At least we weather storms together

Tammie Toler

Hurricanes aren’t supposed to hit West Virginia. We knew that back in 1989, when Hurricane Hugo landed somewhere along the East Coast and traveled a path west and north.

One of Mom’s sixth-grade students at the time reportedly advised her that Hugo was destined to come “right up 77,” which to this day makes me chuckle, as I inevitably envision lightning bolts and clouds battling into Big Walker and East River Mountain tunnels as they approach Bluefield from the south.

The sky was menacing as we prepared for school, anticipating a sloppy day, as the storm rumbled into the region, but none of us expected to catch its wrath.

Even this skeptic had to admit that the clouds were angry as I braved the Friday with a teen’s angst and headed for my seventh-grade gym class.

As I boarded the bus for Princeton Middle School, classmates were abuzz with anticipation. As Bus No. 414 lumbered around what was then Douglas Sporting Goods, some of my bus mates declared they saw the boats floating along the edge of Brush Creek.

Nonetheless, we made it to the school, and the bell clanged us to our first class, where those of us in the gym headed to our dressing rooms. As my group of girls exited our locker room, Coach Skip Ball met us and directed us back to change into our street clothes, because we were going home.

Since these were the days before cell phones, many didn’t know what to do. I was among them. My bus dropped me off at Melrose Square, and I started walking toward the Mom’s elementary school classroom, where she had to wait until each student was headed home. Soon, a classmate’s mom stopped me amid the torrential downpour and offered to drive me to the school.

When we left Mom’s school in her long, wide, golf Fifth Avenue car, the winds were whipping, rain raged, and the roads were all but impassable due to debris, but we couldn’t stay in the school that was being locked up for security. This was a Friday, after all, and we needed to reach home. During the drive. we learned that hurricanes may not come ashore in West Virginia, but given enough wind, they can churn their way here.

Hugo’s wrath rocked that car as if were no more than a toy as we made our way out Pisgah Road and over the country route to my grandparents’ home. I thought we were going to make it there, until we reached a portion of the road that is only about a lane and a half wide.

As we topped a blind hill, a tree blocked the entire stretch. Thwarted, we turned around and went back to a nearby neighbor’s house, where Mom went inside to ask if they knew anything about any of the other nearby routes or ways around the hillside. I stayed in the car, but after a while, the wind started rocking the car so badly that I got scared it was going to get washed away, that a power line would fall across it or that another tree in the heavily wooded area would come careening down atop it. Mom came back and told me we were stuck.

The neighbors in whose driveway we decided to wait out the storm invited us inside. By that time, they were without electricity, but they had shelter. We ultimately accepted and when the winds and rains subsided, Dad brought his chainsaw out to clear a path through our country roads so that we could follow him home. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy to see it.

As I watched the devastation in the Carolinas this week, I knew my experiences paled in comparison. There, retired Marine neighbors have used the military transport vehicles bought at auction to rescue inexperienced with hurricanes from the rivers that deluged their homes. Strong arms and backs have carried women, babies, and even elderly men to safer ground. In Tennessee, a trampoline park turned trampolines into beds for people who needed them. I saw a news crew rescue a dog and name her Florence. They named her pup something that didn’t stick with me. 

A transplanted Florida couple who moved to western North Carolina opened their home to a single person, couple or small family who needed refuge, because they said they had run from their share of Hurricanes and knew the helpless feeling of needing a place to go.

“We’ve fled our share of Hurricanes,” said, Robert Riker, who lives with his family in Waynesville, N.C. “We know the cost of staying in a hotel and having to eat out can quickly add up at a time when anxiety, fear, and uncertainty is high. We just want to offer some relief to someone who has greater worries going on in their life than I do. We’re all in this life together.”

Yes, there was still the Supreme Court debate, the NFL kneeling debacles, and political posturing, but for a brief while, at least Florence helped us remember who we are as humans. It’s a sad thing that it took a hurricane to jar our memories.