Life is a Beach: A True Story by Patricia Dusenbury

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I married a man who had always wanted to live by the sea, and in 1995 George and I moved to North Carolina’s Cape Fear Coast. Our front yard ended where a saltwater creek flowed into the Intracoastal Waterway. A mile of marshland and ever-shifting islands of sand dunes separated us from the Atlantic Ocean. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen, and it was our front yard.

The house was built for the view with living quarters upstairs and bedrooms downstairs. It needed work, which meant we could afford it, and there was enough room for all our children and their children to visit at the same time. It was a lovely spot and a nice house, but, after five years, we moved away. Too many visitors. We enjoyed seeing friends and family, but we hadn’t considered the uninvited guests.

Bertha arrived over the 1996 July 4th weekend. A category one hurricane has maximum sustained winds of 75 to 90 miles an hour, enough to keep the tourists at home, but Hurricane Bertha was more exciting than frightening. People threw parties; we danced in the rain.

Fran came for the Labor Day weekend. She was a more powerful storm, and the state ordered evacuation of low-lying and coastal areas. But we lived in a brick house, built into a hill thirty feet above sea level, and we had a generator hard-wired into the house circuits. It wouldn’t run more than the well, the refrigerator and a few lights and fans, but we could cook on a charcoal grill. We’d be fine. We decided to stay.

That evening, Hurricane Fran made landfall as a strong category three with winds approaching 130 mph and higher gusts. We sat in the living room, watching the storm approach, until a tree bounced off the roof. We decided to stay downstairs. Hours passed and the wind kept roaring. We couldn’t talk without yelling, and it was too noisy to sleep. As time passed, fear morphed into boredom. When the eye came through, we ventured out.

Moonlight revealed a changed world. The marshes and the islands that used to separate us from the Atlantic were gone. Ocean waves crashed halfway up our yard and left behind remnants of other people’s houses. We stared, awestruck, at sections of kitchen cabinets, one with the sink still installed, chunks of walls, doors and windows. Behind us, on the landside, tall pines lay scattered like matchsticks. A big tree had gone through a neighbor’s house.

George went over to see if they were okay and returned with them in tow. They joined us downstairs. The mom tried to comfort her frightened children, who eventually cried themselves to sleep, and we all thanked God no one had been hurt.

The back end of the hurricane wasn’t as bad as the front, but we’d been hit hard. The government declared us a disaster area. The Red Cross converted the local school into a shelter where they fed and housed people whose homes were too damaged to occupy. Three days after the storm had passed, the Marines knocked on the door and asked how we were doing.

Wind had blown off all the shingles from our roof on the waterside, and we’d suffered some water damage upstairs, but nothing we couldn’t live with for a while. Our generator worked, and we had enough fuel. All in all, we felt lucky. Two weeks later, power was restored, and life began returning to normal.

Cape Fear enjoyed a respite in 1997, and 1998 brought only Bonnie, a weak category two, nothing hardened veterans couldn’t handle. Besides, anything Bonnie could have knocked over had been destroyed by Fran. We – and everyone else on the water – lost our dock once again, but that’s a hazard of coastal life.

In August of 1999, Dennis, another category two, slapped us with hurricane strength winds and then lost strength but stayed, dousing us with days of rain. Flooding turned the Wilmington area into an island. The waters had barely receded when, two weeks later, Floyd came up the Atlantic Coast, scaring everyone.

His predicted landfall began in Florida, but he slammed the Bahamas instead. Then, he moved up the east coast, precipitating one of the largest evacuations in US history. We were in the Charlotte airport, on our way home from visiting my father in Arizona, when forecasters made their “final” prediction. Floyd would make landfall in Charleston SC within a few hours.

We flew on to Wilmington, drove home and went to bed. Next morning, the ringing phone woke me.

“Why haven’t you left?” my mother-in-law said.

“Excuse me?” I tried to push the sleep out of my voice. “We got in late last night.”

“I suggest you get out of bed and turn on the TV. “


Charleston had gotten lucky. Floyd had stalled, strengthened to a category four and turned north. He was headed right at us.

No one in his right mind stays for a four, but you can’t just walk away. For the next two hours, George and I scrambled. We boarded up the windows and doors on the waterside. We brought in the outdoor furniture that hurricane winds would turn into unguided missiles. We pulled our boats out of the water, and filled them with water from the hose, so they wouldn’t blow away. (Small boats) By the time we finished, it was too late to leave.

Thanks to ground still saturated from Dennis, flooding had already begun. The roads north and west of us were underwater and impassable. The TV had not yet gone out, and we watched weather radar of tornadoes dancing back and forth across the road leading south. On the east was the Atlantic and the approaching Floyd. That moment we decided to move. Not right away – we were going downstairs to hunker down, but when it was over and the floodwaters had receded.


Patricia Dusenbury was one of those children who snuck a flashlight into bed and read mystery stories under the covers ‘til the wee small hours.  After a career as an economist, she has returned to her mysteries, now writing as well as reading. Uncial Press e-published A Perfect Victim in 2013 and Secrets, Lies & Homicide in 2014. A House of Her Own is scheduled for release on October 16, 2015, The heroine of these books rehabs old houses, something Pat learned about as she and her husband rehabbed a series of houses – while living in them. This blog is a true story about the nicest house they ever owned – and why they moved away.

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10 thoughts on “Life is a Beach: A True Story by Patricia Dusenbury

  1. Sue Roebuck

    What a lot of hurricanes, Patricia! It was a lovely location but that last photo looked very scary. I’m on the other side of the Atlantic to you and we’re pretty peaceful here 🙂 Good luck with the new book.

  2. Ute Carbone

    Great story, Pat. The Carolinas always seem to be in the path of hurricanes–I can imagine how frightening it must be to have one at your doorstep. Yikes!

  3. Kenneth Weene

    I grew up in New England where the Nor’easters ruled. My brother went to Rochester Medical School where he learned about the “lake effect.” Most of my adult life was spent on Long Island, where those Northeasters and hurricanes meet and then go off to the lair of Tempestas, presumably to spawn storms yet to come. Now I live in Arizona where we have drought, heat, and of course haboobs. My conclusion is that weather is never easy, but it gives us something to talk about. We can’t control it, but we can predict it, which gives us a frame of reference for saying, “I told you so.” Anyway, I have never wanted to live by the sea; I fear I get seasick watching the waves.

  4. Micki Peluso

    Pat, I was born in N.C. and after moving as a child, spent most of my summers there. I loved the dunes, the wildness of the ocean, even without hurricanes. It seems like it was a stopover for every hurricane coming up thr coast. I think Sandy missed you and plowed into NJ, LI, and Staten Island; a small culture DE say that seemed protected from disastrous storms. Except for SANDY, from we have still not fully recovered. I don’t b l a me you for moving. If the cycle is changing and we are hit like that v again, I’ll hope to move as well.

  5. Salvatore Buttaci

    Having visited on several occasions, I found N.C. a beautiful state. We had several states in mind when I retired in 2007, but in the end we chose West Virginia to live in. Thanks to its mountains we are spared, except for manageable flash floods, the damaging weather with which other states contend.

  6. Patricia Dusenbury

    Like Kenneth, I grew up in New England, where nor’easters teach humility. NC was beautiful, and they’ve not had a run of storms like that since we moved away. Now, I live in San Francisco, where the weather is moderate, but the ground has been known to shake. Everywhere has something.

  7. Trish Jackson

    I really enjoyed your story, Pat, and I can understand why you would eventually move away. Your property must have been gorgeous, but as you say, nothing comes without a price.

  8. Dellani Oakes

    One reason I live in Florida and not North Carolina, any storms that miss us, inevitably hit them! I don’t live right on the beach, but it’s less than 5 miles as the crow flies. As much as I love the beach, I don’t want to live on it. Here, the beaches are on islands, making them even riskier for evacuation/ survival.

    We were hit by Charley, Francis and Jeanne all the same year, 2004. We didn’t evacuate for Charley, as it was due to hit the west side of the state. However, it cut right across and the weather it brought with it made us wish we’d left. We were without power for 10 days. My darling neighbor across the street brought me coffee each morning. Such a love.

    We left for Francis and went to Hattiesburg MS to stay with my in-laws. We came back shortly after Jeanne, to dodge Ivan, which ripped through the Mobile Bay and took out part of the causeway and damaged the Escambia River bridge in Pensacola. Now, I pray that storms will miss us, jog out to sea and blow themselves out before making landfall anywhere.


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