Last of three parts
COLERAIN -- Bertie County was declared a disaster area three times in the past year, and the tally could have been five. But the drought - ended only by the deluge from a hurricane - wasn't harsh enough, and the damage from the earthquake was minor.
The tornadoes six months ago were the deadliest of a series of disasters that have hit here so hard and so often lately that sometimes local government officials and weary relief workers forget which damage came from which storm.
"It's a large county, but we have a small population, and it's the same small group of people who get called on for recoveries, and they're tired," said Misty Deanes, the clerk to the county commissioners, assistant to the county manager and the interim emergency management coordinator.
She was named to the interim role Aug. 1. Three weeks later, the earthquake hit.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First came Tropical Storm Nicole, back in September 2010, which triggered heavy flooding, particularly in Windsor, the county seat.
Then came the tornadoes, which were part of a storm system that slashed claw marks across the eastern half of the state, killing 24 people. Half of those deaths were in Bertie, all of them age 50 or older.
Then came the crop-stunting drought that lasted much of the summer and ended in August only with Hurricane Irene. Only then came the earthquake, which elsewhere in the state was solely a novelty, but caused actual damage here, cracking walls in three high school classrooms. Classes were moved for a couple of days until state engineers examined the damage and declared the building safe.
The yearlong string of disasters led to scenes such as volunteers from Samaritan's Purse and the N.C. Baptist Men coming in to help with initial cleanup and recovery right after the tornadoes, then starting work on new houses for homeowners without enough insurance, then having to stop to help with recovery and cleanup after the hurricane.
"God stories" they call them here. Tales of miraculous survival during the tornadoes.
And there are plenty. Lucy Harrell was scheduled to come home from the hospital the day the tornado shredded her mobile home, but she was kept an extra day. The two grandchildren who lived with her were at the hospital, too, visiting her bedside.
Or the tale of Jake Dunlow's mobile home park in Askewville, where only two of the dozen or so homes had people in them. Those two weren't damaged much. The others were destroyed.
Or Molly, Dunlow's donkey. Witnesses claim she was yanked into the sky by a twister. Dunlow found her later, 100 yards away, where she apparently landed on her back in a muddy ditch. She was fine and is expected to take her annual star turn in the Nativity scene at Askewville Baptist Church.
But for every God story, there's a tale of another kind: the three people who died in the group home for the elderly and disabled, or the woman sucked into the sky and flung into the woods.
For most of the year's victims, the trouble came from just one of the storms. Some, though, suffered again and again.
Farmers in particular took a series of hits. Debris from the tornadoes took weeks for some to clear from their fields. Then their crops were stunted by the drought. Then Irene's heavy winds and rain hit cotton and tobacco hard.
Jim Morris of Askewville said he lost 50 to 60 percent of his tobacco crop, that his cotton yield would be down, and it would probably take a couple of years to come back from the economic impact.
There are God stories here, act of God stories and a third kind: tales about folks not relying on Providence, or luck, be it good or bad. Stories of the two women who, joined by a rotating cast of volunteers, sorted the massive piles of donated clothes all day for three solid months, so that victims could easily find clothes to fit.
Or the Irene victims who ate several meals at Green's Cross Baptist Church - one of a half-dozen sites where volunteers were serving hot food to hundreds of people daily - who came back to help the remaining victims as soon as their power was restored.
"One of them was a teenager," said the Rev. Mike Willard, who heads the Bertie Relief and Recovery Team. "They basically said, 'Hey, we've got our electricity back, and we're straightened out, so we're here to volunteer.' "
Creation of the now-permanent relief and recovery team was itself a reaction by Bertie volunteers to the storms. Among other things, it helps coordinate volunteers and processes donations and gets them out to disaster victims.
Willard is a newcomer. He arrived two days after the tropical storm hit to become a pastor at a local church. He said that, as an outsider, he has been impressed with how the locals handled an almost unimaginable run of misfortunes.
Bertie has just 19,000 residents, but it's a big, sprawling county, he noted.
"There are a lot of small communities spread across the county, and I actually think all this has brought them closer together and made them stronger," he said.
Morris, the farmer who suffered from the drought, the tornadoes and the hurricane, said people in Bertie are philosophical about the string of disasters.
"We just take it as it comes," he said. "That's about all you can do."