Essay: Small Town Resilience in the Face of Hurricane Florence

Renae Brabham

Photography credit Pam Griffin

On the cusp of Hurricane Michael bearing down on the gulf coast, I write this story of resilience during and after Hurricane Florence in one of my other favorite seaside towns. 

Davis, NC is a small fishing community on the Core Sound, about 15 miles outside of Beaufort. You have to drive right through it to get to the Cedar Island Ferry to go to Ocracoke, but don't blink. Population is somewhere between 250 and 400. An un-deserted island of sorts, the majority of it's residents would just as soon stay on it than leave it. Oh they may go to high land for a bit, but there is never the thought of NOT going back to Davis Shores. When you are born in these parts, you're a lifer. 

Davis Shores (the endearing moniker of the town) is the idyllic stomping ground of my childhood summers. Think Mayberry minus Main Street. Most roads were dirt roads and even the paved roads were mostly sand. It was, and still is, a tight knit community. I wrote letters after coming come from those summer breaks, scribbling Aunt Marie or Aunt Mary Louise on an envelope and Davis, NC. Nothing else. They got those letters because the postmaster knew everyone in town. 

I held my breath as Hurricane Florence began to jog closer to the Core Sound last month, checking online continuously as Florence came ashore and then again as the tides crested. I watched Facebook video's while nibbling my fingers. Just when I couldn't bear to watch any longer my cousins' phone got damaged from the onslaught of rain and they couldn't post anymore. Davis was completely underwater during the storm. 

My cousin's daughter, Melissa, was my liaison between the states after Florence came ashore. Some people left for higher ground, but Melissa tells me that about 70% of the community stayed put. My cousin Lanier was one of them. He and his wife, Annette, run the family business Davis Shore Ferry Service that sits on the Core Sound of the Atlantic. Their house is 20 feet from the Atlantic. Davis Shore's documented sea level was 5 foot in 2010. 

Melissa told me "The house which my parents currently live in belonged to my great grandparents, it was my mother Annette's grandparents home. They originally built it as a single residence, and over time, they added on to the home to accommodate a growing business, a fishing bed and breakfast. Jeanette and Alger opened their home to fishermen to stay the night before the next day's ferry ride over or upon returning from the Banks. Jeanette would serve basic meals including breakfast, lunch and dinner. The rooms were simple, and included iron twin (single) beds laid head to toe in a room (beds similar to old hospital beds). Captain Alger ran the single-car ferries over to the Banks. This operation began in 1966. He kept the ferries; she kept the house and food."

During hurricanes the ferries were moved to the "safe harbor" of the local fish house, James Styron Fish House. Alger contracted with Mr James that when storms came, it would be permissible for Mr. Alger to dock the ferries in the harbor and that tradition has continued ever since. The business has spanned four generations:  Captain Alger Willis and Jeanette Willis, Captain Glenn Willis, Annette Willis Mitchum and Captain Lanier Mitchum, and Captain William Lanier Mitchum Jr (Mitch). Davis Shore Ferry Service has ferried many a family and fisherman over to South Core Banks, Cape Lookout, which is more commonly known as Great Island Camps by National Park Service.

THIS is why these small communities choose to face the daunting threat of increasingly ferocious hurricanes each year. They make a living by the sea, on the sea, from the sea. It is their livelihood and has been for generations.

As Mellissa put it, "people that choose to live their lives Down East respect that there is a cost to living where they do. This storm took away a lot of what most people took their whole lives to build, but they will rebuild. Salt water is in their veins, that can't be taken from them. Aside from the ferry business, independent commercial fishermen still operate out of Core Sound, but in drastically reduced numbers over the past decades. Shrimping has made a rebound in the past five years, enough to support those that continue to operate. Crabbers still set pots in Core Sound and gillnet fishery for mullets has always been a part of Down East heritage and continues to be a local tradition."

I fell in love with the sustainability of the town when I stayed with relatives during those summers in the late 60's and early 70's. I just couldn't believe you could eat seafood everyday if you had a rod, a cast net, a bucket, a chicken neck or a clam rake, but you could and that's exactly what we did!

My Aunt Marie walked to work from her conch shell studded driveway to the fish house two blocks away to head shrimp or pick crabs all day, she always brought home a bag of sea goodies that either ended up in the freezer or in a pot that evening. Uncle Moye taught me to clam dig with my toes and look for the tiny bubbles to show me where they were. I would fill a bucket in no time and take them to the fish house to collect some money to buy YooHoo's and M&M's at the little country store.   

Yes, Florence whipped up the town pretty good. But it was so encouraging to hear the hope and continuity that I expected would come to Davis.

Melissa finished, "It has been amazing to hear the stories regarding the aftermath of the storm and the cleanup. Everyone has joined together to look after the elderly and the ones that suffered the most above their own needs. Several of our family friends rushed to our families aid, not everyone is so lucky to have that network. The churches have worked hard to ensure that their congregations are looked after, despite whether they attend the up the road church, the down the road church, or the out the road church. They all looked out for one another. One of our family friends, Mrs. Sue Buck, took Lanier (her dad) in after the storm. She offered him a place to sleep, shower, and food. Our people just naturally look after one another, it's what we do."

So how is Davis Shores doing today? They are grateful! The community is rebuilding as expected. They are proud and resilient people who rolled their sleeves up to tackle the hard stuff immediately, but they are eternally grateful for the help that came from Red Cross, the Davis Shore Fire Department, a Go Fund Me page started by a fisherman in the community, the boaters who brought food and supplies in, and the endless - seriously endless - help from family, friends, and people that they don't even know. As of now, the ferries are up and running and the docks rebuilt just in time for those fall fishing trips to Cape Lookout. It's a great destination for family and fisherman alike.

As Hurricane Michael approaches Florida, I think of the other little fishing communities along the Florida coast. I know those strong, salty souls are considering their options as well. One thing Melissa told me is that of that roughly 70% that stayed in Davis during Florence, most said they wouldn't next time. Storms have become more frequent and debilitating. I hope that life and limb is considered higher priority than shingles and structures. Like Davis Shores — if the water recedes, they WILL be back. 

Davis Shores and other communities nearby have a dialect all their own, the unique brogue has been studied by NCSU linguistics professor Walt Wolfram. It seems to originate from early English settlements of the 17th century. I can still to this day fall into a pretty good rendition of it and will take the liberty of expressing what A Hoi Toider (local, high tider) could very likely be heard saying to you today. "Florence came in here and mommucked (shredded to pieces) up the whole town, what it didn't mommuck is all whopperjawed (askew). But it's slickcam (calm, no wind) out there now and we are just glad to sit on on the pizer (porch, piazza) with a glass of tea for a little while." 

The poignant picture of the outside church service in Davis says it all. I'm sure their hearts, as well as ours in Charleston, go out to those in direct path of the incoming Hurricane Michael.