Margarita Gonzalez, her husband, and eleven-year-old daughter have called Ocracoke home for several years. Ocracoke is an unincorporated town on the southern end of Ocracoke Island, with nearly 950 residents. After taking the ferry to the island and driving towards the town, you can see beach drifts and smell the ocean in the air. However, as you get closer to town, you start to see large piles of debris and household items alongside the road. A reminder that in September 2020, Hurricane Dorian struck this seaside community and it will never be the same.
Once in town, you first notice people walking along the road, riding their bicycles, or driving by. Whether you are resident or passing by, every person you will greet you with a friendly wave of hello. A gesture, reminding you that this place is very special. It is there where the Red Cross met Margarita Gonzalez and her family.
During the first night that the hurricane really started to affect the island, Margarita and her husband invited their 27-year-old daughter and her two children to join them in their home, also shared with their eleven-year-old daughter. They thought it was the safest place for them to weather the storm. The following morning, they began to realize the real impact of the storm. At first, they asked themselves “is that it?” The storm seemed to pass them without major incident. Sadly, that was not the case. That morning Margarita’s daughter was in the kitchen feeding her children and her other daughter called their attention from another room. They could tell that there was a funny smell coming from the bathroom and when they looked closer, they began to see that water was starting to pour in from the vents along the floorboards.
The family immediately tried to save what items they could and bring them up the second level of the home. Everyone was trying to save something, including their pets – seven cockatiel birds, a dog, and a cat. Margarita’s husband saw the water come up to the level of the windows. He then went outside to the closest tree where he had tied a kayak earlier. He first put their young daughter and small dog named Princess into the kayak. He took her across the flooded street to a another house, which the family used as a rental home. This home was elevated and had a raised porch. Then he returned and during the second trip, he took their oldest daughter and her two children to the porch. Lastly, he returned for Margarita and the family cat. Margarita was concerned for her beloved birds, but knew they were as safe as they could be in the second level of the home.
Her husband had seen every one to safety. When making the trips across the street, he recognized the water had a strong, river-like current. The family was shaken, but thankful they were together and safe. They remained there until the flood levels receded. Over the course of the weeks that followed, the family and all members of the Ocracoke community did their best to manage without electricity as well as, taking apart their flood-damaged homes, walls, removing carpet, preventing mold, and salvaging whatever they could. This was happening, home after home, across the island.
Margarita and her husband had spent the last seven years investing in improvements in their home. It took seven years to make the home of their dreams but was now gone in a matter of moments. While they were extremely grateful for their lives, it was still heartbreaking.
While her family has some insurance to help with their recovery, it is only a portion of what is needed and has been a complicated process. Margarita stated that this is an island community that is very tourist-driven. The hurricane not only took away their homes, but also took away many people’s livelihood as so many businesses were heavily impacted. With little tourism business, there are very few opportunities to find work. For many of the men on the island, they have been able to find work helping with trades and rebuilding, but many of the women were working in the service industry supported by tourism. That work has been harder to come by, that is why the timing of financial assistance by the American Red Cross has been so impactful.
Margarita and her family are grateful to have received $2,500 in financial assistance to help aid in their continued recovery. She was so appreciative when the Red Cross contacted her and made the process of getting assistance clear and easy. Margarita said it was so helpful to go direct to the people and help. She has even helped many of her fellow community members understand what this assistance is and how the Red Cross can help. The Hispanic community on the island are important members of the community and tourism workforce. For the families that are eligible for this assistance, this helps them hold on a little longer. It may be enough time for them to be able to get back to work when tourism season begins.
When asked what she would say to Red Cross donors who made this gift possible, she paused for a moment to collect herself as it was clear this help meant so much. “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Many people don’t know this island and the people who live here, just knowing that people care,” said stated, “I want to say thank you to every single person who has supported this community.” She knows that Ocracoke will never be the same. It was a close community before and remains so now. They have together to rebuild and be stronger than ever.
Story by Cally Edwards | American Red Cross