Julia Peacock of Belhaven, North Carolina, surveys damage from Hurricane Irene.

[imgcontainer right] [img:6100263608_1e9be4e24c_z.jpg] [source]Max Rose[/source] Julia Peacock of Belhaven, North Carolina, surveys damage from Hurricane Irene. [/imgcontainer]

Many years ago, a visiting preacher was rumored to have placed a curse on the town of Belhaven, N.C., after his revival service ended in controversy. Local residents could easily say that experiencing an earthquake, tornado, and hurricane within the same week proved the legend true. Yet, what you will instead hear folks say is that “God is good all of the time.”

Several residents expressed that personal faith to my colleague Max Rose, as he reported in Daily Yonder from Belhaven three days after Hurricane Irene scraped along the East Coast. I accompanied Max in taking a look at the storm’s aftermath in my hometown. 

If you live in Belhaven, as I did both as a youngster and later as a community development program manager, you know that a mandatory evacuation is anything but mandatory. No one goes around the town, knocks on every door, and insists that residents leave immediately. Instead, the mayor issues a strongly worded statement in which he tells you it would be in your best interest to evacuate. That’s all he feels he can do.

It is true that he cannot force anyone to leave his or her home. Many folks in Belhaven would rather rely on the Almighty than their fellow man, let alone their local government officials, who well understand this sentiment and leave those residents who choose to remain in town under the watchful eye of their creator.

So is a prayer the only thing one can offer to those who rely on their faith to survive a storm’s wrath? With thoughts of my dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, and those people who helped shape my childhood, I can’t help but say, “No.” There is always something more that can be done.

The mayor and his staff have a difficult task in trying to provide for the well-being of their constituents. I do not mean to imply otherwise. I also do not mean to imply that I have all of the answers.

I do, however, have family and friends in Belhaven. I also have a perspective formed by my own experiences there during hurricanes. I can’t see where much has changed over the years, with respect to disaster readiness.

The mayor’s impassioned plea for everyone to evacuate was sincere. However, it was delivered on a local cable channel. Many residents focused their attention on local news channels for updates on Irene’s path. There may have been others who do not have cable at all. A lack of dependable communication can create gaps in true preparedness.

With the absence of an available shelter within approximately 10 miles, could a building such as the Charles O. Boyette Civic Center have served in that capacity? It is elevated in a manner that most likely would not allow flooding, and is equipped with both bathrooms and a functional kitchen. Despite the loss of electricity, a functional kitchen would have allowed space to store things such as canned goods, water, medications, and other needed items. There is space adequate enough to house a number of cots for those residents who truly have nowhere else to go. 

Was there enough time to speak with residents about preparing an emergency tool kit? Did we simply assume everyone possessed an oil lamp or large flashlight? Did we assume everyone had canned food items? Most people are merely able to think of today’s meal. Do they have any “extra” food?

Power was restored with relative quickness. Most businesses re-opened within a couple of days. Yet, a few days later, life had returned to only a slight sense of normalcy for most people there. Children were not to return to school until September 6. Folks continue to talk about the tornado with amazement. The loss of electricity forced many to have food spoilage. Some residents suffered water and roof damage to their homes. 

Neighbors continue to try to assess physical losses while grappling with emotions that range from appreciation to utter frustration. All in all, though, we were still very blessed—no one in Belhaven died in Irene.  

The folks of Belhaven are strong, an attribute that was born from our faith. To be better prepared for what may happen the next time Mother Nature is having a bad day, we may want to combine it with something else God has blessed us with – common sense.

Tiki T. Windley is a program manager at MDC, a nonprofit organization in Durham, N.C., that develops programs focused on expanding opportunity, reducing poverty, and addressing structural inequities, with special attention to rural people and places.

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