Last week, as the nation kept its collective gaze glued to news of Hurricane Florence, one symbol waved above all others—an American flag atop a decommissioned Coast Guard station off the coast of North Carolina.
A live video feed captured the flag as it unraveled and whipped apart on Thursday, September 13, during the storm’s agonizingly slow approach to land. Category-2 winds lashed the Frying Pan Tower, a lighthouse built in 1964 about thirty-two miles offshore from Cape Fear. “That was a brand-new flag, just hung up two weeks before we even knew a storm was coming,” says Richard Neal, who purchased the hulking steel platform at public auction in 2010 and operates it as a sort of adventure B&B. “It’s a heavy-duty flag, but try to understand the force of wind. The wind is persistent. It will tear something apart. Once that wind started to catch and get a seam, it shredded.”
Neal, who regularly visits the tower by boat or helicopter, watched the live feed of the tower and storm from his home in Charlotte. Back in 2014, the website Explore.org installed waterproof cameras on the tower; Neal can maneuver them remotely—and in this instance the view created the surreal feeling of being inside the storm. “I was moving the camera around, and when the flag started to tear, I thought it would bother people. So I started aiming the camera away toward the ocean,” Neal says. “Then I immediately got phone calls and people were telling me to pan it back.”
Thousands watched and commented on both Explore.org’s site and on the Facebook page Neal maintains until the connection was lost. Some viewers commented that it was disrespectful to hang the flag during a storm. “It’s usually up because we want people passing by in boats to see it, but this time, I couldn’t get a boat or helicopter out there to take it down before the storm,” he explains. Neal has weathered three hurricanes—Arthur, Sandy, and Matthew—tucked inside the tower, but he couldn’t safely make the trip this time.
If the weather is calmer this weekend, Neal plans to venture out to the Frying Pan. He’s working with Captain Matt Wirt of Reel Adventure Charters in Wrightsville Beach to plan a trip and lower the tattered flag. “Without any internet access, my guess is that only the stars and some pieces of stripes are left,” Neal says. He aims to hang a new flag and donate what’s left to the American Red Cross to be auctioned off to raise funds for hurricane relief.
As often happens with social media, one detail stuck in the live stream comments. “Some kids named the flag Kevin, which gave it a life of its own,” Neal says. “I thought that was cute, but when I thought about it, I wondered, who is Kevin? I think this flag represents all of us. This flag is my wife, Nancy. It’s me. It’s the guy pumping gas while he’s out trying to remove tree limbs from his neighborhood after the storm. And it’s you. The flag represents Americans, shredded to pieces but still plugging away.”