Twenty years ago we lived through an odd and exhausting experience due to our encounter with the terrible flooding precipitated by Hurricane Floyd. It is fascinating to see the similarities and differences between Floyd in 1999 and Dorian in 2019. Both storms ravaged the islands of the northern Bahamas, and both ran up the Carolina coast. However, Floyd dumped so much rain on Eastern North Carolina that it was declared a “once in 500 years” flood. Here is our story…and journey, as written in 1999.
We have just lived 24 hours that we will never forget. It all started with the approach of Hurricane Floyd on Wednesday night. I had returned that afternoon from Washington, D.C., and Connie had made wonderful preparations for our fifth hurricane experience. We were becoming veterans − with filled bathtubs to replenish the commode, bottled water for drinking, flashlight and radio batteries, and other survival gear. Deck furniture was stored and The Weather Channel was dominating our entertainment attentions. We have learned that you have to “ride out the storm” if you are going to be a Tar Heel.
That night we went to bed and slept rather peacefully because the winds were relatively moderate (only 40-50 mile per hour gusts) and the rain was only steady, not driving and loud. We awoke at 6:30 to learn the storm had made landfall at Wilmington (about 150 miles away) and was steering to the NE, which meant the eye of this massive storm would travel east of us by about 75 miles. Hurricane veterans learn that it is best to be on the west side of the eye because the counter-clockwise winds are always strongest on the east side of the storm.
True enough − but, it may also be true that the greatest amount of rain is dumped on the NW corner of the storm area. This storm was huge and it contained plenty of moisture to dump. And Rocky Mount, it turned out, was in the dump zone. But, we thought we were ready! Oh boy, do hurricanes take the wind out of your humble preparations. Just like the other storms of life.
Connie was at the kitchen window watching the wind and rain when she noticed that a 50 foot pine tree a scant 15 feet from the house was beginning to lean dramatically toward our Dodge Caravan. She hollered — and I came to attention quickly just like her 4th graders do each day at school. In a flash I was out the door scooting the van forward and out of harms way. Then we called our neighbor to urge him to move his BMW from the tree’s wrath to come. To our horror Dennis couldn’t get his car started and we screamed while he pushed the car backward and the tree careened further forward.
Within minutes the huge tree uprooted completely and came crashing down. It blocked our driveway, the street, and buried its lower trunk halfway into the soft, rain soaked ground. But we were safe and we thought, “No sweat, we’ve tackled a big tree before.” Oh, the naive thoughts of a human being.
Anyway, within the hour friends, and some city workers, came to help us cut the wood and to clear the street and our driveway. As a result of this great progress we volunteered to go to Ed Peterson’s parents’ home to help clear a large Pecan Tree that had fallen on a pickup truck. This was a wonderful humanitarian gesture that turned into a near nightmare for us.
Later in the afternoon we learned that the route we had taken to the Peterson’s was now completely blocked by a seven-foot deep river crossing the freeway. All the other possible routes were similarly flooded and we were stuck on the wrong side of these new major rivers that seemed to be as wide as the mighty Mississippi. For the next several hours we tried every possible way within a thirty-mile radius to cross the Tar River. No luck. In one place we forded water for a half mile that was at least two feet deep. It was scary.
We then called our neighbor and learned that the power had returned. Connie became especially concerned when she realized that we left our house vulnerable because the lights were now on and blinds were wide-open. The house was locked, but still it was a lighted invitation to looters. Our colleague and friend Eddie sensed our concern and suggested that we could maybe make a long circuitous route home by going south to Wilson, west to Raleigh, north to Louisburg and Roanoke Rapids, and then back south to Rocky Mount. This would be a four-hour ride, but, he theorized, might avoid the rivers causing the flooding. We quickly decided to try it − bad decision − but we thought it better than sitting on our hands. So, a little after 10 pm, we struck out on our adventure.
Over four hours later we gave up, after traveling 150 miles, only finding three impassable rivers and no more options to try. We wound up at the Police station in Louisburg, NC, feeling very much like we were trying to get Andy Griffith and Barney Fife to help us find our way home. In the middle of our consultation with Sgt. Sherrill, he and the only other officer on duty were called out hastily on a domestic dispute. This left Connie and I in charge of the station until they returned. We truly felt like Andy & Barney!
When the officers returned they kindly told us that it was hopeless. So we returned to the Louisburg hospital (where we had originally sought help locating the police) and bedded down for a few hours of sleep at the courtesy of some gracious nurses who took pity on us. They gave us a two-bed room (with TV) plus the full kit of supplies they usually provided for patients.
When we awoke the next morning the bright sun led us to retrace our steps all the way back on the roads we had traveled the night before. This route turned out to be the only way in and out of Rocky Mount. When we got back to my office area Connie pleaded with a nice police sergeant to let us go across the Falls Road Bridge that was now open to emergency traffic only.
From there it is only a few minutes to home. When we came in the door Connie fulfilled her pledge to kiss the floor. But then we also bowed to thank the Lord. Hopefully this will be the first and final chapter of Gerry & Connie’s Unbelievable Tales from the Soggy South.
On a serious note, Guy Bunn and his wife, one of our Positive Action board members, and Jeff & Camille Diedrich, of our PAFC staff, basically lost everything in the flood. Guy lost four vehicles, his house, and possessions. The newlywed Diedrich’s lost all of their possessions except their cars and wedding pictures. Many others of our church member friends suffered major losses. The flooding was unbelievable. Areas that were never considered to be threatened by flooding were totally under water. That was September, 1999.