AUTHOR’S NOTE: The 25 year anniversary of Hurricane Bertha slipped past me the other day — July 12 to be precise. That was my first journalism experience — or any experience at all — with a hurricane making a direct landfall. This one was at Topsail when I worked for the Jacksonville Daily News. At the time, July 12, 1996, it was the earliest landfalling hurricane to hit the East Coast of the United States. Here’s something I wrote a few years ago about about that Hurricane Bertha weekend.
I left home for the Daily News office in Jacksonville a tad earlier than normal on Friday, July 12. We anticipated a long day. A hurricane was coming. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. In that regard I wasn’t alone. That part of the North Carolina coast hadn’t seen a landfalling hurricane in nearly 20 years.
Talk about a lack of institutional knowledge.
I lived a block from the waterfront in those days — the normally tranquil White Oak River in historic Swansboro — but my apartment was on a rise. I figured to be safe from flooding. I did put tape on my windows, mainly because everybody else did. I didn’t see, though, how such a feeble measure could possibly be of much value in the face of 100-mph winds.
Then I went to work as rain was already starting to fall and the ever-present ducks scurried for safety. It would get worse before it got any better.
We had some weird notion that we could somehow publish early an hour or so ahead of the storm. Pretty foolish upon reflection. By noon the outer bands of Hurricane Bertha, the earliest landfalling hurricane in North Carolina’s history at that time, made a visible impact. Not long after, we lost power at the newspaper office. There was no electricity anywhere by mid-afternoon in Onslow or Carteret counties.
And for most it wouldn’t be back for a long time.
We spent the afternoon and early evening pacing in the darkness. Such is life in a newsroom without windows and lights. Many of us stood in a loading dock area that served as the office smoking area and watched it rain sideways — intermixed with assorted flying debris — for hours.
By 10 p.m. the storm had subsided enough for people to travel safely back to their homes — if they could. We hoped to have power restored by daybreak at the newspaper office. Not an unreasonable plan. We were close enough to the county hospital to believe this to be a possibility. Then we intended to produce two newspapers in one day — an old-school afternoon paper for Saturday and then one for Sunday morning.
That Friday night I was among those who couldn’t return home. Too many downed power lines, trees and branches, as well as high water in some patches, blocked access to the downtown waterfront area. I stayed at the home of the man who in a year would become my father-in-law. He didn’t have power, either, but he had a gas grill and a coffee percolator.
It was plenty.
The next 36 hours were a blur. We were indeed able to produce two newspapers that Saturday for a reading public anxious for any available news. Only a handful of places had power. Not very many had generators. So the TV was out. Radio stations were limited. Internet access was almost non-existent. I never saw people who wanted newspapers more. It made the 16-hour day on Saturday worthwhile. That night I stayed at my future father-in-law’s house again. On Sunday we had our full staff back in the office writing stories about how people were coping and recovering after the storm. None of us had even started to assess the damages at our own homes.
By Sunday night we were a whipped bunch in desperate need of showers. We were hungry, dirty, and exhausted physically and mentally. Thousands were still without power and would be for a week or more. And even though I had no power at my apartment in downtown Swansboro that Sunday night, I had to go back to check on things. I just wanted to be home, even in the dark with no air conditioning.
On the way out of Jacksonville I stopped at one of the few open stores and bought a six-pack of beer. Then I headed for my apartment. I drove into the darkened Swansboro historic district and noted the downed trees and branches brushed from the roadway. There were no streetlights and just a few flickers in a home here or there. I entered my apartment, found a flashlight and did a casual inspection.
Everything looked OK. I let out a huge breath.
I went to my bedroom, found a clean pair of shorts and a T-shirt, changed clothes then took my six-pack out on the porch. I found one of the Adirondack chairs, sat down, opened one of the beers and set the rest beside the chair. In the muggy 85-degree night, I lit a cigarette. The only sounds that could be heard were from a nearby house that had a generator — and me opening one beer after another as I thought about all that had happened since going to work that Friday morning.