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Thursday September 29th

Orange County families brace Florence at Smith Middle School

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Kaylene Luano and Solo Luano braced Alaska’s daunting weather for 15 years before moving to North Carolina last November. 

The couple, who hails from the South Pacific, knows hurricanes all too well. The warnings earlier this week brought back childhood memories for Kaylene, about a time when a tropical cyclone ravaged the American Samoa and her family was out of power for weeks. 

“Our home is surrounded by trees, and we heard there would be lots of flooding, so we decided to come here for safety reasons,” she said. “We didn’t know where to go. We didn’t have any family close by.” 

The Luanos and their five children checked in at the emergency shelter in Smith Middle School on Wednesday, where dozens of families with small children and pets chose to brave Florence, now a tropical storm. 

“We’re not expecting to get the catastrophic impact we thought we were going to get,” said Kirby Saunders, Orange County’s emergency manager coordinator, during an evening briefing at the shelter Friday. “We’re not expecting to see what we’re seeing is happening down in the coast on the TV.” 

After Saunders spoke, a handful of families packed their belongings and left the shelter. 

The county will face 20 to 25 mph winds Saturday and Sunday and one to two inches of rain until Sunday afternoon, when officials plan to close down the shelters unless the forecast changes. The county is providing free transportation to those who wish to leave the shelter before then. 

Although about 3,000 customers remain without power, most outages are north of Hillsborough where a tree fell down knocking out a pole, Saunders said. 

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue asked the public to stay out of harm’s way — avoiding fallen electric poles and trees — until Sunday, when Florence’s gusty winds and heavy showers are expected to leave the Triangle. 

“It appears we’ve been blessed with the storm going around and not on top of us,” Blue said. 

But Maria Cano recalls how just two years ago, Hurricane Matthew left everything in her house soaked and useless. 

“Then we had to run, on emergency mode, to come here,” she said, peeling an orange at the school’s cafeteria while her 2-year-old son Ronaldo kissed her on the cheek.

She packed up some blankets and took her three children to the shelter on Thursday night. She said store racks were empty before she could buy any supplies earlier this week, so the shelter — that is providing food and water — is a blessing. 

Even then, she dreads that the wood and metal sheets of the mobile home won’t endure Florence’s winds. 

“It’s fine. We’re fine, but if the place we live floods, it’d be a loss,” she said. “If we lose our stuff, it’s not too bad, as long as we’re fine.”

The school's gym was filled with cots, where people tried to sleep through the storm Friday afternoon. 

Lucy King was lying in one while her daughter, Alesia Bleau sat in a wheelchair. 

“I knew we were going to have the storm, but I didn’t know it was going to be this big and slow, lingering in the ocean for a week," King said. 

King was accompanying her daughter on Monday when she heard Florence was heading to the Carolinas. A few days before, Bleau lost her fiancé of 14 years to a sudden heart attack. 

Bleau, 53, is paralyzed from the waist down, has a speech impairment and, as a glaucoma patient, has lost her vision. King, who’s awaiting bladder surgery at 70 years old, feared first responders wouldn’t be able to help her as Florence made its way through North Carolina. They checked into the shelter on Thursday. 

“They really feed you well,” King said. “We’ve eaten more here than at home and everyone is very kind. It can’t get much better."

Bleau’s 1997 electric wheelchair could’ve also become a problem at her mobile home. It would be useless after some flooding or a few days without power. 

“They said millions of people have had to go somewhere, and I said, 'Where the hell are we going?'” King said. “We didn’t have adequate money to go somewhere else.” 

Alesia can cook in her kitchen and is very independent, King said, but that’s because her home has ramps and other features that make it accessible for her. 

“I don’t know what we’re going to do when the shelter closes, but I can’t leave her,” King said. “I sure don’t have money. I don’t know where else we’ll go.”

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