Dark clouds swirled overhead and tree branches waved faster and faster as the inland effects of Hurricane Florence appeared to threaten the greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area on Friday afternoon.
And yet, even with the storm looming and locals scurrying to buy up all the water, bread and gas, Chelsie Coolman had a peace about her. She sat laughing with her 8-year-old daughter Leah at the picnic table near her family’s RV.
The joy on their faces belies the tough week this family has had. Evacuating from their home in Coastal North Carolina wasn’t easy, but the family knows they aren’t walking alone.
“If we didn’t have the was going to protect us, then what would we have?” Chelsie asked, the winds picking up around her. “We would just have the worry and the doubt that the unbeliever has, and that would be a million times worse in a situation like this.”
The Coolmans are among 70-some evacuees who are calling the Charlotte Motor Speedway Campgrounds home for now; waiting, hopeful that their physical homes will withstand the potentially catastrophic impact of Florence. On Sept. 11, the speedway opened up free (dry camping only) and discounted campsites for people heeding mandatory evacuations along the Atlantic Coast.
Florence made landfall early Friday morning in North Carolina—about an hour from the Coolmans’ home in Richlands. Prayer has been a big part of Chelsie’s life, and she said she asked God to direct her family when they decided to evacuate earlier this week. Their first plan was Georgia, but the predicted path of the storm sent the family, its two dogs and cat 250 miles west to the Charlotte Motor Speedway Campgrounds.
Campground officials say the campsites are graded to avoid catastrophic flooding. The bathhouse, which is open to both campsites, will serve as an emergency shelter should conditions worsen for campers.
Chelsie is watching the weather, hoping to get back to her home as soon as she can. A friend who recently returned told her it looks like her property sustained only minimal damage. That’s great news for the Coolmans, and particularly Chelsie, who stored her great-grandmother’s Bible in the dishwasher for safekeeping.
Thirty miles south of the speedway, disaster relief volunteer Jill Willet spent her day off work helping evacuees like Chelsie.
“A smile goes a long way,” she said in regards to those she’d met who were quiet and unsure about the incoming weather.
She knew all too well the destruction caused by storms—a tree fell on her home likely due to a tornado caused by Hurricane Fran.
“[God’s] where I ,” she explained. “We actually lost our house in a hurricane before and rebuilt to where we live now.
“I know what the bad looks like, but our whole family came out unscathed and we lost a few possessions and if that’s it, then I’m good.
“So I’m not worried,” Willet said, thinking about Florence.
Through her inner peace, she’s able to comfort evacuees she comes across and found Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains nearby doing the same.
“Some [evacuees] immediately wanted to talk to them,” Willet said, noting that several had recognized their blue shirts.
As the chaplains offered emotional and spiritual care by talking and praying with evacuees, Willet was touched by their presence. “I feel like they knew who they could talk to—who would welcome them and talk,” she said. “They must have a gift for that.”
For her, the chaplains brought this reminder: “Even though things are out of our control right now, we know Who’s in control and we can trust that.”