In the midst of Hurricane Florence, many people living in coastal towns were faced with a tough decision: heed the words of the media and flee west or try to weather out the storm in their hometown.
Even after mandatory evacuations were issued in counties like Brunswick, Currituck and Dare, some people chose not to or were unable to flee their homes — and some took the opportunity to photograph the damage.
Before the storm hit, Chapel Hill and Daily Tar Heel photographer Jason Armond decided to return to his hometown of Wilmington to document the lives of some of the people who chose to stay in the city throughout Florence.
Armond specifically focused his photo story on a man named Will, a double amputee who has congenital heart failure and diabetes. Armond said that although Will’s family urged him to evacuate to Fayetteville, he chose to stay closer to the coast.
“He just always has been on his own,” Armond said. “He’s a really proud, self-sufficient man. He doesn’t like to burden people. The other thing too is that he does kidney dialysis every other day, and he didn’t want to deviate from his routine.”
During the storm, Armond documented this very routine, effectively illustrating a day in the life of someone having to balance dealing with the fallout of a hurricane and their own health.
“He goes to dialysis at 5 in the morning each morning, and this was the day before the storm hit,” Armond said. “He had to go so I followed him to do that treatment, and then he went out shopping, getting last minute things for the storm. Then I documented him at home, when the lights went out, and then now I have to finish up with the after-the-storm deal.”
Armond said that he believes Will's story is an important one to tell because it not only tells the story of those who cannot evacuate natural disasters, but also shows how determined Will is to live a life of normalcy, despite factors trying to hold him back.
Armond was not the only one to leave Chapel Hill and chase down the storm in the name of journalism. Rob Gourley was in Carteret County working on a video project for his class about how the American South is affected by hurricanes when he got in touch with the Los Angeles Times about helping them with photo coverage of the storm.
“I was there to follow the reporter and make sure that the stories she was putting together had visuals,” Gourley said. “We ended up staying in a hotel that had a lot of other families in it that had evacuated their homes, so during the storm we were doing coverage of what their experience was like.”
Documenting the damage done by Florence in his home state held a lot of personal importance to Gourley and inspired him to cover the story to the best of his ability.
“For me personally, I had a way to get the images I was making in front of a lot of people,” Gourley said. “It meant a lot to me as a North Carolinian to help cover a story like that for a publication that has a more national audience.”
This exhibition of emotional strength and the human spirit is a common thread amongst photographers who capture the aftermath of natural disasters.
Alex Kormann, a former photo editor for The Daily Tar Heel, had a chance to do just that when he covered a couple different instances of flooding during his internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“Sometimes (the photos are) about the camaraderie of neighbors and local people around helping each other out — taking care of each other, helping each other escape — and other times it’s just saying ‘This is what this disaster did,’” Kormann said. “Hopefully my pictures can show the strength of the human spirit, and how people are suffering, but there are beautiful moments of the human spirit being tested that I try and capture as best I can.”
Although these photographers agree on the importance of covering these topics at the ground level, Gourley said that it is also imperative to be aware of one’s own space in such situations.
“I would definitely say to anyone who’s thinking about going into an area that has been affected by a natural disaster like that, you have to keep in mind that you’re taking up resources — you’re taking up space in those kinds of situations,” Gourley said. “If you’re going there just to take photos for yourself, you really just have to make sure that you’re not putting a strain on those resources because there are people there that are actually living through that. And you don’t want to take away help that someone else needs.”
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