One year ago, Glynn County residents who’d scattered across the Southeast to evacuate from Hurricane Irma were beginning their journeys to return home.
This year, though, as Hurricane Florence pounds North Carolina, the Golden Isles community has had the chance to welcome evacuees of the storm here and make their temporary stay in Glynn County as easy as possible.
Sara Austin has seen firsthand how kind this community can be.
The Beaufort, N.C., resident evacuated to St. Simons Island on Wednesday with her husband, son, parents-in-law and a friend.
She also brought along 24 dogs and cats.
Austin is the owner of Austin Veterinary Animal Hospital in Beaufort, a small town on the coast of North Carolina, and she brought along her mobile vet lab, a van on which she normally provides low-cost spay and neuter services.
“We have cats that are up for adoption, and dogs that are up for adoption,” Austin said Friday. “And then we have our personal animals that we brought.”
The van is currently parked in front of their rental house on St. Simons.
Neighbors couldn’t help but notice.
“Everybody has been so nice — the whole neighborhood,” Austin said.
Austin and her group left home on Tuesday, when Hurricane Florence was still a Category 4 storm barreling toward the Southeastern coast.
“We said, we’ve got way too many animals to care for to stay, because if something happens, how do you get this many animals out if it’s too late?” Austin said. “So we decided let’s go ahead and go now.”
Roads heading north and west were blocked, she said, so they headed south without a confirmed destination. They spent Tuesday night in South Carolina, but the group woke up to realize they may not have outrun the storm just yet.
“When we woke up Wednesday morning, it had shifted to where it was supposed to hit South Carolina as well, so we said, ‘OK, let’s keep going south,’” Austin said. “We looked up places to stay in Jacksonville, Fla., and everything was booked.”
On a whim, they made a call about rental houses on St. Simons and found the home in which they’re now staying.
The neighborhood has welcomed them with open arms, Austin said, and connected them with local businesses who could help. The owner of Island Dog pet store on St. Simons donated food, treats and toys for the animals. Seaside Veterinary Hospital allowed them to bring their dogs to the clinic’s backyard, to run around and stretch their legs.
“They have been absolutely fantastic,” Austin said. “Another lady came by and gave us a gift certificate to get pizzas.”
A police officer even escorted Austin’s father and mother-in-law when they arrived at night and couldn’t find the rental home.
“It’s amazing just to see how giving and helping everybody is in this community,” said Brooke Lawrence, a friend who’s traveling with Austin from Beaufort.
Back home, though, the damages are continuing to be assessed. Austin has heard from those who stayed that her home has flooded, but her veterinarian’s office had not, as of Friday morning.
“But if I had to pick, I’d pick the office to be safe,” she said. “I can rebuild the home. Rebuilding our office would be a lot harder.”
Austin and Lawrence guessed that about half the community in Beaufort had chosen to evacuate. The other half decided to ride out the storm from home.
“We’ve had hurricanes. Not one of this size,” Austin said. “And we haven’t had a hurricane since we’ve moved to this office or the home that I’m living in now.”
The 24 pets that evacuated with them — 16 dogs and eight cats — have been secure and well taken care of in the mobile vet lab, which is usually used for Austin’s nonprofit, Austin Veterinary Outreach and Rescue.
They’ve rented the house on St. Simons until Monday. If anyone wishes to donate pet food or water, Austin said they’ll be able to carry the items to Beaufort for the animals back home.
“We’ve got enough room,” she said. “We can just stack it in there and take it home to everybody.”
Donations can be dropped off on the porch of the house, located at 504 Beach Drive on St. Simons.
Austin said she’s already seen the generous nature of this community.
“We couldn’t have stopped in a better place, that’s for sure,” she said.