Wilson a safe haven for evacuees

Hurricane Irma relief efforts begin

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For the Pierce family of Orlando, Florida, Hurricane Irma left no choice but to flee to Wilson.

“We started driving to leave Florida and as we were taking the trip we were looking for hotels and the nearest one we could find that would allow a pet and was vacant was in North Carolina,” said

Stephanie Pierce.

Pierce, her husband Brian, a daughter and her fiance and the couple’s two other children, checked into two rooms at the Candlewood Suites in Wilson at 1 a.m. Sunday after making the 500-mile drive up Interstate 95.

“It was scary,” said Stephanie Pierce. “We’ve been through a lot of hurricanes. We lost our house in ‘04 to Charlie so we still don’t know what our house looks like. When it was projected to hit our coast, we went over there to evacuate and of course, it followed us, so two nights ago we decided that’s it, it’s coming right over Naples. It’s supposed to hit and we were right in the projected path. We we right by the bay, so we were like ‘No, we’re going.’”

Never before have they evacuated out of the state. They have lived there for 40 years.

“We’ve evacuated to different coasts, but we have never actually left Florida for a hurricane,” Brian Pierce said..

The hospitality in Wilson has been amazing, the Pierces said. They have spent time at Waffle House, Burger King, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar and Walmart.

“Everyone has been wonderful up here,” Stephanie Pierce said. “My daughter said this morning, she texted me: ‘If there’s nothing left at home, maybe we’ll become North Carolinians.’’

The Pierces weren’t the only Floridian family to end up in Wilson hotels.

“I know several from South Carolina and four or five rooms from Florida,” said Gail West, front desk clerk at the Candlewood Suites.

It was the same story at the nearby Hampton Inn. Both hotels are about three miles from I-95.

Shirley McKenzie, front desk agent at the Hampton Inn, said families fleeing Irma checked into about 20 rooms in the hotel between Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The storm made landfall in Key West early Saturday morning as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds.

“We had a few people who are still in-house guests that are still here,” said Minnie Horton, general manager at the Hampton Inn. “Some of them are checking out today.”

Effects from Irma, which faded into a tropical storm, are expected to be slight in North Carolina.

“The center of the storm is actually going way out into the center of the Tennessee Valley, but there will be a large and broad area of showers and thundershowers that kind of arcs off the Atlantic Ocean and into the Carolinas,” Jonathan Blaes, science operations officer at the National Weather Service office in Raleigh, said Monday. “That band of storms is over South Carolina this afternoon and then overnight tonight it will lift into North Carolina toward daybreak and move across the Wilson and coastal plain area during the mid-morning to early afternoon bringing a round of showers and thunderstorms and some pretty good wind gusts.”

Rain will be heavy at times with Wilson receiving up to an inch and a half, Blaes said. The strongest winds will last through midmorning Tuesday.

“In Wilson and Rocky Mount, wind gusts may get as high as 30 or 35 miles an hour but I would be surprised if they got much higher than that at all,” Blaes said. “Just a minor brush of the fringe of the storm.”

A large fleet of Asplundh bucket trucks and digger trucks staged in the parking lot of the Wilson Community Church Sunday and Monday, all waiting to respond to hurricane-damaged areas in Florida and Georgia.

“Happy to have them,” said Jonathan Minter, associate pastor at Wilson Community Church. “We are happy to have them here and to be of assistance. We are just sending our thoughts and prayers with everyone down there and also those that are getting ready to help out, that they would share love and compassion and comfort with them.”

According to Clayton Young, a general foreman for Asplundh, the trucks and their crews are from across the state of Connecticut.

“We have crews from all over the state from east to west,” Young said.

The crews came in two waves totaling 67 workers and between 35 and 40 trucks to restore power, put utility poles back up, put wire up in the air and change out transformers.

The linemen have 29 rooms at the Holiday Inn Express and 12 rooms reserved at the Days Inn across Tarboro Street.

“Essentially, we can’t get any lodging for this many guys any further south so we are just waiting for either Duke or Florida Power and Light to basically tell us where they need us to start working at this point,” Young said. “We actually don’t have accommodations after tomorrow, so we are in a bit of a scramble, but they will tell us at some point where they need our resources and we’ll start rolling that way.”

Cally Edwards, executive director of the Northeastern North Carolina Chapter of the American Red Cross, which serves Wilson County, said a shelter has been opened in Johnston County for those affected by the storm.

Edwards said the Red Cross is actively recruiting volunteers to help support the response for the hurricane.

To get involved, call 252-414-5457 to speak with Edwards or go online to http://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer/.

“The one thing we can always use help with are manpower and volunteers,” Edwards said.

To offer financial support to the Red Cross, the best thing to do is to mail a check to one of the offices, go online and donate at redcross.org, or make a donation over the phone at 1-800-435-7669.

“The important thing to remember is that these folks are going to need our help in the weeks and months and years ahead to recover and so, whether you can help now, or help a little bit later, your help is crucial,” Edwards said. “Finding ways to help these people get back to their new normal is critical and all of us can play a role in that.”

Jonathan Strother, station manager at TCT-WRAY-TV 30, said the company is gathering relief supplies for both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey.

“If they bring those goods to the station, then we will collect them and we’ll make sure that we get a truck or trailer to get them where they need to go,” Strother said. “We’ve got a list of what we feel like is most needed in this type of situation. That would be water, Gatorade, nonperishable food items, diapers, baby wipes, adult diapers, undergarments, socks, cleaning supplies, Clorox wipes, trash bags, Ziploc bags, disposable gloves, buckets and mops, detergent, hand sanitizer and personal hygiene items.”

Clothing is not being accepted.

“I’m hoping that as people begin to realize that maybe some of the things they had set aside for themselves and realized they weren’t going to need it for Irma, that they would like to bring it and donate it and say ‘I didn’t need it but obviously somebody else does. Let’s send it down,’” Strother said.

WRAY is located at 4909 Expressway Drive, Suite E, in Wilson. The station can be reached by calling 252-243-0584.