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Family That Survived Hurricane Maria Won't Make The 'Mistake' Of Staying This Time

A sign posts a mandatory evacuation prior to Hurricane Florence in Emerald Isle N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018.
Tom Copeland AP
A sign posts a mandatory evacuation prior to Hurricane Florence in Emerald Isle N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018.

Last November, Juan Rojas, 30, and his family moved to New Bern, N.C. from Puerto Rico. Their livelihoods came to a halt after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. After Hurricane Florence rapidly strengthened on Monday, he and his family decided to leave for Marietta, Ga., where his brother lives.

"They said that Hurricane Maria was a category five hurricane, but it was more because she was a five, but she had tremors and she had tornados in her, too," he said. "They had houses flying over ... it was bad. If that was in Puerto Rico, where the houses were concrete and everything was shaking, I don't want to know what's going to happen here."

Rojas says their concrete home was still standing after Maria, but the strength of the storm tore off their garage roof. "The whole house was trembling. It was shaking. And it's a concrete house," Rojas said.


Many homes in Craven County are wood-framed, and that has him worried that they won't be able to withstand a major hurricane, Rojas said.

"The only thing that I'm scared of is that the houses are not concrete," he said. "If that happened there, what could happen here? That's the only thing that has me concerned."

He, his parents, his sister and her two children survived on the island for about three months without electricity or water, Rojas said. Two months had passed after the storm before they could make contact with his other sister, who lives in New Bern, N.C.

Rojas says before Hurricane Maria hit, he and his family underestimated the destruction she would cause. So, they stayed at their home. He says that's a mistake they don't want to repeat by remaining in New Bern ahead of Hurricane Florence, which is expected to be a major hurricane when it hits the Carolinas.

"A lot of people, including myself, we thought that that's not going to happen until she was there and that kind of mentality can ruin you," he said.


"She was trying to call us ever since she knew that the hurricane was happening. But we lost power," he said. "We had no communication, whatsoever, even the radio stations. We got a radio with batteries at home, but it wouldn't work because the antennas were out."

Rojas, who's a stylist, says he also lost his job after the storm hit the island, leaving him without income and dwindling savings. "Clients could not go there to see me because they had no money. Everything goes to water, gas for generators, groceries. And of course, the prices for things – they went up a little bit just because they were sparse."

Since moving to New Bern, Rojas has secured a job working at SmartStyle Hair Salon, which is located inside Wal-Mart. He says he was surprised to see many shoppers buying grocery items to stay at their homes during the storm, instead of preparing to leave town.

"They're buying bread, water, sodas and beer," Rojas said. "It's alarming how people are getting ready to stay at their house. It's O.K. if you buy something to go on the road and evacuate somewhere — but not to stay at your house."

Hurricane Florence hasn't yet hit land, but the storm has already caused Rojas a lot of anxiety. He says he believes it triggered his first panic attack while he was waiting at Coastal Carolina Health Care for a doctor's appointment on Monday morning.

"I felt the walls shrinking on me. I felt like I got cold. I had to turn my phone off. I had to open the door. When the nurse saw me, she went like 'Are you O.K.?' And I was like, 'No, something is happening. I need to get out," Rojas said.

Rojas advises coastal residents who have lived through hurricanes to never become complacent when a major storm is approaching. "If there's something that I've learned, it's never say never," Rojas said. "You cannot compare this to something that happened in the past because I'm pretty sure that you haven't experienced a category five hurricane. I hadn't until last year, and it was scary."

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