LUMBERTON, N.C. — They came to the shelters bearing blankets, Bibles and board games, folders of family photos and insurance papers, treasured stuffed animals, and a week’s worth of cigarettes.
They carried life jackets, televisions, zip-top bags of medication, and grocery bags full of mixed nuts and chocolate chip cookies. They came with their children, their grandparents, their friends who are closer than family.
And nearly all of them came with painful memories of hurricanes past — Hugo, Floyd, Matthew — and the fear that this one would be even worse.
By the time Florence bore down on the Carolinas on Friday, bringing 100-mph winds, more than 10 feet of storm surge and disastrous amounts of rain, about 20,000 people had sought refuge at one of 200 Red Cross shelters across the region, said Rebecca Torriani, a regional spokeswoman for the organization. Across the Carolinas and Georgia, several other large public facilities and makeshift camps opened to serve those who had fled their homes.
Some had shown up days before the storm made landfall,when it was still hard to imagine storm clouds filling the blue September sky. Others walked through the shelters’ doors after the hurricane had struck, shocked by its ferocity and drenched by the rain.
And sometimes, tragedy came to them. An evacuee at the West Brunswick High School shelter in Shallotte, N.C., died Thursday morning. A Brunswick County spokeswoman said an investigation was underway, but that the death was unrelated to the storm.
In the southeastern North Carolina city of Lumberton, the gymnasiums at the high school reached capacity — 450 people — before the rains even started. The city was among those hardest hit in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew, which submerged streets beneath several feet of water and destroyed hundreds of homes.
“Matthew caught people off guard,” said Faye Lovell, director of the Lumberton High shelter. “This time, they’re not taking any chances. We’re better prepared.”
But there was still so much to do. The shelter was short about 100 green cots, and there were not any medical beds for an older woman named Mary, who had a bad knee and could not bend down. There was dinner to organize — chicken and rice, fried okra, and pineapple tidbits, served on foam trays by the school’s cafeteria workers. One woman had a panic attack in the chaos and had to get picked up by her son.
Chris and Jen Jolin of Newport, N.C., had a different strategy. On Tuesday, they packed everything they could in their 2003 Ford Taurus — including their three children and mixed-breed dog, GiGi — and embarked on what became a four-day ordeal to find safety.
They tried the local hurricane shelter, but it didn’t have a crate big enough for GiGi. Plus, Jen Jolin was worried it was going to be too close to the storm surge and flood. So they journeyed to higher ground, driving 400 miles with a plan to camp in the mountains. But the $30 campground fee was too high — they had just paid all of their bills for the month.
“I thought it was going to be free or reduced for evacuees,” said Jen Jolin, who cleans condos on the beach for $25 a unit. “We couldn’t afford to stay there five nights.”
So they set up their tent in a nearby Walmart parking lot with other evacuees but were kicked out by a store manager at 5 a.m. They ended up at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, which opened 5,000 campground spaces and free showers to evacuees.
“We were told to evacuate,” Jen said. “It would have been easier to stay.”
There were 19 mobile homes and trailers parked at the speedway on Friday. Many were far from home, but there it was 93 degrees and dry — no threat of rain. And unlike many shelters, the evacuees were allowed to have their pets.
Stephen Durham had come from his home in Myrtle Beach, S.C., pulling a 16-foot trailer. He said he didn’t want to be “one of those people,” the ones desperately waving their arms from the rooftop pleading to be rescued as their homes were surrounded by rising floodwaters. His wife, Marge Durham, agreed.
“We just put a new roof on the house,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to bust a hole in it to get out on the roof.”
Just outside Myrtle Beach, Todd Dunn, 44, came to the shelter at Conway High School on Tuesday in an ambulance. He can’t walk because of neuropathy in his legs caused by Type 2 diabetes. He’s also completely blind — and lives alone. On Friday morning he sat on a cot in a part of the shelter known as “the medical ward,” which filled a hallway and part of the school’s cafeteria.
Nearby, 74-year-old Nancy Stroman had brought a lounge chair to sleep on. She said she is comfortable at the shelter, a far safer place to ride out the storm than her apartment by a lake, where she, like Dunn, lives alone. But it gets cold at night in the medical ward, she said.
“We need hot drinks,” Stroman said. “Seniors can’t be cold. I’m always cold.”
Some patients had heart ailments, some were pregnant, some needed constant medication. Ages range from a days-old infant to a 100-year-old woman, said Amy Eathington, a retired nurse and Red Cross volunteer.
“It’s very similar to working in an emergency room,” Eathington said.
At a shelter in rural Aynor, S.C., 7-year-old Rosalie Hardee and her 4-year-old sister, Christina, came with purple pony sleeping bags, stuffed toys, an iPad, crayons and some papers. They passed out their pictures of hearts, butterflies, trees and unicorns to their fellow evacuees.
Like so many others, their father, Kenneth Hardee Jr., 29, wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened to his family during Hurricane Matthew. The storm washed off the dirt road leading to their mobile home, turning it into a three-foot-deep ditch, and tore down oak trees nearby. The giant limbs blocked the main road.
“We got stuck in there,” he said.
He and his brother had to walk three miles to get help, he said.
So, days before Hurricane Florence struck, Hardee took his wife and daughters to a middle school, where there is a backup generator and they would not have to worry about flooding.
“We knew we’d be safe just in case something did happen at the house,” Hardee said.
Meanwhile, his girls worked on their latest masterpiece: a drawing of flowers and animals around the words “thank you all,” which they gave to police officers at the shelter, who taped it to a table, charmed.
But as the winds picked up and the rains came down, life in the shelters began to wear on the evacuees.
Residents of the First Baptist Homes, an affordable housing facility for seniors and people with disabilities, arrived at the Lumberton High shelter with fears about losing everything they hadn’t been able to bring with them.
Lola Smith, 69, wearing a T-shirt printed with the words “Amazing Grace,” had been consoling her neighbors, speaking in a gentle, no-nonsense tone that made some of them call her “Mom.”
But after two days, even she had begun to wish she had stayed in her apartment. Staffers at the shelter would not allow evacuees to eat anywhere but the cafeteria. There were no showers, not even hot water for a sponge bath. And it had been almost impossible to sleep on the narrow canvas cots provided by the Red Cross.
“It’s not a permanent thing,” she told herself.
But already she was checking the forecast and praying for a reprieve.
“As soon as the storm has hit altogether,” she said, “I’m going to do my best to leave. I just want to go home.”
Phillips reported from Myrtle Beach, S.C. Glier reported from Hampton, Ga. Sharon Dunten in Savannah, Ga., and Rachel Siegel in New Bern, N.C., contributed to this report.