Boat pushed up to land in New Bern NC after Hurricane Florence.

Al Jones

Covering Florence: Starting the next chapter

September 17, 2018 - 11:06 am
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Editors note: Ryan is covering Florence for 1010 WINS digital.  Look for his pictures and videos as he travels along the Carolina coast and inland communities. You’ll find his daily blogs right here as he shares his experience of covering the storm.

BY RYAN JONES

The first three days my father and I spent here in North Carolina, we didn't have any rules to follow. We raced from Raleigh to Wilmington, back to Raleigh, back to Wilmington, over towards Wrightsville Beach, then Princeton, back to Raleigh...it was all chaos, meeting as many people as we could, hearing how they planned on dealing with the approaching black mass in the sky that was Hurricane Florence. The air was thick with anxiety all up and down the Carolina coast; people were facing the harsh truth that the day was upon them to deal with forces far bigger than themselves, or their communities, or even the capabilities of the human population, and we were determined to capture, understand, and report every angle of this story as it grew, swelled, in the days and hours leading up to Florence's deafening arrival.

Then, Florence had the floor. It got dropped to a Category 2, then 1, and some people laughed, saying it was all a product of media hype, that it was just a little rain. Then people's homes started getting washed away, people perished in the floods, and entire communities were torn apart by great walls of water coming at them from the ocean, or from rivers growing in size with the rain, sweeping away towns in the process.

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The snickering stopped, and people watched with wide eyes as the tragedies piled up. My father and I haven't been chasing Florence around; instead, we've been chasing the stories that came to the surface in her wake. Once we started exploring the flooded areas and trying to make our way to the coast, we finally found our first rule to follow when covering this story, a rule that holds up with no exceptions: The further east you go, the more costly the floods and the deeper the levels of devastation. 

Sunday, was our last day for exploration, and we were determined to make it closer to one of the more impacted towns. 

My father is a master navigator; I've seen the man plan entire cross-country trips with maps and notepads like somebody headed out to join the Gold Rush. He found a route chock full of state highways, detours around closed roads, and a splash of interstate maneuvering, and we set out without getting our hopes too high.

And yet...we moved briskly, without too many issues. Sure, a bunch of detours popped up that we weren't expecting, but we got around the flood waters and kept moving, blowing through Johnston County in what was for us record time, then Wayne County and the town of Goldsboro. Route 70 was good to us, kicking us off only for a few miles at a time, and those miles were spent cruising down country roads, walled-in by acres and acres of tobacco, cotton and soy beans. The air smelled wet outside the window, and fragrant, like fertile soil and hot air.

We hopped back on 70 and kept moving towards Kinston. I zoned out behind the wheel for a couple minutes, but then my dad was talking and pointing and I saw we were driving alongside the longest cavalry of utility trucks I'd ever seen. One dozen, two dozen, three...the line of identical white trucks must have stretched a mile, maybe more, yellow lights flashing like a thousand little fireflies beside us. We rode alongside them for a while, and before I knew it the big water tower loomed ahead of us, the one that read "Kinston." We were moving east, and nothing was going to stop us from getting to New Bern and reporting from the epicenter of Florence's epic blows to the region, the deepest wound sustained.

Before we got down to the historic district, we stopped for gas at an open Shell station on MLK Boulevard. This is where I met Suzie, the woman who I found filling up an old empty cat litter container from a faucet poking out from the back of the building. She told me she lives just outside of town, and that she's stuck crashing with her friend in nearby Havelock until she can get back to her house. Even then, she said, she's sure her house is flooded terribly.

"I'm just gettin' this to flush toilets with," she said, gesturing with the container full of water. She looked worried, and extremely exhausted. Leaving the gas station, it became clear that not much was open, just like everywhere else in the region. Smithfield Chicken & BBQ had its drive-thru open, and the line was about a quarter-mile long, stretching out onto the main road, across an intersection, and beyond.

But it wasn't until we reached historic downtown New Bern that the real desolation of the town presented itself. Upon arrival, even after a hurricane just left, it's hard not to notice that the downtown is quaint, gorgeous, a slice of Americana. After just a glance I had a vivid picture of what New Bern looked like just weeks ago. 

The carnage wrought by the storm was real. The Neuse River is a great big beautiful beast that charges right by the downtown, and Florence's winds, and the subsequent storm surge took that water and heaped it upon the city with scorn. New Bern's got a couple of big harbors full of boats, and multiple vessels were lifted right up into the town; one landed on a parcel of grass by the scenic river walk, one down the street on the sidewalk, and one slammed right up alongside the Courtyard Mariott. Debris was everywhere, everything from trash cans to dead squirrels to big, thick chunks of wood splintered off from the docks were thrown all over the streets. The water that had rushed up onto land was so strong, so powerful, that it busted people's porches and doors, blew out windows and destroyed entire townhouses blocks away. A woman I spoke with owned one of them, and she sat on her front steps surrounded by the sopping wet remains of her worldly possessions. She was going to speak with me about her experience, but then the insurance company called and, well, that's a priority when you've just about lost it all.

Walking up and down the rustic streets of New Bern, I saw signs written on the plywood used to board up businesses and homes, just like the signs I'd seen in other towns. Messages like "#NEW BERN STRONG" and "BE SAFE FRIENDS" just looked sad surrounded by gutted buildings and torn-up storefronts. One person had a sense of humor about their misfortune: hanging from a window attached to one of the ruined townhouses was a handwritten sign, reading "TOWN HOUSE 4 SALE."

However, as horrific as the destruction was in this town, the human beings who rose to the occasion are equally heroic. I met many heroes today, too many to count. New York City was well represented in the aftermath of the storm in New Bern, with the NYPD/FDNY Task Force 1 (working in tandem with a unit from Oakland, National Guard members, FEMA, and others) on the ground helping the recovery. I spoke with Larry McAlister, the Rescue Manager with the task force. He said that they were there to save lives, and they had already saved dozens. I also spoke with three Army National Guardsmen: Sgt. McKearney, and Spc. Music and Fox. They were in from Asheville, North Carolina, here to help people, assist the recovery, and do whatever the community asked of them. 

I also met another kind of hero, the kind who doesn't wear a uniform. I ran into Jefferey Harris outside the Courtyard Marriott (yes, the one with the boat sidled up alongside it). He was feeding some birds, and it was a beautiful site to behold. There was Jefferey, a young man with a bright green shirt and a huge smile, squatting on the ground by the river, tossing pieces of bread into a crowd of well over a hundred birds, all shuffling around, flapping their wings, communicating in bird-speak only they understood. He told me that his buddy Mark works at the hotel, and when the place shut down for the storm, he and Mark started giving away food and bread to the first responders and people left in the area.

He said the hotel employees had always fed the birds, and he took it upon himself to keep the practice going, especially after the birds had been through so much during the flood.

"They're just hungry...I figured what the heck, let's help out some of the animals." 

"It's their home, too," he said. Jefferey has been going around helping people since the storm began, making sure everyone's safe, clearing debris, and now he's focusing on helping Mark clean up the hotel. 

Jefferey never considered getting out of town, or just looking for himself; nope, he's been up day and night trying to assist in any way possible in the town's recovery, and the recovery of each person who lives in it.

We drove out of New Bern like we'd just seen a whole lot of ghosts, and in a way, we had. The town, such a stunning town filled with rich history (George Washington had stayed there, and the streets are lined with plaques marking important events), has just had its soul sucked out of it by the horrible power of an overflowing river. I talked to one more person before we got out of the city, a woman who didn't want to give me her name. I asked her if the town was going to bounce back, and she scoffed at the question.

"This is New Bern...the people in New Bern love New Bern. So no, it won't be a problem getting back, simply because of the love for the town, and the unity of the people."

We'd gotten lucky with the detours on the way to Craven County, but we weren't so lucky on the way back. The flood waters continued to rise in the region, and roads had closed all over the place. We found ourselves driving along on roads so rural that our route began to feel less like the path back to Raleigh and more like an endless, unbeatable maze. We took rights and lefts, then more lefts, turn around, new detour, and it continued until my dad rounded a bend somewhere in Lenoir County and came across the most unsettling, surreal, tragic sight we had seen all day, maybe in our whole time down in North Carolina.

It was a neighborhood, one with about a half-dozen houses in my line of vision. We stopped in the middle of the road, and the only option was to reverse out of there; the road ceased to exist ahead of us. There was nothing but water surrounding us. People's properties all blended together, and pavement and grass were all part of the same invisible floor underneath the seemingly endless lake of black water. This didn't just look like some flooded yards and basements, but instead like a lost city poking out of large, immeasurable oceans of water. A car sat ahead of us in the water with its door open, half-submerged. We left quickly, turning around and speeding back to level ground and civilization that still had a pulse. I was shaken by what I'd seen.

That neighborhood had once been a living, breathing place, one with human beings living in community, and now it was gone, flooded beyond any kind of hopes for rescue or restoration. The people who own those homes will have to start over, and that's incredible to imagine, the idea of starting over.

That is the takeaway from this, from my writings here on this website, from our expedition down to the coast of North Carolina. We come down here, we report on the hurricane and the floods that follow, we meet people, hear stories, and we attempt to put local faces on a news story, to remind people elsewhere in the country that communities aren't faceless. That the burdens are shouldered by individual people and together they lift the weight inching the boulder forward, until the group grows larger than the oppression it suffocates under.

We're wheels up on Tuesday, flying back to New York to continue our lives. The people here in eastern North Carolina, they're left dealing with what's next. They don't have time for sweeping narratives or summaries of their struggles, because they're busy trying to figure out where they're going to sleep when they get out of the pop-up shelters around the state, or how to replace heirlooms, photographs, wedding dresses, and everything else washed away by the flood waters. Beloved pets. Even human lives.

We've tried to tell their stories down here, and I hope we've done it with respect and dignity, but at a certain point, you can't tell the story anymore, because the main characters are about to start writing the next chapter themselves.