Uncertainty remains for Florence evacuees in Black Mountain

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Eleven-year-old Whiteville resident Cornelius Bell was only speaking for himself as he sat down for lunch inside Spearman Dining Hall at Christmount Assembly nearly a week after Hurricane Florence came ashore less than 100 miles east of his home, but he could just as well have spoken for the entire State of North Carolina.

“This is something I’ll never forget,” he said next to his 7-year-old brother Jeiel on Sept. 19. “It’s crazy.”

Cornelius Bell, left, sits down for lunch with his little brother Jeiel on Sept. 19 at Christmount. Cornelius called his experience dealing with Hurricane Florence something he will never forget.

The Bells were two of almost 100 people who found themselves seeking shelter at Christmount after Florence caused massive destruction across the state after hitting land on Sept 14. They came to the mountains, a place they had never been, with their mother, baby sister, aunt and cousins.

“I was a little scared,” said a stoic Cornelius. “I didn’t know if a tree would fall on our house or what would happen.”

Cornelius and his family later found out their house was still standing and left relatively unharmed by Florence, but there had been more than enough uncertainty over the previous few days as they waited out the storm at Christmount.

“I was worried we wouldn’t have a house anymore,” Jeiel said.

New Bern resident Keith Jackson was still processing the experience of being displaced by a storm that claimed the lives of dozens of people in the Carolinas and left parts of the area, including the town he lives in with his wife Nada and son Travis, in shambles.

Keith and Nada Jackson eat lunch with their son Travis in the Spearman Dining Hall at Christmount on Sept. 19. The Jacksons fled New Bern the day before Hurricane Florence made landfall and were among the nearly 100 people who took advantage of the Black Mountain conference center's offer of free rooms and food for evacuees.

“An evacuation is like you have 24 hours to gather everything you love,” Jackson said eating lunch at the table over from the Bell brothers. “Then you have to get out. I've never experienced anything like it in my life.”

One more table over Myrtle Beach residents 84-year-old Thayer Hall and his 94-year-old wife and Neoklea recall the seven-hour drive from their home to Black Mountain.

“It would normally be a five-hour drive,” Thayer said. “But it took us seven because there were so many cars on the road since everyone was trying to get away.”

Christmount executive director Rob Morris talks to Thayer and Neoklea Hall, who evacuated their Myrtle Beach, S.C. home ahead of Hurricane Florence.

A steady stream of evacuees is now flowing back east from Christmount, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) conference center in Black Mountain, which offered free rooms and meals for those fleeing Florence.

“If the shoe was on the other foot, how would I want to be treated,” said Christmount executive director Rob Morris, who stepped into the role nearly two years ago. “As we watched the hurricane approaching I thought: ‘If I was in that situation what would I find most helpful?’

“For me it would be a place to stay and food to feed my family,” he continued. “We had the opportunity to provide that.”

Christmount executive director Rob Morris talks about the decision to offer free room and meals to people evacuating their homes due to Hurricane Florence.

The conference center made the offer on social media and reservations immediately began to pour in people ordered to leave their homes. They connected with area businesses to help provide food. 

"We had wonderful support from community partners, like the Black Mountain Ingles and McDonald's, Hopey & Co. and Bounty & Soul," he said. 

Christmount received additional support from Week of Compassion, a relief fund available through the Christian Church. 

"They agreed to cover 50 percent of our expenses," Morris said. "We were extremely grateful for that."

Some evacuees, like the Halls and Bells, made the trip straight to Black Mountain. Others, like the Jacksons, found themselves accepting the offer after paying for hotel rooms for days with no timetable for a return home in sight.

“We left New Bern the day before the hurricane made landfall,” said Keith, who evacuated with his wife, young son and parents. “We stayed at a hotel in Boone with a lot of other evacuees.”

With hotel expenses mounting, Keith who said he's normally reticent when it comes to accepting help from others, was left with no choice by to pack up his family and head down to Christmount. He's glad he did. 

“This isn’t something you can prepare for,” Keith said. “The people here are doing the Lord’s work and I’m grateful they were here to help us.”

The Jacksons monitored the situation in New Bern on television and social media and remained in touch with neighbors who stayed behind. They received word that their home appeared to be undamaged on the outside, but had no way of knowing if the flooding that left the coastal town’s historic district underwater had impacted the interior.

As they prepared to make their way home in the coming days, they weren’t sure what they would see when the arrived.

Eleven-year-old Cornelius Bell, left, and his seven-year-old brother Jeiel, fled their home in Whiteville with their mother, younger sister, aunt and cousins, ahead of Hurricane Florence.

“It’s definitely going to be different,” Nada said.

Keith expressed anxiety about reports of looting in the aftermath of Florence.

"I just hope everything is still there when we get back," he said. 

The uncertainty of what was waiting for them upon their return was a common theme among the evacuees who came to Christmount, said Anne McGuire, director of community outreach and development.

“We've been having around 90 people fill up this dining hall every day for a week," she said. "Yesterday, as the majority of the people were preparing to go home, it was pretty somber."

McGuire spent time with many of the evacuees, who shared their stories about the struggles they were facing as they made their ways home. 

"One family, a husband, who pastors a church, his wife and three young adults, had their house and church destroyed, I believe in Wilmington," she said. "They left (Sept. 18) because he felt that he needed to get back down there to help other people. They weren't even sure they'd be able to get through."

A woman who was came to Christmount from Charleston met a family from Whiteville who lost their home and their car, McGuire said. 

"They could see pictures on the news of rescue boats floating around their house," she said. "They lost everything and the woman left them some money. It was a sweet gesture and they embraced for about five minutes before parting ways."

Others, like the Halls, faced different obstacles when it come to getting home. 

"Our car broke down as soon as we got here," Thayer said. "We had to get it towed and we're waiting for it to be fixed before we can get back home."

A week after Florence first began its assault on the coast, there were still around 30 people remaining at Christmount, according to Morris. Most are anxious to get back home and assess the situation, he said.

"A lot of people are just ready to get back and help clean up their communities," Morris said. "That's something we've heard a lot."

Cornelius and Jeiel aren't necessarily among those in a hurry to return, they said. The experience in the mountains has been one they will always remember. 

"We saw a bear," Jeiel said. "And we got to ride around on a golf cart and see mountains."

Their family also had the opportunity to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway before Florence made its way across the region, the brothers pointed out. 

"It was almost scary," Cornelius said. "But my mom said she was glad we got to do it."

As they prepared to return to Whiteville, Cornelius and Jeiel said they asked their mom if they can come to the mountains every year. 

"It's really been a wonderful experience here," Cornelius said. 

Neoklea called the treatment her and her fellow evacuees experienced at Christmount "fantastic." The Jackson family expressed a similar sentiment. 

"I think everyone here was kind of going through the same thing," Keith said. "We all spent our time making the most of it and trying not to worry about what was happening back home because you can't do anything about it."