How the hurricanes brought us together

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Decades-old branches twisted and bent, then dropped like broken toothpicks on our home. Our second hurricane in six weeks shoved 100-foot oaks aside as it muscled its way inland. The first one – Bertha – had bashed in roofs and left us without power for nearly a week. We were still digging out when Fran appeared.

We watched this newest arrival almost absently, thinking two hurricanes couldn't possibly target us in such a short period of time. After all, this part of North Carolina had been unscathed through dozens of hurricane seasons.

When Bertha was first sighted, I made a token trip to the grocery store and bought a loaf of bread and some cat food. I figured we'd eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches if the hurricane hit.

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But, of course, no one thought it would. No hurricane had even come close for more than 30 years. So some stocked up on snacks for "hurricane parties," while others plastered masking tape on their windows – the only concession most coastal residents were willing to make. Everyone laughed about the last hurricane scare, in which nothing – not even rain – had fallen.

But Bertha hit hard. My husband, a police officer, worked all that night and my brother sat with me in my kitchen, watching the world crumble by candlelight. The kids slept on the floor of the den.

The next morning, sunlight painted downed trees, crumpled cars, caved-in roofs, and snakes – their habitats upset – slithering through the grass. Our world had turned topsy-turvy.

We'd lived in our house for some time and knew our neighbors, but it was more of a nodding acquaintance than friendship. Now, the people next door, avid campers with a portable cook stove, brewed coffee and walked from door to door, pouring each adult a cup.

My husband returned home, and soon someone brought out a chain saw and began cutting uprooted trees into smaller pieces. He joined in, and by midmorning the whole neighborhood had pitched in to clear driveways and the street.

We soon realized that with the power out we'd lose everything in our refrigerators, so we pulled out the meat and our grills and made steaks and hamburgers in an impromptu block party.

Things gradually returned to normal. Roofs were repaired, debris cleared. Then forecasters spotted a blip on the weather radar and dubbed it Fran. We watched as this new storm grew and moved in our direction. Someone mentioned that if Fran stayed on the projected path the storm would hit us.

We thought it was a joke. No way could two hurricanes hit so close together!

Still, Bertha taught us something. We bought bread and cat food. This time we also bought milk and jugs of water. And we watched in disbelief as Fran edged closer, then finally rammed us.

This time my husband was home and we looked out over the backyard, where trees snapped in the wind and roofing shingles sailed past like dark butterflies.

Our phones stayed in service longer than our electricity this time. And in the middle of the storm, the phone rang. It was our neighbor Sue, three doors down.

"Bill's going up on the roof," Sue said, referring to her husband.

Now? In the middle of a hurricane? I was incredulous.

"Yes. We've lost some shingles and the roof is beginning to leak. He's afraid it'll get too wet and collapse. He's going up to put something over the hole. I can't talk him out of it," Sue said. She was terrified.

Bill, a retired Marine pilot, was in great shape, but it wasn't a job for one man. She wondered if my husband might help.

I hung up the phone and passed her message on to my spouse. Sure, he said, but first he made a couple of calls. Then he put on his rain gear, grabbed a couple of tools, and left. The wind was so strong, he had to lean forward in order to walk.

I watched from the window as he made his way down the street. Then another raincoated figure joined him, followed by two more. I paced, checking my watch and jumping every time something hit our house. Finally, 45 minutes later, my spouse returned, soaked but unhurt.

'How did it go?" I asked. He grinned. "Piece of cake." They had lain down on the roof and formed a chain, each holding the other down while they covered the hole with a tarp. One man acted as a look-out, watching the huge pines in Bill and Sue's yard to warn the rest if any fell.

"It was tough. The wind kept blowing us – but we did it," he said, sounding ridiculously pleased with himself.

"How many were up there?" I asked.

Six, he told me. Every man who lived in the cul-de-sac climbed up on that roof in those 100-mile-per-hour winds.

"You're all crazy," I told him. "What kind of people climb up on someone else's roof in the middle of hurricane?" I shook my head as I hung his raincoat up to dry.

He laughed as he toweled his hair. "Neighbors, honey," he said. "They're called neighbors."

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