WILMINGTON, North Carolina–At the Front Street Brewery near the banks of the Cape Fear River, Keem Grady and Anthony Alston can have all the free beer they want, but no Hurricanes.
The two friends are riding out Florence in the 153-year-old brick building as caretakers of the brick building, making sure it weathers a storm that has been downgraded to a Category 2 but is still expected to wreak havoc on the Southeast.
The brewery's liquor stock is off limits. But the beer is not.
“The taps are unlimited,” Grady, 28, told The Daily Beast. “I’ll be drinking IPA all night.”
When Florence was a Category 4 hurricane and headed straight toward Wilmington, Grady started looking for shelter inland. He searched for hotels in Atlanta and considered heading to Baltimore with family, but none of his plans panned out.
Then Grady’s boss sent out a message asking if anyone wanted to hole up at a local brewery.
The job was simple. Report leaks and flooding. Put out buckets to collect water. The gig paid well and the beer was free. Grady took the job. So did Alston, 27.
Front Street Brewery sits a block from the river between an Irish pub–Slainte–and a Port City Java coffee shop in the heart of Wilmington’s historic district. Built in 1865 just as the Civil War was ending, it was a hat shop, a carpet room and a dry goods store before becoming a brewery in the 1990s.
On Wednesday, Grady and Alston moved in, bringing air mattresses, take-out pizza, batteries, and flashlights. They were joined by an employee of the brewery who goes to a local university and needed a place to stay.
The trio spread out in the restaurant’s upstairs seating area. Chairs were piled on tables to make room for the mattresses, a surfboard, and an Xbox. Flashlights, headlamps and bags with snacks were scattered around the tables. Alston spent most of Wednesday night playing NBA 2K19 in career mode. He was the star of the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We living like straight up refugees,” Grady said.
Refugees with 11 beers on tap.
North Carolina began to feel the first effects of Florence on Thursday, with the outer bands of wind and rain moving in and whipping up the surf.
At 11 a.m, the storm was 145 miles from Wilmington, with the eye expected make landfall early Friday. It's expected to sit over the coast, swamping homes, businesses and infrastructure with torrential rains and storm surge.
Ten million people are under some kind of storm watch or warning and more than 1.5 million were told to evacuate. Officials have emphasized that even though the storm was downgraded from a Category 4 to a Category 2, it could still be lethal.
But in Charlotte, the mood was one of skepticism and resignation.
Briar Creek winds through several neighborhoods, putting those areas at high risk of inundation. But at Briar Creek Market, a convenience store in the floodplain, a clerk said it was business as usual: “I’m not worried. We’ll be open.”
Lori January, owner of the building next door, said her tenants are used to sweeping water out of their stores. “I told them to pick up everything off the floor,” she said.
Lynn Morrow grew up on the New Jersey coast and remembers going outside to play in the eye of Hurricane Hazel, which moved north after making catastrophic landfall in the Carolinas in 1954. Morrow lives in Charlotte but also owns a home on the North Carolina coast.
“You have to be prepared,” she said, describing how she cleared balconies of furniture in both locations. “You can fix property; you can’t fix people.” But, she added with a shrug, “We’re at its mercy.”