Recovering from the disaster: he understands what a community is to him

By Edward Trentzsch

With his friends hollering in the back seat, Carson O’Neal slams down on the gas pedal in his tan Jeep Wrangler. South Point Road is a dirt path on the southern edge of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, cutting through beautiful marshlands to an empty beach where summer seems to last forever. Potholes inhabit the dirt road like land mines on a battlefield, yet O’Neal swerves around them with ease.

This island is his home, and his roots run deeper than even the largest pothole.

O’Neal descends from a long lineage of Ocracoke history. During the 1700s, O’Neal’s ancestor worked on a “pilot” boat where he and other sailors helped guide English ships through the harbor. Seven sailors fell in love with the island and refused to leave, choosing to instead remain on Ocracoke and start new lives. People have come and gone in the 300 years since those original seven men built their homes on the island, but the O’Neal family has remained.

“My family has been here for a while, which has made me feel even closer to his place,” O’Neal said. “Ocracoke is the kind of place where you feel close to the people who you aren’t even close with.”

O’Neal is now a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Sports Administration. Every time he feels the stress caused by exams or homework, O’Neal closes his eyes and thinks back to the rush of wind streaming through his windows as he accelerates down the marsh. He can still smell the warm salt air and see the sun sinking into the Atlantic Ocean after a long day.

Also, he can still feel the terror from two years ago when a single storm threatened to wipe out the home he loves.

The Catastrophe

In September of 2019, Hurricane Dorian laid waste to Ocracoke Island. A 7.4-foot storm surge caused waters to rise to unprecedented heights, creating the largest floodwaters on the island since 1944. Dorian decimated the local village as more than a third of all buildings in Ocracoke were severely damaged. Cars and debris floated down the damaged highways like fish in the ocean as local families watched their life’s work quickly drift away.

In the midst of this tragedy where all hope seemed lost, the bonds of a small community rose from the debris to renew the hope.

The village of Ocracoke contains around 700 permanent residents and is accessible by ferry or private boat. Locals spend the year hoping the winter can pass quickly so they can reap the benefits of tourism in summer.

Ocracoke School is the only school on the entire island, where O’Neal graduated in 2017 as valedictorian of the largest class in history. He graduated with 18 other students.

“Whenever I came to college, it was really the first time in my life where I ever had to make friends,” Darvin Contreras, a current junior at UNC and Ocracoke native, said. “Growing up, everyone feels the same sense of community.”

That day

In September of 2019, O’Neal took his usual seat in an auditorium at UNC-Chapel Hill as he waited for his morning class to start. His phone lightly buzzed in his pocket, signaling a Snapchat from his sister Katie.

After opening the notification, O’Neal quickly gathered his things and walked out of class. He needed fresh air to combat the panic quickly coursing through his body.

The Snapchat revealed the immense flood-waters that were quickly pouring into the ground floor of his family home. The O’Neal family have endured plenty of hurricanes during their time on the island, and after evacuating to Greensboro for Hurricane Florence in 2018, they decided to wait this one out at home.

Inclement weather is a part of life on Ocracoke, but no one could have prepared for the devastation Dorian would bring.

“I remember sitting on our steps and feeling complete shock as the animals ran up to the higher floor,” Sue O’Neal, Carson’s mother, said.

When the water finally receded, the serene island community had been transformed into an apocalyptic nightmare.

“Seeing people again was like looking at walking death,” Sue O’Neal said. “It was complete devastation.”

“So it brought everyone together in grief…”

Hurricane Dorian caused significant damage to 88 of 105 businesses on Ocracoke, something the O’Neal family experienced firsthand. Growing up, O’Neal would look forward to the days following a high school baseball game, when his dad would treat the entire team to breakfast at their family restaurant, the Pony Island Restaurant. No matter if they win or lose, the memories come along with laughers of friends and the taste of pancake and grits made them look forward to every baseball game.

However, over the course of one day, Dorian had completely flooded his parent’s business and replaced the smell of breakfast with the stench of black mold.

Immediately after the hurricane, Ocracoke residents held community dinners every night at the fire station to feed those without access to food. People from other Outer Banks towns used boats to reach the island and distribute drinking water and clean clothes to those in need.

Ocracoke shares a bond few other communities in North Carolina could understand, a bond strengthened through a shared faith inside this close community.

“You could see in everyone’s eyes that we all knew something terrible had happened, so it brought everyone together in grief,” Kyle Tillett, a student at East Carolina University and Ocracoke native, said.

There is no Home Depot on Ocracoke. What the island lacks in resources, it makes up with in compassion.

With the help of their neighbors, the O’Neal family gutted their entire ground floor and built it back better than before. After receiving donations from family and the American Red Cross, the Pony Island Restaurant reopened its doors on Memorial Day of 2020.

Two years after Hurricane Dorian, O’Neal estimates that nearly 90% of the community has rebuilt from the ruins. Every few months, O’Neal returns home to Ocracoke and drives his Jeep up South Point Road with the same friends he grew up with in the back seat. The scars of Dorian are still imprinted on the small island community, but every mile forward reflects another step towards healing from the past.

“For people who grow up on the island, we are raised to persevere through hard times,” O’Neal said.

Edited by Wendy Jin