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Life after Hurricane Florence through the eyes of James Sprunt students: Joanna Lanier, Jerry Coats, and Jennifer Sutton

With graduation just a few weeks away, the advertising and graphic design students at James Sprunt Community College are busy trying to finish up projects and preparing for the annual art show which was held on April 30.

This year, there are three students graduating from the Advertising and Graphic Design Program: Joanna Lanier, Jerry Coats, and Jennifer Sutton.

“The art show will be something good to look forward to,” said Joanna Lanier. “We’ve worked this hard, this is what we worked for.”

“We are all very excited about the art show,” said Jennifer Sutton.

Jennifer Sutton works on a design for the upcoming art show and has many of her art pieces ready to showcase. Courtesy of James Sprunt Community College

“And don’t forget about graduation, we’re excited about that, too,” said Jerry Coats.

These three students have become best of friends — they are like family, they say. It has been a difficult year for all of them. The stress of school and everyday life can be expected for most college students — it is not always easy trying to earn your degree. But, for these students graduating in 2019, this last year has been more difficult than they could have ever imagined, as they have endured many uncertainties and struggles thanks to Hurricane Florence.

When the hurricane hit, it caught everyone off-guard. The storm had been downgraded to a Category 1. Most people thought it would come ashore and be gone in a day or two, but that did not happen. The storm was stationary on most of eastern North Carolina for almost a week, dumping over 20 inches of rain in some areas, and leaving many in dismay. Those living near the northeast Cape Fear River not only had to deal with the falling rain above, but also water coming downstream and the storm surge coming inland.

“We weren’t really sure how scared to be,” said Joanna. “We spent the week before packing and trying to move things to higher shelves at the store and on the second floor at home, all while still trying to go to school and work.”

Joanna’s family owns a store, which is located on their home property in Chinquapin. “That store is the only source of income for my family.”

“The night before we evacuated we checked the flood waters by the river during the storm,” said Joanna. “We didn’t think it was going to be too bad, but the next morning at 4 a.m., my Dad woke everyone up and said we had to go, the water was already getting high. The evacuation was not supposed to be until 12 noon.”

Joanna Lanier holds the poster that she designed for the Annual Student Art Show, it was selected as the official poster for the event. Courtesy of James Sprunt Community College

“When we heard the flood was coming, we thought we were going to be OK,” said Jerry, who lives in Burgaw. “But when it finally hit, it was hard to find a place to stay. We finally found a hotel about three hours away. We didn’t think we were going to make it because many of the roads were already flooded out.”

Many like Jennifer were without power. “We didn’t have power for about a week, and sometimes the water did not work,” she said. “We fared really well in Kenansville, our house was fine, we had some tree branches down, but we were OK, it was nothing like what Joanna or Jerry had to go through.”

Joanna and Jerry recalled the moments leading up to the discovery of what was happening to their homes after they evacuated.

“While we were staying at the hotel, my Grandma got a message and she just started crying,” said Jerry as he recalls the moment he learned the fate of his home. “A friend of ours took a boat out to see the house. He took a picture — the floodwaters were to the top of the window of our home. Seeing that broke us, we didn’t know what we were going to do. We did not have flood insurance because it was too expensive.”

It was a similar situation for Joanna.

“We knew the water was rising and rising,” said Joanna, who evacuated to her best friend’s house in Beulaville, along with her family. “We didn’t get to see a photo for a few days, the current by the bridge was too strong for a boat to get to our house…but when the waters calmed, we saw a photo that showed the whole first floor of our house was submerged in water.”

The only things that Jerry was able to save were those items that he was able to pack into the back of his Jeep. Those things stayed in his car until just recently.

“After about seven months from not knowing where we were going to sleep… we stayed in a camper, at my aunt’s, and at two hotels; we just now were able to get into a new home,” said Jerry. “There is no furniture in the home. We don’t have any… even though it’s our home, it doesn’t feel like it.”

“You never know what you have until it’s gone,” he said.

For Joanna, the struggle of being displaced continues.

“We have been staying with my Aunt, who lives in Beulaville,” said Joanna. “It’s a one room building in her backyard with a small kitchen area and a bathroom. It was the only thing we could come up with… my whole family is packed in that one room. I have to share a bed with my little brother because there’s a bed in every corner, and we don’t have room for another.”

She added, “It’s not the best of circumstances in the world, but we have all definitely grown a lot closer.”

Joanna and her family sought assistance from FEMA but were denied. They are now seeking to have their home and land on the buy-out list, but they are still waiting to see if that will happen.

In the meantime, their family waits, still living packed in a one-room building. “My Dad is scared to buy land or build another house, because we don’t know if they are going to buy us out, we are still unsure,” said Joanna. “My Dad doesn’t want to take out another loan and not be able to pay it back.”

Despite the struggles and the pain that the Hurricane has brought on, Jerry and Joanna have remained dedicated to their studies at James Sprunt.

The college was closed for almost three weeks following the landfall of Hurricane Florence.

“When they came back, Joanna never missed a day, she was never late, and she was always early,” said Amber Dail, the advertising and graphic design instructor. “A lot of people don’t come to class and they don’t have any reason to miss, but Joanna has been here every single day.”

“It was good coming back, because we’re family, and I don’t know what I would do without it,” said Joanna on staying in school. “It’s what kept me going I guess.”

“I’ve come this far and I can’t quit now,” she added.

“I didn’t want to let anybody down, I really wanted to graduate and I wanted to graduate this year,” said Jerry.

Joanna, Jerry, and Jennifer, all say they are looking forward to what the future holds.

Joanna wants to stay in Duplin County close to her family, and hopes to become a freelance designer, and have her own studio where she can design hats, t-shirts, and logos. She is learning website design in her spare time.

Jerry Coats holds a t-shirt that he designed and stands besides many of his art pieces that he is preparing for the upcoming art show at James Sprunt. Courtesy of James Sprunt Community College

Jerry is considering moving to Raleigh, finding a job there. He wants to go after another degree, this one in gaming design.

Jennifer would like to work for herself and, after a few years, maybe move to somewhere like Raleigh and be in the city.

Through it all, the three have been a source of strength and encouragement for one another, and this bond between them is one that is likely to continue to grow even after they all walk across the stage.

“Everyone is so close, we all get along, and we are all learning together,” said Joanna.

Jennifer added, “If we are having trouble on something, we can ask each other about it.”

“It has been great becoming a family of sorts,” Jerry said.

In May, Joanna, Jerry, and Jennifer will receive their associate of applied science in advertising and graphic design, a remarkable accomplishment considering the circumstances they have endured.

Although the stress of the storm has taken its toll on these students, with graduation and the art show coming up, the three say it is great to have “some celebration days” in which they can all come together and showcase their talents and see their hard work, dedication, and perseverance finally pay off. In some ways, it is their light at the end of the tunnel.

Editor’s note: This perspective was originally published by James Sprunt Community College. It’s been posted with the author’s permission.

Cheryl Hemric

Cheryl Hemric is the public information officer at Robeson Community College. Hemric has worked in the North Carolina Community College System, promoting student success, for over 20 years. She is a proud graduate of a community college, holding an associates degree in advertising and graphic design, and loves to share the story of how education can changes lives and give people hope. She received her bachelor’s degree from Liberty University and her master’s degree in marketing from Southern New Hampshire University.