AURORA — Annie Grimes coughed softly into a mask as she sifted through a container of soaked papers anchoring her and three generations to this Beaufort County town on the Pamlico River.
Her daughter's birth certificate. A wedding certificate for another child. And the deed for the house on Railroad Street that she and her husband bought as newlyweds in 1978.
"I been pulling and tugging since Sunday," said Grimes, 69. "I'm wore out."
Hurricane Irene flooded much of this town of 550 people 14 days ago. About one of five families have been uprooted since, bunking with family and friends by night while they sort through the wreckage by day. They are tired and confused and sick about the storm they thought was too weak to rival any they had survived in decades past.
"We underestimated her," said Terry Groome, Aurora's public works director and the local coordinator for storm cleanup.
The 14 days since Irene have brought mold, mosquitoes, looters, insurance adjusters, federal emergency workers with volumes of paperwork and kindly American Red Cross workers with containers of hot meals.
In the middle of town, piles of waterlogged furniture and trash grow by the houras residents clean up Aurora. Soon, officials hope temporary trailers furnished byFEMA will be set up in a field across the way to house the displaced.
Residents in this small community heard talk on the national news about all the Hurricane Irene "hype" and wonder why those reporters haven't come to see them. They heard complaints about the subway system being temporarily suspended in New York as they stared at their waterlogged cars in the yard.
"It seems like Eastern North Carolina has been forgotten," said Mark Harmon, police chief of Aurora. "Maybe it's because we're too poor."
Hard life made harder
Unlike some of their coastal neighbors north and south, residents here often struggle to make ends meet. They fish through fickle weather or work for the community's largest employer, PCS Phosphate, which operates a huge surface mine here. Some drive 45 minutes to jobs as home health aids or factory workers in Washington.
Irene battered communities such as Aurora near inland rivers and sounds, threatening what little stability some residents had. Winds uprooted stately trees that crushed homes and blocked roads, and brought flooding the likes of which hasn't been seen in decades.
Residents now point to water marks in their homes as high as four feet; some tell of dramatic escapes in which they swam to higher ground through neck-deep water. Many had stayed home, ignoring suggestions they leave as they watched forecasters downgrade Irene's intensity from a Category 3 storm to Category 1 as it approached the coast.
Grimes was too stubborn to evacuate before the storm. She had survived storms that weathermen had deemed more fierce. But, as the water rushed into her home Aug. 27, Grimes climbed atop the sofa and chairs to keep from being swept away.
Now, it is mold chasing her away.
She and others along Railroad Street in Aurora have sought refuge with neighbors lucky enough to have built a new house high enough to survive flooding. Building codes required the home to be built high, so while others pull soaked belongings to the curb, Daisy Clinton and her mother Martha Bynum run a makeshift hotel for the displaced. Grimes and her daughter have been bunking in one of Clinton's spare rooms since the storm.
The makeshift housing could last for weeks or months.
Grimes fell behind on her flood insurance premiums about three years ago, a few years after her clothing manufacturing job in Washington disappeared and forced her into retirement. Then, they canceled the policy. Two years ago, she called about having it reactivated, but she couldn't rationalize the cost on her fixed-income budget. She knows that lapse will potentially undo all the security she spent years building here.
"I don't want to give up," Grimes said. "I mean to die here."
Others aren't sure they could stomach another storm like Irene. Willie Glenn Jennette, 71, lives around the corner from Grimes.
"If they offered to put us somewhere away from this creek, I may just say yes," Jennette said.
Residents here are weary from the hard work of sorting through a disaster; they are also exhausted from the panic of snapping trees and rushing water.
About 10 miles down the road, in Jarvis Landing, a community of about 30 modest cottages and modular homes, Karen Braxton, 42, paced between the bits that remain of her home and the neighbor's house where she and her golden retriever Max swam to safety during the surge. They escaped her home moments before water lifted it off its foundation and scooted 10 feet.
Random bits of lives well-lived stretch across the yards here. Braxton's grill. A neighbor's four-wheeler. Fishing nets. A piece of a wooden deck.
Braxton grew up in Aurora and has spent her life in harmony with Pamlico Sound. The waters never threatened her so intensely, and she is trying to forget how close she came to losing her life.
So this week, she pushed those thoughts back and tried to focus on practical things. How much of her damage was wind? How much was flood? The answers will determine just how securely she lives as she rebuilds her life. Braxton works in the insurance field, so she is keenly aware of the peculiarities that make insuring a home on the coast challenging.
"If I had to do it over again, I'd never have been here," said Braxton. "But, I'm really glad I saw what happened. It was like nothing I've ever seen."
She tried to sum it up in the two words spray painted on her uprooted house: "Mean Irene."
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