- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2018

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Hundreds of evacuees from Hurricane Florence, many of them with children and pets, made their way through the Smoky Mountains this weekend to a Christian summer camp, relieved to find shelter from the deadly storm.

“It was kind of like they walked in and they could breathe,” Camp Cedar Cliffs staffer Haley Duerstock, 28, said Saturday.

Camp Cedar Cliffs opened its doors and its pantry to offer free lodging to some of the thousands of people ordered to evacuate coastal areas in North and South Carolina and Virginia last week during the approach of Hurricane Florence.

The Category 1 hurricane made landfall Friday, killing at least 15 people and dumping as much as 30 inches of rain in some areas. More than 900 people were rescued from floodwaters as rivers and streams swelled in the Carolinas.

By Saturday night, Cedar Cliffs had welcomed 220 evacuees, 55 dogs, 47 cats, two birds and a turtle.

Daniela Castillo, 22, left Leland, North Carolina, on Thursday with 22 people, a dog, and two parakeets as families from her church, Iglesia Caminando en Cristo, drove west looking for higher ground. They were running out of money and supplies when they found Cedar Cliffs, said Ms. Castillo, who served as an interpreter for the Spanish-speaking evacuees.

“Everything God has done,” Victor Mendosa, 33, said through Ms. Castillo. “He put us with the right people.”

The camp had stacks of bottled water and two storage rooms filled with donated supplies such as snacks and flashlights ready for the wave of visitors. The evacuees were settled into the 24 cabins nestled on 300 acres between western red cedars and Carolina hemlocks that muffled the hum of window fans, chirping crickets and the occasional bark of a Chihuahua. During the day, volunteers led activities with the camp’s climbing walls, campfires, zip lines and pool.

“It distracts you a lot,” said Carolina, a 17-year-old high school student whose family evacuated with their clothes, cellphones and 2-year-old boxer mix. “Generally, that’s a good thing because you don’t want to have a lot of free time to think.”

At the camp, she met Alex, 17, and his siblings — Caroline, 12, and Brian, 14 — from Maysville, North Carolina. They all played carpet ball outside the dining hall until they “were sick of it.” Carolina joked that at least the evacuation allowed her to get out of school and work. The three siblings, who are home-schooled, groaned and said, “Lucky.”

Cedar Cliffs is a year-round camp that aims to transform youths “into authentic followers of Christ, marked by a desire to serve others in his name and live godly lives,” according to its website.

Camp directors Libby and Tim Brady put their faith into action Wednesday by canceling a weekend conference for middle-schoolers to make way for the evacuees.

“We just couldn’t handle having all these empty beds and all these people with no place to go,” Mrs. Brady said.

Eight churches from Asheville supported their mission by providing three meals a day for a week. Saturday’s breakfast, lunch and dinner were catered by Biltmore Church with food from local restaurants. The megachurch’s pastor, the Rev. Curt McClure, and other Biltmore volunteers served lasagna and salad Saturday night, and the three youngest helpers — Colt, 3; Gage, 7; and Knox, 7 — handed out cupcakes for dessert.

Mr. McClure said it was a “no-brainer” for Biltmore to foot the $5,000 bill because feeding refugees is part of being “the hands and feet of Jesus.” The pastor, who grew up in the eastern part of the state hit hardest by Florence, said he was happy to help “serve those displaced for a time.”

It’s not the first time the Bradys have turned Cedar Cliffs into a Noah’s ark. Last year, they welcomed 200 evacuees of Hurricane Irma to the foggy mountain camp, which itself was damaged by more than 20 falling trees.

“Last year, we were like, ‘That was awesome, but we can’t do it again,’” Mr. Brady said.

Brenda and Robert Duran were those evacuees, and they returned to Cedar Cliffs on Wednesday with their three children and new French bulldog, Frankie, after flood warnings for her double-wide trailer in Charleston.

“It feels like you’re a kid again at camp,” Mrs. Duran said. “You feel guilty for the people that couldn’t come.”

Mr. Brady said the camp was more prepared to host evacuees this year thanks to lessons learned. They asked how many people were in each group and secured supplies such as dog bowls and leashes.

Staffers said it still took late nights and an improved check-in system to pull it off.

“It was chaos here,” said Ms. Duerstock, who works as the camp’s human resources and financial director. “The whole check-in system was insane.”

Flooded roads, heavy rains and family emergencies extended estimated arrival times for many, and staffers ended up checking in people at all hours of the night. As storm predictions changed over the week, dozens canceled and sometimes remade evacuation plans. The 300-person wait list required continual updating.

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