At East Carolina University, Dr. Michelle Skipper is a trusted faculty member, colleague and friend, but to many in the town of St. Pauls, she is a hero.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which killed 25 people in North Carolina and devastated large swaths of the eastern part of the state in October 2016, many were left without food, potable water and shelter.
Skipper, director of the ECU College of Nursing’s doctor of nursing practice program and a clinical associate professor, stepped in to help care for her community’s most vulnerable residents, ensuring they had enough food, water and medication to weather the storm’s wake.
She was recognized with a Governor’s Award for Excellence in Public Service during a ceremony on Nov. 7 in Raleigh at the North Carolina Museum of History. The award — the highest honor a state employee may receive — “acknowledges and expresses appreciation for outstanding accomplishments that do not fall entirely within the scope of normal duties but are in the nature of a major contribution reflecting credit on the person and state service,” according to the state human resources department.
“It’s very humbling,” Skipper said of receiving the award. “I went online and looked at other award winners and looked at some of the videos of those who have won, and I thought, ‘no chance. I’m not even going to worry about it.’ When the gentleman called me from human resources I was very surprised, but grateful.”
Weathering the storm
St. Pauls, the small town just north of Lumberton in Robeson County where Skipper and her husband Bruce live, was among the areas hardest hit by Matthew.
As the hurricane barreled up the coast and the nearby river overflowed, the couple watched as the water crept across their front yard and up as far as the front door before it began to recede. Water damage later forced them to replace the home’s duct work and insulation, but their power outage was reversed relatively quickly and their home was otherwise undamaged. Others in town were not as lucky.
More than 500 people who were forced from their homes — and, in some cases, from their cars on the nearby interstate that flooded — took shelter at St. Pauls High School from Oct. 9 through Oct. 17, according to the Skippers. More than 200 others made trips to the school for meals each day. Power outages in some parts of Robeson County lasted more than a week.
“There were people stranded here from as far away as Greenville, and some stranded here from just across the street,” Michelle Skipper said in an interview at the school nearly a year after the hurricane. “Some people needed a place to stay, some needed a hot meal, and some just needed a cup of coffee and a place to think about what they were going to do to regroup.”
Bruce, the pastor at St. Pauls United Methodist Church, has a reputation for his love of cooking, so when the town manager needed help feeding the shelterers, he knew who to call.
The Skippers towed their pig-cooker to the school, where they stayed from 5:30 a.m. until dark for seven straight days, feeding the crowd three meals daily with the help of fellow church and community members. They also delivered plates to the senior citizen and public housing complexes in town three times per day.
While Bruce grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and other items from the school cafeteria’s freezers, and others from the community cooked in the school kitchen, Michelle worked to ensure that everyone had their medication and special dietary needs met.
“I was able to use my nursing background and the dietary part of my nursing training,” she said. “Even the first day I think our town manager was surprised at the (number of) people who were medically ill or medically fragile… I told him, ‘People who had the resources to get out of town got out of town.’
“We got the people who didn’t have any way to get out. So we got people who were on dialysis, who were on oxygen, who were diabetic. There were all kinds of medical needs.”
When the Skippers made their way back home from the school in the evenings, Michelle brought people’s dirty clothes with her, washing them and bringing them back the next day.
‘God sent our angel’
Angela Baxley was one of the many aided by the Skippers during the storm. The apartment complex for the elderly and disabled where she lived experienced flooding and lost power. Everything stored in refrigerators and freezers was lost, she said. Residents had no way of cooking, anyway.
“I was scared. I stood there and I watched the water keep going higher and higher,” Baxley said. “All I kept thinking was praying, ‘God, please be with us and protect us.’”
After the water receded enough for Baxley to leave her apartment, she went around the complex to check on her elderly neighbors. She found an older man in need of assistance and drove him around town in an attempt to find something to eat and drink.
“We were riding past the schoolhouse and that’s when I saw Pastor Bruce and Miss Michelle,” Baxley said. “They had already opened up the school. That’s where we went in and I got him something to eat.”
Baxley, who is diabetic, brought her neighbor back to the school for meals twice a day in the days ahead.
“I had to make sure I got something to eat and keep my sugar up, and it was so hot because we had no power,” she said. “When we would go (to the school) it was cooler. We would go and get a break and make sure that we were still in reality and still with the rest of the world.”
Baxley said Skipper not only helped meet the immediate, physical needs of those in the shelter; she also helped to ease their anxieties about what had happened and what to do next.
“I thanked God, because I knew that he had sent somebody to help us,” Baxley said. “(She is) like an angel. She’s so kind-hearted. She’s so loving… If you’ve got a question, if you’ve got a fear, she eases that.
“She helped make sure that we had food. She helped make sure we had stations where we could keep our phones charged in case we needed to get out in an emergency. She helped to make sure that we knew where to go if we needed medicine or anything.”
Baxley barely knew the Skippers before the hurricane, but since then she said they’ve become like family. She said she wouldn’t have been able to make it through the hurricane without Michelle’s help.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said through tears. “I was scared. I was trying to take care of me and some of the other elderly people. We just didn’t know what to do. All we had was God. And God sent our angel.”