Longtime resident Bonnie Savage, whose home flooded twice in Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, behind the counter at Johnny’s Drive-In on Main Street in Fair Bluff. Photograph: Michael Graff
At 10.05am on a Thursday this June, Bonnie Savage slaps a beef patty on a flattop grill at Johnny’s restaurant on Main Street. It’s only a quarter-mile walk to downtown from here, but Johnny’s didn’t flood in either storm. Now it’s one of only a handful of places still open most days.
Savage, for all she’s been through, remains upbeat. She has worked at Johnny’s as the only full-time waitress for nearly a dozen years. It’s the best job she has ever had. Pictures of regulars decorate the walls. In Fair Bluff, where the population is more than 60% black, the shots show a colorful mix of faces.
There are signs of construction around town, but good news is slow. Fair Bluff’s largest employer, Ply Gem, which makes vinyl fencing, recently announced it will close, resulting in about 60 to 70 layoffs. “We will have what you might say is no industry here,” says Britt, the former mayor.
Most areas east of Interstate 95 in North Carolina are adjusting to two new realities. First, the farming industry has changed dramatically, with the tobacco all but gone and big agriculture companies soaking up profits from the pork and poultry growers. Second, hurricanes keep coming.
In Fair Bluff, I heard a question I have heard just about everywhere else I pull out a notepad in eastern North Carolina: “Are you gonna help us?”
Lundy, the retired minister, collected a couple of thousand dollars through the church last fall and went door to door with cash in envelopes: about $200 for single people, $400 for families with children. In one instance, he stopped a woman downtown and handed her $300.
“She put her head on my shoulder and just wept,” he says. “My shoulder was wet from her tears.”
When I ask Kempton, the town project manager, about Savage’s house, she knows immediately who I’m talking about. Kempton eats lunch at Johnny’s like everybody else. “I’ve not heard a good story since I’ve been here,” says Kempton, who came here after Florence on a two-year contract. “But Bonnie will be getting a house. And hopefully it’ll be enough to heal her.”
For Savage, it can’t come soon enough.
She lives with her brother and his two grown sons. The sons are 40 and 37, and she gripes about them not having a job in this town without jobs. She cooks for all of them each night after her shift at the restaurant.
She tells me that she has had more health problems in the past three years than in all her life. Doctors prescribed a steady stream of painkillers for a pinched nerve in her neck, but she hated how they made her feel, so she threw them away. Now, she says, she’s dealing with high blood pressure.
But why not just take the buyout and move to higher land just outside of town, away from the black-tea river? Hasn’t she heard that the storms are only going to get worse?
“I’m not even worried about the flood again,” she says. “I’m living in the here and now.”