In Brunswick County, N.C., residents were ordered to evacuate as Hurricane Florence roared toward landfall. 

As coastal residents moved inland, Brunswick and surrounding county shelters became overwhelmed. A number of evacuees needed special medical care: They struggle to get around, rely on home oxygen or depend on dialysis. On Wednesday, the county asked Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center ER for support.

Emergency room nurse Leslie Bortle, whose husband, son, father and dog (“all the men in my life,” she joked) sheltered at hotel in Benson, said a quick “yes.” The shelter closest to the hospital – at West Brunswick High School – had taken in hundreds of people – from newborns to a 94-year-old. More than 50 of those evacuees require special medical care.  

Bortle’s voice was calm and steady as she described the scene: “We’re very busy, but there are lots of helping hands here. There are other nurses and techs; I have no idea where they’re from. The Red Cross, EMS and the sheriff’s office are here. Everyone has been wonderful. We’re all doing the best we can.”  

“We” includes the evacuees. “We’re having to do a little re-education with families,” Bortle said. “I’ve had to tell some family members: ‘I can’t take mama to the bathroom. We’re not staffed for that here like we are at the hospital.’ Everyone has stepped up to help however they can.” 

Reacting quickly is essential in a setting like this. On Wednesday night, officials warned that the school’s gym was overcrowded. Bortle and others had to move 300 patients from the gym and reposition them on cots in hallways. 

The school cafeteria is being staffed by a pair of employees who stayed behind to help. Those two are ensuring the hundreds of temporary residents are fed. 

In the midst of the chaos at this makeshift shelter, Bortle feels a sense of peace. “I’m able to take the time to help calm people,” she said. “I’m walking around with an oximeter. When people get anxious, I’m able to show them they’re OK. I get them ice water and remind them to breathe deeply – in through the nose, out through pursed lips.”  The hurricane has made landfall. But Leslie Bortle is unafraid. “I’m right where I need to be,” she said.