beaufort County home after the storm, driving up from Wilmington, where she is studying dental hygiene at Cape Fear Community College.

Harris said she wasn’t prepared for what she found.

“I was really kind of in awe,” Harris said of seeing Belhaven for the first time after the storm. “Belhaven has flooded a lot in the past, but to see the damages to local businesses like O’Neal’s Snack Bar and Edgewater Motors was really devastating.”

Harris said she was heartened by what she saw in the post-hurricane actions of Belhaven-area residents.

“It was very reassuring to see how many people were out working to help get things back to order as soon as possible, to get Belhaven back like it is supposed to be,” she said.

Harris was crowned Miss Independence during Belhaven’s traditional July 4 festivities earlier this summer. With the title came a glittering crown, a generous college scholarship and the opportunity to serve as a sort of goodwill ambassador for the town.

Her initial foray into the world of beauty pageants surprised Harris.

“I was an athlete before then, and you could not have told me I’d ever do a pageant,” she said with a laugh.

Brandy Lee Grimes and Melissa Smith, directors of the Miss Independence competition and pageant winners themselves, convinced Harris to enter her first pageant in 2008. She didn’t place that year, but she was bitten by the pageant bug, enjoying meeting other young women from throughout the area and savoring the thrill of competition.

While parading onstage in a swimsuit and high heels may have seemed foreign to Harris, competition wasn’t. After all, she excelled as a member of Northside High School’s basketball, softball and cross-country teams.

Her first Miss Independence pageant experience was so rewarding, Harris said, that she decided to return, finishing as second runner-up in both 2009 and 2010. She gave it one more try and won the 2011 crown.

Harris has also entered the Princess of Cape Fear pageant, winning the first runner-up award and a spot in the Princess of North Carolina state finals held in Goldsboro. She is planning to compete for the Princess of Mule City title in an event to be held in Benson next month.