Hurricane Florence

As I write this blog entry, many of the people in our community are still having a very hard time. Things are not perfect here either, but we are blessed and far better off now than just a couple of days ago. I won’t be writing too much about the hurricane, or posting any pictures, since those are plentiful online already. I just want to recap the last week for myself to remind me later of the power of Nature, both Mother and Human.

Florence was originally forecast to hit us nearly directly as a Category 4, and possibly 5, storm. As such, like most reasonable people who don’t want to die, my wife, daughter, dogs, and I evacuated a day before the storm hit to my sisters house outside Charlotte. As the storm approached, the forecast changed. It would be much weaker, “only” a Cat 1 or 2 storm, but would lose all forward speed after making landfall and would likely remain over the Carolinas for several days. This meant upwards of 30″ of rain would fall, creating catastrophic flooding. Since I work with the Oak Island Police Department and Water Rescue, I felt a strong responsibility and desire to return as soon as I could to help out. It was killing me to remain in Charlotte when I knew people here were in need. I stayed until Saturday morning and then drove back. It was a treacherous drive, constant and hard rain, gusts of wind around 70 MPH, and miserable conditions.

I almost made it. I decided to take highway 87 from 17 through Boiling Spring Lakes. Standing water on the road made it very difficult to get to BSL, and one car was already off the road in the ditch and almost completely submerged. I stopped to make sure nobody was in it, then continued on my way. I got into downtown BSL and found a police car blocking the road, which was between 2 lakes and about 8 feet deep. Damn. I turned around an headed back to highway 17, ending up at Han-D-Hugo about 20 minutes later. I pulled into the parking lot and waited for a few hours with several other people for conditions to improve. They did not, and the flooding was getting worse.

Seeing the water rising quickly around Town Creek, I decided to make a run for my church in Supply. I was told by a lady that south 17 was closed, but I could get around the closed part using Old Ocean Highway, so I left. In several places the water was deep and my old Dodge Ram had to go very slow to get through the water. Near the government complex in Bolivia, everything was underwater, it was as if a lake had formed around the whole place. I came upon a section of road that water covered for about 800 feet and waited for a deputy in a Charger coming towards me to get through. I then went into his lane and made my run for it. I was surrounded by water, so even though this was a dangerous decision, it truly was the lesser of all the evils. With a few hundred feet to go, my truck started getting pushed sideways and I could feel the rear tires slipping as the pucker-factor went through the roof. I plowed water ahead of the truck and off to both sides as I slowly found a sweet spot around 4 MPH and finally came out the other side onto dry concrete. Several lights on my dash were lit. Check gauges, check brakes… My heart was beating through my chest and it took about an hour for my blood pressure to return to normal. This was honestly one of most terrifying moments in my life.

The rest of the drive to the church was relatively smooth. I pulled in under the awning just before dark and sent a text message to my pastor to see about getting a key to get in. Supply did not have power, but I figured I could at least use the restroom and stretch out on the floor for the night. Unfortunately, no key was to be had. Everyone that had a key had evacuated (because they were smarter than me), so I decided to spend the night in my truck. I got as comfortable as a 6’5″ 270 pound guy can get in the cab of a truck and dozed in and out of sleep throughout the night. I turned on my EMS radio at one point and heard the military doing water rescues at Han-D-Hugo, the same place I had left a couple hours before. Other water rescue teams were doing rescues at the Buddhist Temple not far from me, and there was even one crew doing a rescue in the Lowes Food parking lot! Yes, in a parking lot.

Throughout the night my cell phone alarm would go off with a tornado warning. There were at least 3 of them, countless flash flood warnings, and various other emergencies. I finally turned my phone off, reckoning that if this was my night to die, it was my time. Several times I was awoken by my truck getting shaken by the strong winds. At first I would sit up and make sure everything was okay. After a while, I just rolled back over and went to sleep, content to allow fate to run its course. This was no act of bravery, it just was what it was.

Dawn came early and with relative calm. Rain showers and some wind were punctuated by a few minutes of peace. A black man, his elderly grandmother, and his adorable young daughter drove up and parked under the awning near my truck. We talked for a while, shared some cookies and cigarettes, and told each other our similar stories from the night before. I knew the bridge at 211 and Lockwoods Folly River was underwater, and that highway 17 north and south were blocked by water, as was Green Swamp Road. I knew we were trapped in about a 1 square mile area, but he and I would still walk out to the highway every 10 minutes or so to make sure. Yep, always a river running through it. At one point I noticed it had not been raining for a few minutes and decided to go for a walk to help pass the time. I came upon the Supply Fire Department. I was really just looking for a place to go to the bathroom, but was wearing my Oak Island Water Rescue hat. After talking with their chief, it was decided that I would be drafted to help them with water rescues, even though my experience level is extreme novice. I returned to get my truck and gear from the church and drove to the fire department.

The chief had to make some calls to FEMA and others to get me on board, which only took about 10 minutes. He said I would be getting paid the same as a firefighter. I told him in Oak Island we were strictly volunteer. He said it didn’t matter, now I was a Firefighter with Supply, NC. I would spend the next 28 hours with them. We did 3 water rescues in that time, all swift-water, something I have never been trained in, and even had one rescue that ended in a guy getting arrested. Now that was a first! We joked that things are different in Supply, here you get dinner and a show!

I cannot say enough good things about the fire department in Supply. This is one of the finest group of people I have ever had to the pleasure to meet. They took me in, took exceptionally good care of me, fed me, washed my clothes, gave me a place to sleep, shower, and provided many of the comforts of home. The men and women of the Supply Fire Department are true heroes, wonderful people, and I’m happy to call them new friends. The same applies to the many Brunswick County Sheriff Deputies that were there as well. You guys, and gals, rock.

Many of the firefighters were on a fire call the next morning and I was outside sweeping the floor and just hanging around, enjoying the sunshine that was interspersed with thunderstorms. A deputy pulled up to sleep for a while and said he had come there from Oak Island. Wait, what? You came from where? How? He told me the route he took and I quickly gathered my belongings, forgetting my water rescue gear of all things, said some quick goodbyes, and took off for home. 30 minutes later I arrived at my home on the island. The bridges were still closed to the public, but having Oak Island Police Department and Water Rescue ID’s would have gotten me in, though knowing the officer at the checkpoint was sufficient.

I arrived at home and found it very dirty, but unharmed by the storm. Despite taking a direct hit from the eye of a hurricane, we lost no trees, the flood waters had not reached our house, and we were good. I was mostly worried about the cats, which we had to leave behind. Windy, our cat from the hood in Chicago, barely noticed me when I walked in a went back to sleep. JoJo however told me all about the hurricane by meowing throughout the day and night! He was even happier to see me than usual. I took pictures of our house and sent them to Missy in Charlotte to let her know I made it home, and that everything looked almost as good as we left it. She was very relieved, even though the storm was now battering Charlotte and flooding was severe there as well. Several neighbors and friends had asked me to check on their homes when I get there, so I did, and sent them pictures as well. All of their homes were also in good shape.

I unpacked the truck, which was basically a mobile Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms store, and headed down to the police department to see what they needed help with. As expected, they needed help checking IDs for people coming to the bridges, since only folks with addresses on the island would be permitted. I came back home, cleaned up the best I could since we still had no water or sewer, put on my police shirt and went back to HQ and was sent to check IDs on the new bridge. At 4PM the town decided to allow locals to return. There was a 6PM curfew in effect, but it was understood that people could cross the bridge and drive straight home and not be in violation. Another officer and I worked there until well after dark.

I checked IDs and passed out pamphlets the town printed to people for the next 2 days as we transitioned from locals only to the island being open to everyone, from having a curfew to it expiring. I ended my work with them yesterday by patrolling the beach on the ATV, and shot some video of the damage to the beach and dunes as well.

Major kudos the the local restaurants and business’. Even though nearly all of them are closed and suffered substantial damage, they were constantly trying to feed us. Seems like every time we turned around someone was bringing us baskets of food, boxes of pizza, and offering us water and soda. It would have been impossible to starve or even go thirsty on this island thanks to Bob’s Dogs, BBQ House, Domino’s Pizza, Swains Seafood, and several others.

Thank you to my sister and her family! They took in not only my immediate family, including 2 dogs, but also Missy’s sister and her 3 kids, for a week. I know it was tight in your place, but we all appreciate it very much. In return, you can continue to stay at our beach house whenever you like 🙂 Missy, Halle, and the dogs finally made it home on Wednesday as well. Flooding has closed or destroyed many roads, and they made it through South Carolina just ahead of flooding that has now closed that route. Kris, Missy’s sister, and her kids also made it safely back home to Jacksonville.

And lastly, thank you to the residents of Oak Island that I had the pleasure of dealing with. We were all very aware that nerves were rattled, many people were upset about being kept off the island for so long, we were hot, smelly, tired, wet, and just wanted to go home and rest. We read the plans on Facebook about storming the bridges, and I wouldn’t have tried to stop you if you had! But thank you all not only for not doing that, but for all of your kind words of support as you made your way home through the checkpoints. I am happy that in the end you did not see us as the enemy. Every person I know in town government, police, and fire was truly doing the absolute best job they could given the situation and conditions, and I know they all appreciate your understanding and support as much as I did.

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