Within a week after Dorian made landfall in North Carolina, volunteers from the Pet Food Pantry of Eastern N.C. were on the ground providing relief in the form of pet food.
But the 189 dogs and 147 cats they served were 150 miles away from Ocracoke, where Dorian sent a storm surge of 7 to 10 feet throughout the entire community. While Pet Food Pantry volunteers were finally able to ferry aid to the island on Oct. 6, the disaster relief efforts that September morning were directed to families in Burgaw, which is still working to recover from last year's storm.
As local charity organizations work to lend a hand to hard-hit areas along the Outer Banks, many still are helping to shoulder the burden from hurricanes a year or even three years ago.
“We are still providing disaster relief to communities that were hit hard by Florence,” Pet Food Pantry co-founder Kristen Below said. “People don't realize it's a long time to recover.
“We are feeding pet families that lost their homes in Matthew,” she said of the hurricane from 2016. “You think of a family who has has lost income from work. They've lost homes, they've lost cars and they didn't have insurance. Probably a lot of those families were poor to begin with, and they're still struggling.”
Billy Tarlton is no stranger to long recoveries. He came to Pitt County as a hurricane relief volunteer following Floyd in 1999 and never left. He is founder of Grifton Mission Ministries, a nonprofit organization that prepares and serves more than 600 meals a week and provides grocery items to nearly 8,000 people a month.
The ministry, funded by donations, grants and proceeds from a twice-weekly yard sale, serves Pitt, Lenoir, Greene and Craven counties. But when there is a natural disaster, it knows no boundaries.
“Anytime there's a disaster somewhere, we kind of hub out of here and we reach out,” Tarlton said. “We've sent stuff to Florida. We've sent it to the coast. We send it wherever the need is.
“(You) take what you've got to be able to help others; you do that as a faith-based organization,” he said. “God says you take care of others, I'll take care of you, and I can vouch for that.”
Tarlton sent a handful of volunteers to Ocracoke on Oct. 1, hauling a trailer loaded with hurricane relief supplies. His wife, Elaine, who was among the volunteers, said the ferry from Swan Quarter was filled with items to aid in hurricane recovery, from potable water to produce.
“They already said FEMA can't help them because there's not enough damage,” she said of a Federal Emergency Management Association decision last week that denied the individual assistance portion of Gov. Roy Cooper's major disaster declaration request for Ocracoke. “Everything they owned, at least on the first floor was in their yard or lined up along the road, and they were working together with each other.”
Grifton Mission Ministries sent shovels, rakes, cleaning supplies, portable fans, hand wipes and Gatorade. Four decades of disaster relief experience has taught Billy Tarlton that responding with donations without understanding the need doesn't help at all.
“You see it on the news, all these piles of stuff that's just going to waste because (people) send without asking,” he said. “You want to ask them what they need. How can we help you right now? That's not to say down the road they won't need (other things), but right now they have no place to put it.”
Below said she and other volunteers discovered following Matthew that pet food and supplies were among the things that people needed following a hurricane. But those supplies didn't seem to be on the radar of other relief agencies.
“People donate a lot for humans, but a lot of times, the pets are forgotten,” she said. “When you help pets, you're helping the people.”
The Pet Food Pantry, which serves about 600 pets a month during food distributions in Greenville, delivered about 12,000 pounds of pet food and supplies to Ocracoke. Nearly 100 people came out to get everything from food, leashes and collars to flea medication, litter boxes, pet bedding and even toys for 191 cats and 88 dogs. The agency also brought food for the “Ocracats,” a large, managed colony of feral cats that calls the island home.
“It's so isolated out there,” Below said. “We just spoke to so many of the island residents who are facing challenges that we can't even imagine. There was 7 feet of water that went through most of those homes, so they've lost income, work, homes, cars, businesses. When they've got to replace all that, it leaves little money for buying pet supplies. So that's where we can go in to help ease their burden.”
Pet Food Pantry volunteers are working to obtain ferry clearance for a return trip in mid-November. Since the storm, those boarding the ferry for Ocracoke have had to be approved through Hyde County Emergency Services.
The burden on the ferry system is one of the factors that led Baptists on a Mission to reroute a group of ECU students who planned to volunteer this weekend. Instead of going to Hyde County, about half a dozen students were sent to New Hanover County.
“We were initially headed to Ocracoke because they were the ones who got hit hardest with Hurricane Dorian,” said Lauren Howard, assistant director of ECU's Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, which coordinated the service project. “The ferries were getting full with commercial vehicles, so they redirected us to Wilmington. So we're actually doing not Hurricane Dorian recovery but Hurricane Florence recovery.”
Howard, who helps to oversee alternative break experiences, had just taken a group of students to New Bern during last week's fall break to help with Florence recovery efforts. Though students who signed up for this weekend's work had expected to go to Ocracoke, almost none canceled when they learned their assignment had changed. In Wilmington on Saturday, they worked on projects including painting and tree limb removal.
“It really didn't matter to those students about the location; it mattered about the impact they were having,” Howard said. “I'm just grateful that we were able to be utilized in a different community that still was impacted by the hurricanes.
“They're so appreciative of the work that we're doing,” she said. “They (Baptists on a Mission) said they'll be here (in Wilmington) for another five years, so that was kind of jaw dropping for us.”
Grifton Mission Ministries has plans for long-term assistance following Dorian. Billy Tarlton is sending crews to load furniture donations from a resort near Atlantic Beach that is undergoing renovations. The ministry will sell some of the beds and tables at its yard sale, but many will be stored until people have completed cleanup from Dorian and are ready to move back into their homes. Then Tarlton plans another trip to Ocracoke to offer free furniture.
“It's a long, drawn-out process,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “I had two ladies come in this morning (saying) 'Where can I go get help from the last storm? My house is still messed up.' So we tried to direct them.”
The Pet Food Pantry has a similar approach. Below said the organization is committed to serve families in need for as long as it takes.
“When the media leaves, the need doesn't end,” she said. “It can really change people's lives forever.”