SHERRY KUGHN: Couple’s move takes them away from hurricanes

Wayne and Judy O’Neal stand next to some items they brought from North Carolina.

Sherry Kughn

If there are any homeowners who know about flooding from a hurricane, Wayne and Judy O’Neal of Nances Creek do. The couple was born and raised on Cape Hatteras, N.C., a 50-mile-long island with seven “villages.” Wayne was born in the island’s namesake village of Hatteras and Judy in Buxton. They married and assumed the same life that most people on Cape Hatteras have – making a living on the water.

Similar to floods in recent days on Cape Hatteras from Hurricane Jose, floods happened twice to the O’Neals with Hurricane Emily in 1993 and Hurricane Isabel in 2005.

The O’Neals were not at home during the second flood because they learned how scary the first one was.

“During Emily, we first started moving everything we could on top of tables and shelves,” said Wayne, a soft-spoken, friendly man. “The waters kept rising, and we lost almost everything.”

During the flood, a beloved pet dog ran out their door. Wayne stepped off his porch to rescue it and found himself in neck-high water.

The destruction of their house happened again with Isabel. Both times, they stripped out walls and floors and replaced them. After Isabel, they decided to sell.

“It’s hard to lose everything you’ve spent 30 years working for,” Wayne said.

Circumstances being what they were, the O’Neals visited a relative in Nances Creek and loved the area. Now they are settled on high ground atop a small hill with hardly any chance, short of a Noah-like flood, of ever having to rebuild a house.

Their Nances Creek home is filled with memories of living on an island. A painting of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse hangs in the den. Three ship wheels decorate the living room. While reminiscing, Judy, a pet lover who held her Chihuahua during the interview, pointed to a hutch they brought back from their former home.

“See how the high the water came?” she asked.

Wayne walked to a narrow, dark wood cabinet in a corner.

“This is a captain’s shaving cabinet,” he said.

His grandfather, Norwood, rescued the cabinet from a sinking ship. Such an artifact was too precious to leave in Hatteras.

The O’Neals also brought with them accents different from most Alabamaians who draw out vowel sounds.

Words with the “ow” pronunciation here, such as “cow” and “sound,” seem more like “kiah” and “sign,” traits which make the former islanders chuckle.

“Our friends in North Carolina tell us we certainly have not lost our accent,” Judy said.

Before he retired in 1988, Wayne was a ferry boat captain for the Ferry Division of the Department of Transportation of North Carolina.

He started the job after several years of commercial fishing. As an engineer on the ferry boats, he transported tourists in used U.S. Army landing craft. Later, the state built new ferry boats, and Wayne became a captain.

The seven-day-on, seven-day-off ferry-boat job lent itself to working on off-weeks. Wayne knew the job well. He learned as a young teen beside his father, Eph, pronounced “eef.” He bought his own boat and each week caught 15,000-20,000 pounds of fish, including sea trout, dog sharks, and blue fish. The tasks included unloading the fish and the painstakingly hard job of pulling them from nets. Next, Wayne loaded the fish onto conveyor belts where they were iced down and shipped away. Judy often worked on land alongside her husband and sometimes even on the water. Later she worked at other jobs on the island.

The O’Neals have made a pleasant life for themselves in their new home state. Although they have a daughter still in North Carolina, their son works at the Honda plant in Lincoln. They live on a rural road in Nances Creek where they are separated from neighbors by a few acres. Judy is a meticulous housekeeper, and he “plays” with a backhoe and tractor. They go to trade day the first of each month at the Nances Creek Community Center.

Still, sometimes they think of their former lives growing up and, later, making a living on the island. As children, they ran up and down the beaches freely, saw many ships, and enjoyed the beauty of the picturesque beaches.

“Once a ship loaded with bananas wrecked,” Judy said, remembering a childhood experience. “Bananas washed up on shore, and everyone had bananas for a long time.”

Pleasant memories are rarely marred by hardship, and places of beauty are made for new memories. The mirror ponds, rolling hills, and green forests of Nances Creek provide such a place.

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