ROCKY MOUNT — Hurricane shelters in Rocky Mount and Wilson were unexpectedly crowded Friday with migrant workers fleeing inland from their jobs as seafood pickers near the coast.
Buses dropped off workers from Columbia, along the Scuppernong River and Albemarle Sound, at Red Cross emergency shelters in Rocky Mount and Wilson on Friday afternoon, ahead of Hurricane Irene.
Fifty-two workers came to the Rocky Mount shelter at Englewood Baptist Church, on one bus arranged by their employer, Captain Charlie's Seafood, Inc. The evacuees are primarily from Mexico, working in the state on a six-month contract with the company.
The 52 workers joined 23 other evacuees who stayed in the Rocky Mount shelter Thursday night. The shelter will continue to take in people throughout the weekend, despite already being over capacity.
"We will let them in and do what we can do for them," said Ron Ashby, the Red Cross volunteer working at the shelter. "We won't turn anybody away ... we'll just take it as it comes."
None of the workers speak English; the Red Cross had to call in an interpreter, Edith Serrano, from Nash County Department of Social Services to register them and collect emergency contact and family information.
A bus load of people
When the county called her in to assist, Serrano was expecting to encounter four or five migrant workers, not a bus load.
"When I got into that room, I was like 'Whoa, a whole room packed with Hispanic women,'" she said.
Registering the evacuees took about two hours, and she stayed to assist Red Cross volunteers at the shelter throughout the day to make announcements and let the workers know when meals would arrive. Serrano said she's not sure when or how all the workers will get back down to Columbia after the storm.
Mariana Sauceda, 52, along with her niece and some co-workers, were trying to nap on one of the cots set up in the Baptist church's gym Friday afternoon.
She picks meat from oysters at Captain Charlie's, and was glad she was evacuated from the shore.
"For them it's good because it's a lot safer here for them; their safety comes first," Serrano said, interpreting for Sauceda.
This isn't Sauceda's first hurricane. She has been coming to North Carolina to pick seafood for about 10 years and remembers Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
"You're always going to be a little scared because of the uncertainty, but you just have to leave it in God's hands," she said through Serrano.
50 show up in Wilson
More Hispanic workers piled into the Red Cross shelter in Wilson, 20 miles south of Rocky Mount.
About 50 migrant workers from Lake Mattamuskeet, in Hyde County near Pamlico Sound, were dropped off by their employer, Mattamuskeet Seafood.
The Red Cross shelter at Raleigh Road Baptist Church had no evacuees Thursday night, but when the migrant workers arrived, it expanded the shelter into an old sanctuary area.
"With this, you never know how many you may get; you may get 50, you may get two," said shelter manager Brenda Pender.
Edi Ovardo is a crab picker in Lake Mattamuskeet and was bused to Wilson with his wife Friday.
Ovardo has been picking crabs there for over a decade, and weathered Hurricane Isabel in a shelter inside of a school. The shelter at Raleigh Road Baptist is much nicer, he said.
By late Friday afternoon, the number of people at the Rocky Mount shelter had grown. Some residents from Tyrrell County arrived in a senior citizen van paid for by the county.
She needs oxygen
Carolyn Harrison, 73, left her mobile home in Gum Neck, just outside Columbia, only because she needs to be able to plug in her oxygen machine.
"I've got too many things going on in this old body," Harrison said. "If it weren't for medical reasons, I wouldn't have left."
Harrison has seen many hurricanes; Irene doesn't worry her. Her sister, Pearl Selby, however, was a little more concerned.
"They kept talking about how those winds are going down, and I got scared, so I left," said Selby, 77.
The sisters and their two friends brought their Bible studies and crossword puzzles to keep them busy at the shelter over the weekend.
While sitting at a round table, their bags surrounding them, the women reminisced about the delight that a cup of coffee and their backyard view of Gum Neck brings after a good rain.
"It's a little miracle," Selby said.
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