Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina on Friday, leaving behind devastating damage, flooding and ruining Kerriann Otano's wedding week that was two years in the making.
Otano and her now husband, Dane Suarez, met while participating in a capella at different universities in Indiana. After graduate school, they were eventually accepted to the same young artists opera program in Sarasota, Florida, and their friendship grew.
"We spent so much time together and got really close," said Otano. "By the end of it, we realized we were more sad about leaving each other than we were excited about getting back to our normal lives so we decided we should try dating."
As professional opera singers, the couple have worked through a long-distance relationship and a lot of time traveling, while the time they do spend together has included moving across three states.
Otano, however, always makes time for Topsail, NC and two years ago she brought along Suarez and his family to vacation with her family. That week, Otano's cherished island full of childhood memories soon became a part of what would be the couple's newest chapter in their love story.
Hurricane Florence may have disrupted their wedding but Kerriann Otano's Long Island community was not going to let a hurricane ruin her big day. (Photo: Kerriann Otano)
"Of course, Dane took it upon himself to propose while both of our families were in town," said Otano. "That night when he proposed we knew we were going to get married in Topsail."
Two years of remote planning would have come to fruition this past weekend. Family and friends of the couple were flying in from all over, even as far as Paris, to enjoy an entire week celebrating the marriage of Otano and Suarez.
Hurricane Florence, however, changed all those plans.
The Tuesday before the hurricane made landfall, Otano and Suarez were in North Carolina to get their marriage license. Hoping that the storm may dissipate and a wedding was possible, reality soon hit.
There would be no wedding in Topsail as they were forced to evacuate the next day. Devastated, the couple packed the car and headed back to New York, thinking that their dream wedding would forever be a courthouse ceremony.
Sharing her story on Facebook, Otano explained to her family and friends that the couple still planned to have the wedding and wanted their guests to come and cancel flights to North Carolina if they still could.
Never did she think her post would be met with a gracious response from her community.
"By 9 p.m. that night, we completely had a whole new wedding on Long Island," said Otano. "We had a venue, we had food, we had donated flowers."
Pictures from their last-minute wedding celebration. (Photo: Lauren Holschbach-Sweeney)
Even the personalized donut wall the couple planned would be there, thanks to the generosity of a local donut shop.
People called around to different locations to see if there was a venue available last minute, while parents of Otano's friends from middle school offered their homes for her guests to stay at. Even her high school Latin teacher volunteered to officiate for the day if they needed it.
"People selflessly offered stuff whether or not they were actually going to be the people coming to the wedding," said Otano. "Now we have ended up with this really incredible wedding that feels so much bigger and also so much more intimate. We have this sense of community and support."
Although it is not the Topsail wedding Otano dreamed of for the last two years, she cannot express her appreciation for the kindness that seemingly appeared from nowhere.
Maybe it wasn't the shores of Topsail, NC, but the newlyweds captured their day by the water. (Photo: Lauren Holschbach-Sweeney)
"I just feel like this is so much bigger than the two of us, and I just have this sense of community. We have lived in so many places it never would have occurred to me that so many people from my hometown, from Long Island specifically, would be like 'no I remember you and I want to help'," said Otano. "It's just wild and it is so much more important and meaningful than anything I have ever been a part of."
Otano still loves Topsail, even after Hurricane Florence's untimely presence, and she plans to go back, alongside her husband, family and friends, to hold the celebration that they would have had on Saturday and for many summers vacations in their future.
"It is my absolute favorite place in the world," said Otano. "Nothing will keep me away from Topsail."