Stories From The Storm: WHQR’s Hurricane Florence Experience

Jan 20, 2020

On September 14th, 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall in Wilmington, NC. WHQR stayed through the storm, holed up in the third floor studios downtown even as the building began to sway from the storm’s heavy winds. 

Almost a year later, after listening to staff members discuss their experience, WHQR’s 2019 summer intern Annabelle Crowe decided to investigate how the WHQR team worked together to weather the storm. 

She decided to interview all the WHQR staff – and their family members – who lived at the station in downtown Wilmington during Hurricane Florence. Some of those staff members are no longer at the station. This is her report. 

 


 

 

Annabelle Crowe is an undergrad at Rice University majoring in the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, as well as a published poet. When she’s not working with the news team at WHQR, you find her listening to podcasts and drawing sci-fi comics.

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Last September, Hurricane Florence shut down the city of Wilmington. Many residents evacuated, and those who stayed found themselves without power for days, dealing with flooded neighborhoods and falling trees.

Credit All Photos by Vince Winkel.

I wasn’t around to experience it—when Florence hit, I was in Houston, beginning my sophomore year of college. But this year, I’m WHQR’s summer news intern. And during my twelve weeks on the job, I’ve overheard tall tales about the skeleton crew that rode out Florence here at the station.

That week, five WHQR staff members stayed in Wilmington to provide emergency storm coverage. Maybe you relied on those updates. Maybe you were struggling through the storm here in Wilmington, or you were elsewhere, listening for news about your loved ones.

After spending my summer here at WHQR, I want to bring you the other half of that story—the news from behind the microphones.

Rachel: The BBC called when Hurricane Florence was heading this way as a possible Cat Five. And I remember this lovely interviewer from the BBC saying, “Do you really think it's wise to stay there, when there may not be a Wilmington North Carolina to come back to?”

This is Rachel Lewis Hilburn, news director at WHQR. Last year, she, along with four other staff members, their families, and their pets, camped out on the third floor of the WHQR office building for a week.

George: Oh, no, not another one.

That’s George Scheibner, operations manager. He’s kept WHQR’s equipment running through more natural disasters than he can count.

But it’s a first time for news reporter Vince Winkel.

Vince: Since I grew up in the land of blizzards and snow storms in New England, and then had lived in other parts of the country, where it’s tornadoes or earthquakes in the case of California. This is my first real hurricane.

Some staff have experience with severe weather events—Rachel spent a night on the station sofa during an ice storm in 2016. But Florence introduces a further complication.

Rachel: We had animals and family members here because at that point we thought it was going to be hitting as a four or five, and so we were either going to have to send them out of town or they were going to have to come here where it might be safer.

The week of the hurricane, WHQR offices are full to the brim. There’s Rachel and her husband, Duncan. And Gina Gambony, WHQR’s former arts director. Michelle Rhinesmith, station manager, brings her dog, as well as her elderly father.

Michelle: He had just flown up to Wilmington right before Florence. I decided to bring him up to get him out of peak hurricane season down in Florida. So he got here just in time.

Then there’s Vince and his son, and George and his partner. And don’t forget the cats living in the CoastLine studio.

Rachel: I joke about it as my Arctic cave, and I leave the door open all the time. But with the door closed, because we had to keep the cats in there, because we had all these other animals here—I don't know what the temperature dropped to, but it was cold, and they were actually shivering at some point. When the power went out and the air conditioning was gone, I was celebrating.

The animals aren’t the only ones getting used to new living arrangements.

Vince: The station is such where the studios are primarily in the center. Along the outer walls are all of the offices, which basically became the dormitory. I was on an inflatable mattress. My son was on those thin inflatable camping mattresses that you take backpacking.

Jeremy: Once the power went out, of course, they have the backup generator, but not for the air conditioning.

That’s Vince’s son, Jeremy.

Jeremy: We didn't use any sleeping bags. We just slept on mats with practically nothing on.

Michelle: Every day this place got hotter and hotter. It felt like a sauna. I think I lost like maybe ten pounds. It was just, it was just crazy. It was a great thing, but it's not the way you want to lose it! And then of course I gained it right back.

This is the scene: no AC, limited lights, sleeping on air mattresses and cots and eating potato chips for breakfast. But no matter what challenges their daily routine brings, WHQR staff’s main task is to stay on the air.

George: Somebody was always awake. I mean, you always had to have someone, even during the overnights.

Duncan: She was pretty much working from about six o'clock in the morning to ten o'clock at night, you know.

This is Duncan, Rachel’s husband.

Duncan: I'm always amazed by what she does.

Rachel: The first thing is go into the cave that is the bathroom. There are no lights in there. George has rigged up some kind of emergency light that just sits on the bathroom vanity. We have flashlights scattered around. So, going to the bathroom in the dark. And then get to work.

Michelle: That morning, when Florence was really battering the coast, I was up. I was in this little conference room. And I had the phone. I was scheduling interviews for Rachel and Vince. And I remember Vince was on the air for Morning Edition, and he had noticed that the pen kind of moved on the countertop when he laid the pen down.

Vince: I was on the air doing a newscast when the microphone started swaying a little bit. And then for just a few seconds, you could feel the building sway.

Michelle: And so when he got off the air—he had done an update—he came back to me and he's like, is the building rocking? And I said, yes, it is.

George: You could feel that the building was being buffeted by winds. And if you walked into the fishbowl, the entrance to the gallery space, to the elevator, it was just howling. It was like there was a wild beast in that elevator or in that elevator shaft, because the wind was really—it was from the roof overhead. And you could just hear it.

Jeremy: Yeah, it looked like a war zone basically out there. Yeah. Especially after all the trees blew down.

But it isn’t all bad, Jeremy tells me. There are moments in the evenings when the staff relax together with a few beers and a movie. The day after the storm, Vince drives across the river to check on his house, and something amazing happens.

Vince: All the meat in my freezer was still somewhat frozen. So my son and I popped open this large grill I had. And it was still raining. It was a lot of fun. And we stood on the back deck and cooked all of the meat we had. And we cooked it all up and then brought it here into the station.

Michelle remembers this as a small miracle.

Michelle: He went and grilled everything, and he brought all this grilled food in. We had steak and chicken and, I mean, it was fantastic.

Vince: Because we had been living on, you know, power bars and peanut butter sandwiches.

Despite the daily discomforts of living at the station, everyone I talk to insists they have nothing to complain about.

George: It’s sort of an esprit de corps. You know, everybody was here to do a job, and it was people helping each other out. It was a team effort.

Rachel: But I also wonder if having our family here had something to do with it. If Duncan hadn’t been here, and the cats hadn’t been here, I would’ve worried about them every day, and this way I didn’t have to. And we had food here. It was crappy! It was food torture! But we had food, and other people didn’t.

As soon as the storm passes, Rachel and Vince head out to gather news about emergency resources. And what they find is that, from that very first day, neighbors are turning out to help each other.

Vince: I remember we found a food truck that was open when the rain had started to let up. And they were giving away sandwiches. And a lot of people were gathered around, and everyone was just asking everyone else if they needed help. You know, can I help you clean this up, or do you need a place to sleep? How did you get through the storm?

Rachel: I went to a point of distribution just to talk to the people there and find out what the need was, how quickly the bottled water and the food was getting handed out—and tarps as well, to cover people’s roofs. And I met a woman there who said, “Hey Rachel, the real story is a few blocks north of here, where Rachel with Foxes Boxes and this whole volunteer community, they're coming together with supplies for the neighborhood, because nobody's taking care of this neighborhood on the north side.” And so, I remember it was a really hot, sunny day, which was just weird after a hurricane. And, walked up to Fox's Boxes. And there’s Rachel directing traffic, and there's this pile of supplies in the middle of the room on a table in plastic bags. And people are coming in with wagons and walking around the streets and handing them out to people. And one woman, I think her name was Rosa, she was a resident, and she said, “Yeah, I was walking around looking for food. I didn't have any food left, and I don't have a vehicle to go anywhere and nothing's open and the bus isn't running. And so I'm stuck. And then I find Rachel with Foxes Boxes, and she fed me.” And so then Rosa, and…this is… Sorry. Wow. It was just kind of amazing, because Rosa then was committed to helping all these other people. And it was just really neat to see how people came together.

As the city finally gets back on its feet, volunteer reporters make the dangerous journey into Wilmington. David Borax from WFAE braves floodwaters to join the WHQR newsroom, and a reporter from WUNC arrives the following week.

Michelle: And the one thing that I was amazed about were the emails and the phone calls I was receiving from listeners who had evacuated and were listening to us via the app so that they could find out what was happening in their hometown. And for those who stayed, we were a life source for them.

Jeremy: People only had radios, basically. The TV signals were out for the most part. This was one of the only radio stations up and running, so that really helped out a lot of people.

I asked Duncan Hilburn what he thinks is so special about WHQR’s coverage of Florence.

Duncan: It was personal for everybody at the station. They weren't coming in to spend three or four days and get some good camera footage and get good ratings. They were covering a story about where they lived. Reporting the news, but also probably having in the back of their mind, well, what's going on at my house, or what's going on with my friends and family?

WHQR staff weathered Hurricane Florence right alongside their listeners. And it’s easy for me to see how a sense of solidarity is born.

Rachel: Like Rosa on the north side in Wilmington, everybody just does what they can. You just do your part. And we’re here, and we have the mics, and so we do our part. But it was one of the notable things after the hurricane is we heard so many stories about people in the community doing extraordinary things, being the heroes for their neighbors. I mean, it wasn't just the press. It was everybody.

I’m Annabelle Crowe, for WHQR.