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Florence forces some Pittsburgh-area natives to come home

| Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, 5:39 p.m.
A National Guardsman directs counterflow traffic traveling west from Myrtle Beach on U.S. 501 as Hurricane Florence approaches the East Coast, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Conway, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
A National Guardsman directs counterflow traffic traveling west from Myrtle Beach on U.S. 501 as Hurricane Florence approaches the East Coast, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Conway, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

The 10-hour drive from Wilmington, N.C., to Leechburg turned into a 15-hour ordeal for Mary Sulava on Tuesday, the day she found herself escaping the inevitable arrival of Hurricane Florence.

As the Category 2 storm neared the coast, Sulava is glad she decided to evacuate, but she’s sorry her husband is not with her.

Aaron Sulava, also a Leechburg native, stayed in North Carolina as part of a 20-man team overseeing the safety of the International Paper plant in Riegelwood, N.C.

“I did consider staying until I found out my husband had to be at work,” she said. “Most people we know have left.”

Among those who have evacuated from coastal communities are Western Pennsylvania natives who now call North Carolina home or who vacation in the Outer Banks.

Mary Sulava, 24, moved to Leland, N.C., near Wilmington, about a year ago for her husband’s job. A third-grade teacher in New Hanover County, she had to hurricane-proof her classroom the same way she did her house.

“I took an inventory of everything and moved everything away from the windows and off the floor,” she said, noting that classes have been canceled until further notice.

Sulava met up with her parents on Tuesday, and they drove back to Pennsylvania together. She is staying with her in-laws in Leechburg and is in regular contact with her husband.

“You don’t know when you’re going to be able to get back home and what it’s going to look like,” she said.

Pittsburgh native Scott Shields watched the resort town of Nags Head, N.C., empty out on Monday and closed his two restaurants on Tuesday – until further notice. He and his wife, Melissa, own the Blue Moon Beach Grill in Nags Head and Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar on Roanoke Island.

“It’s pretty much a ghost town here,” he said. “It’s kind of ominous. It’s a weird feeling.”

Shields, 41, and his wife have decided not to evacuate. They’re staying at their Kill Devil Hills home, which is about 80 feet above sea level.

“I got the generator fired up, boarded up the windows and put everything on higher ground,” he said.

Growing up in Pittsburgh’s North Side, Shields spent summers in the Outer Banks and remembers fishing at Jennette’s Pier. His parents, Will and Karen Shields, both Western Pennsylvania natives, first crossed the Wright Memorial Bridge as newlyweds in 1970.

After graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Academy of Culinary Arts, Shields wasted no time moving back to the place that he found so alluring. He later met his wife there, and they opened their Nags Head restaurant in 2009.

Angie Wisilosky-Nickerson and her husband, Scott Nickerson, left North Carolina with their 10-year-old son, a Labrador retriever and four cats on Tuesday – but not before she posted an icon of St. Jude on her front door and said a prayer to St. Anthony.

The fact that Hurricane Florence was downgraded from a Category 4 storm was an answer to prayer, said Wisilosky-Nickerson, a Catholic.

A native of Everson, Fayette County, Wisilosky-Nickerson has lived in North Carolina for 19 years. She works as a registered nurse and calls Kure Beach, N.C., on Pleasure Island, home. They live on a cul-de-sac where the neighbors are close.

“It’s kind of overwhelming when you leave and you think you may never walk into your house again. … Hopefully, we’ll be back,” she said Friday from her mother’s home in Everson.

The family left at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday after making the necessary preparations – boarding up the windows and sliding glass door, taking the pictures off the walks, removing photo albums, videos and important papers, and securing the lawn furniture, basketball hoop, soccer goal and trampoline.

They’ve evacuated for other storms, but never out-of-state.

“This storm just seemed different than the other ones. It intensified so fast, from a tropical storm to a hurricane. I was starting to get scared. People that we know who never leave the island are gone,” she said.

Staying behind and riding the storm out was not an option.

“The mentality of staying with something so bad – I don’t understand that,” she said.

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