When you're covering a disaster, it's a challenge to avoid becoming part of the story.
Before we left, we made a pact: We would not drive through water.
Not if we could help it; definitely not without thinking it through.
Nine days later, Columbus Dispatch photojournalist Courtney Hergesheimer and I were stopped for the umpteenth time, facing a flooded-out stretch of road in rural North Carolina as we covered the fallout from Hurricane Florence.
By this point in the trip, we'd broken the pact more than once. We no longer heeded the signs that warned, “ROAD CLOSED AHEAD” and “HIGH WATER.” We drove around barricades with the same thought we normally gave to pulling out of our driveways.
We started doing this for two reasons. Sometimes, we had discovered, the signs were wrong and the road ahead was dry.
Honestly, though, that scenario was rare. The other reason was the real one.
We were journalists covering a natural disaster. The story was always beyond the signs.***
So there we sat on North Carolina Highway 904, a few miles past the latest barricade with a few more miles to go to the tiny town of Fair Bluff.
The road ahead was all water, but it looked to be a foot deep or less, a sheet that flowed out of the swamp to our left and rolled off the road to our right before disappearing in a mild tumble of whitewater.
A truck rounded a bend, coming toward us. Our guess had been correct. The water never went higher than halfway up his tires. We waited until he pulled alongside us.
He was an animal control officer and looked us over with what I took to be bemusement at our obvious stupidity. We told him who we were and that we were trying to reach Fair Bluff.
You can't get to Fair Bluff, he said; it's under 4 feet of water. The road ahead was washed away and missing in places, and he'd made it through only because he'd been driving these roads his whole life. If we had any sense we'd turn around and stop driving past warning signs, unless we were eager to end up like that woman, the one who drowned the other night.
A woman drowned?
She drove through water near here, unaware that the road ahead had collapsed, he said. She drowned in her car, along with her dog. He gestured to the bed of his pickup. Her belongings were in back, and he was headed to hand them off to the state patrol. Warning conveyed, he drove off.
It seemed wise to take his advice. We turned around. One thing we'd learned: There was always another way in.***
By that afternoon, Courtney and I had covered hundreds of miles in eastern North Carolina to document the damage wrought by Florence, which came ashore on Sept. 14 and dumped up to 3 feet of rain on some portions of the state.
On the day the hurricane made landfall, Dispatch editor Alan Miller put out the call for reporters and photographers willing to help with coverage for some of the GateHouse Media newspapers that had taken a direct hit. Two days later, Courtney and I headed south in Miller's Chevy Silverado, hauling 100 gallons of gas, an air conditioner and a generator to our sister papers in Wilmington, Jacksonville, New Bernand Kinston.
I've covered natural disasters before, first as an intern in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in October 1991, when a storm now known as “perfect” wreaked havoc along the Eastern Seaboard from Canada to New Jersey. That storm sank a Gloucester swordfishing vessel known as theAndrea Gail, a tale that eventually caught Hollywood's eye and made it to the big screen. It also claimed lives, destroyed homes, and lobbed boulders the size of VW Beetles onto the shore of Cape Ann. In my apartment after deadline, I watched the ceiling tiles jump out of place whenever strong wind gusts blew off Gloucester's harbor and into cracks in the old house where I lived.
Through the years, I covered lethal flash floods in the Catskills and widespread flooding along the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, but not since 1991 had I covered a disaster with the reach of Florence.***
On a hot and bright afternoon along a stretch of a submerged street in Lumberton, Courtney and I watched an eel wriggle in and out of a storm sewer's iron grate.
A second eel lay dead in a nearby yard, where it had been shot with a .22-caliber rifle by a young man who mistook it for a water moccasin.
When the surrealism of destruction presents itself on a grand scale, your eye is drawn to the smaller incongruities. Eels emerging from sewers. A child playing in the floodwater with neon plastic beach toys. A lawn chair suspended four feet off the ground, all four of its legs thrusting through the gaps in a chain-link fence.
During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, it was a chain-link fence that saved John Locklear's life in Lumberton. If he hadn't grabbed hold of it outside his house, a house since razed, he would have been swept away.
“I like got drowned on that spot right there, sure did,” he told us. “The other day I was coming through here, that water took me again on the bicycle. Same place!”
Linda Lowery, who lives close by, took no notice as schools of minnows swam past her stoop, although she did express mild surprise when I pointed out a crawfish that trundled past us on her front walk.
She said she would have moved after Matthew had she known the neighborhood would flood again. But she later acknowledged what we'd heard from other survivors: Roots are hard to wash away.
“West Fifth Street is my home,” she said. “I raised my kids here.”***
Maybe it was decompression, but we laughed often. It eased the stress brought on by long days, constant detours and the loss that lay around every bend in the road.
So we cracked up when I buried the truck to its axles in mud as soft as pudding, and when the farmers who pulled us free told us they originally suspected we were animal rights activists trespassing to photograph dead livestock. If we had been, they said, they would have slashed our tires and left us to the bears.
We laughed along with Locklear at the bloodthirstiness of the mosquitos that left the swamps in clouds to besiege us. As he checked his mailbox, he performed what looked like an interpretive dance to avoid them. He called them “rascals.”
Everyone had a story about the snakes. It became a running joke. Courtney is especially wary of snakes, and I had no business assuring her before we left Ohio that water moccasins are rare.
In Pembroke, North Carolina, along the Lumber River, Carla Montoya found one behind her sofa as she picked through her ruined mobile home. Her neighbors, Odell and Angela Wilkins, had to kill three before fleeing their trailer. The snakes had coiled up on their front stoop, seeking refuge from the rising water.
Lola Jordan, 59, saw one swimming alongside her husband, eyeing him as he waded to their mailbox in a mobile home park where three gravel lanes are named Faith, Hope and Charity.***
Even amid widespread loss, specific places stay with you, and this mobile home park was one of them. People here were on the edge before the storm. Now they had no water, no power and no gas.
Raymond Tucker, 62, had no place to live, not really. His trailer had been filled to the countertops with river water, and I held my breath inside to avoid the nausea that came with the smell of rot and mold.
But he told us he was staying there regardless, because he is dealing with pancreatic cancer. He'd spent 30 years stacking lumber and now got by on Social Security.
“I've been here for all them storms come through, yes sir,” he said.
As journalists you don't make the story. You are witnesses, not players. You stay out of the way.
We broke this rule. Courtney poured five gallons of gas into Jordan's tank, and we left her and a friend with a case of water, missing only the six bottles we'd tucked inside the front door of Tucker's trailer.***
The woman's name was Cheryl Holt. She was 51.
It says something about covering so much loss that I didn't remember until weeks later, back in Ohio, to track down the details of the fatal wreck outside Fair Bluff.
The animal control officer had told us that she'd died nearby, but I didn't understand that she had died on the same road we were traveling, just 2 miles ahead of where we saw him.
It was unclear when Holt crashed, but her family reported that they'd lost contact with her by cell phone on the night of Sept. 22. Firefighters found the wreck on Sept. 23. We tried the same route on Sept. 24.
I pulled the crash report from the North Carolina Highway Patrol and began reading the trooper's narrative. “Vehicle 1 was traveling south on NC-904,” it began. Holt, it turned out, had been headed the same direction as us, south into Fair Bluff. “Vehicle 1 traveled across a washed-out portion of the highway, ran off the roadway to the right and overturned. Vehicle 1 came to rest overturned, submerged in water, west of NC-904.”
In the diagram, the reporting trooper illustrated a length of damaged road, with Holt's car off to the side, on its roof. Above her car was written, “FLOOD WATER.”
But it was the last line of the narrative that brought me back to the white noise of all that water running off North Carolina 904 and into the otherwise silent swamp.
“Note: The area of the roadway had been barricaded due to Hurricane Florence.”***
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