Covering Florence: Stay off the roads. It's a circus out there.

September 16, 2018
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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

Governor Roy Cooper spent the days leading up to Hurricane Florence's first strikes on the Carolina coast thundering into any microphone put in front of him, calling on North Carolinians living in the regions most likely to flood to set aside their pride and cynicism and head north or west, away from the storm. Most people listened to him, of course, some others did not. These people who refused to leave and instead boarded up their homes and prayed for the best, they are the ones Governor Cooper began giving new orders to the second the winds picked up and rain started soaking his state to the point of paralysis: stay inside, don't go outside for any reason, and stay off the roads if you value your safety and the safety of the first responders who are trying to start the process of putting eastern North Carolina back together again.

Of course, some folks didn't listen to the governor, yet again refusing to heed his warnings and calls for cooperation. My father and I were among these people. We spent Friday going to pop-up Florence shelters around the Raleigh area, speaking with people who were sure they had lost everything, that they were now nomads with no direction or means. A lot of them said they'd fled Jacksonville, North Carolina just before the storm started pummeling their homes. Their stories were hard to hear, moving accounts of loss--loss of power, loss of property, loss of community--and we wanted to go visit their town and see what had transpired since they'd evacuated to Raleigh.

With that in mind, we too ignored Governor Cooper, threw some bottled water and energy bars in the car, and hopped on Interstate 40 heading east towards the wreckage. There were plenty of people on the road in the Raleigh area, but as we moved further east into Johnston County, the wind got rougher and the RAV4's wipers could barely keep up with the buckets of rain it was

Faison NC Sign
Ryan Jones
smearing all over the windshield. Our plan was to get off the interstate at Warsaw and make our way down to Jacksonville from there, but our plans didn't matter too much to the rain, or to the authorities who unceremoniously shut down the road at exit 355.

Kicked off the interstate, we were left to meander up and down low-lying state highways, using the age-old method of trial and error to try and find our way closer to the coast. This was easier said than done; most roads we went down were washed-out at some point, leaving us and the other psychopaths who'd decided to go out for a drive executing sloppy K-turns in the middle of standing flood water and retreating back in the direction we came from, hoping to find another road that would take us further east.

We were about to abandon our plan to find that state road around Warsaw that we herad might be open when one (relatively) passable road led to another, then another, and then we were starting to see signs of civilization once again, for the first time since we'd left Raleigh. We weren't sure where we were; we figured we were still in Duplin County, simply because no signs had told us otherwise. We reached a small, empty downtown, just a few shops: a barbecue joint, a general store, all shuttered for the storm. Looking up, I saw the water tower looming ahead, and it beared a name: Faison. 

Flood waters were everywhere, rising high and threatening to keep rising and spilling more and more with every new raindrop that fell upon the town, but a few of the roads near the downtown were passable. Nothing was open, as far as we could see, and when we came across another car on the road it was easy to see they were doing the same thing: creeping ever-so-slowly through little ponds of rainwater that had spilled over from flooded fields and made the roads difficult to navigate, always threatening a total takeover, the kind that would leave drivers on the road just as stuck and helpless as the governor had promised.

My father deftly maneuvered the car through empty streets until we eventually found a gas station. The inside was closed, locked and pitched-black, two of the four pumps were totally tapped, but two were open, the only working gas pumps we'd seen since Raleigh. We got line behind the other dozen people anxiously trying to fill their tanks before the supply ran out.

I got out of the car to get some footage of the long lines, the impatience and the eerie feeling that comes along with seeing almost nobody for miles and then, after crossing countless little lakes of flood waters, coming across a big group of people all drawn to the same place like moths to a lamp.

"Hey, man, can I ask you something'?"

I turned around. A portly guy in a filthy Braves cap and basketball shorts was leaning out of his Saturn from a few spots ahead in the line.

"Yeah?"

"You got cash?"

Now, we're down here from New York, and I'm not normally in the practice of discussing how much cash I have in my pocket with strangers. 

"Uhh..."

"None of the ATM's work here, man. None. Can I buy your gas with my card, maybe you give me cash? I need some...I'm tryin' to get to Goldsboro and this is the only place I've seen that's taking cards. Gotta have cash."

I relaxed. It's easy to forget, for a moment, that the rules change in disastrous situations. Things are different.

After filling up the tank we were on the road again, seeing if this town could lead us closer to Jacksonville, or maybe New Bern. Somewhere we'd seen on the news, that was all we were asking for. As we drove around Faison it became clear that a lot of people were not around, and if they were they were being well-behaved citizens and staying put in their homes. For many, that wasn't really a choice; flood waters filled some properties so throughly that the homes looked like little islands, fortified by massive motes of inpenetrable black water.

Burning Bush Holy Church is a brick building tucked off on a side road a couple drags away from the main drag in Faison.  As we drove closer it became clear that flood waters do not spare even the deceased. The cemetery was filled to the brim with water. The headstones located on the side of the hill were only partially submerged, but the ones further down were fully overtaken, with just bits of some markers visible from the road. On one you could only see flowers; on another, all the writing was under water except for the top line: "OUR PARENTS."

When we'd see other cars ahead of us trying to cross flooded streets we'd slow down to see how they made it through, quickly calculating our chances of charging through the muck efficiently enough where we wouldn't find ourselves on the roof of the car begging for help.

Most people drove slowly, with extreme courtesy, with "most" being the operative word: some young bucks in gargantuan, lifted Ford and Dodge pickups blasted through narrow, flooded two-lane roads like they were auditioning for the next "Mad Max" movie, shooting walls of water at our car that rocked us back and forth with irritating frequency. This was a regular occurance as we rambled on, we rounded a corner in the mid-afternoon and saw a fellow standing next to his pickup looking miserable. It was deep in the flood waters in a field right by a big intersection, and the cause of his demise was clear: he took the turn too hard, hydroplaned, and was lifted up by the waters and carried off the road.

His buddies had tied a rope to the truck, and they used their pickup to pull it out of its impromptu bath while people stopped around the intersection looked on. When I hopped out to get a picture of the sad scene I could hear them cackling with laughter from the cab of their own truck.

After driving around around this relatively barren town for a couple of hours seeing nothing but other lost and confused motorists on the street and shut down establishments and quiet homes, it was a surprise to stumble across the Piggly Wiggly in town, and an even bigger surprise to see the parking lot full of cars. This seemed impossible; the closest thing we'd seen to an operating business since we left the state capital was the half-busted gas station with chains on the doors and angry customers waiting in long lines.

The Piggly Wiggly was civilized, stocked with food, and full of weary travellers stumbling around, looking to choke down some fried food and Mellow Yellow before heading back out. We talked to a few of them.

I ran into Thomas Lee just as soon as I got out of the car, a Navy veteran wandering around the parking lot in the light rain holding a transistor radio. 

"I should've never left!" he declared. He was mad that he'd left Wilmington for Florence, but his wife had made him and he'd obliged so she wouldn't be worried. When I asked him what he was planning on doing until some roads opened up, he told me he'd be posted up at the Piggly Wiggly, listening to his radio for some word from the state highway patrol.

Archie and his son were travelling back to Wallace, North Carolina, and when I heard his booming voice over by the restrooms I couldn't help but ask to hear his story, if only to get his baritone on tape. He said he wanted to get home and check on his house and the rest of the town, but that the road closures were making it almost impossible. When I asked him if he was worried about getting stuck somewhere and being stranded, he didn't hesitate even a moment before answering with a resounding "no."

"This is down home...the south. This is why I moved to Wallace...everybody looks out for everybody here."

John is a prickly fellow who reminded me of Ed Norton in almost every movie Ed Norton's ever been in. He didn't mind the struggle to get home...in fact, he seemed to relish the challenge. I asked him if he's worried about not finding his way back to Richlands, North Carolina.

"There's always a way out," he said after a pause, his icy eyes meeting mine.

We started to head away from Faison, determined to take another shot at getting down near Jacksonville. After a couple of false starts, we hit a couple of clean turns in a row, moving slowly down roads that seemed like they had been cleared just for our passage. We let ourselves get excited. A few minutes later, though, we ended up stopped behind a big line of cars. Beyond the cars was the greatest of the floods that we'd seen in Faison. It was so large, so sprawling in the way it encompassed the fields on either side of the narrow road, that it looked like we had just driven to the end of the earth. 

Or at least the end of Faison.

We got out of the car and walked up to the beginning of the flood waters where a small group had assembled. I asked someone what was going on, and he gestured at a man standing far out in the flood waters that had over taken the road. He was walking with purpose, water almost up to his knees and sloshing around. 

"This is how the locals check if it's okay to drive," the man said. "Only way to see how deep it is."

The guinea pig, whose name I later learned is Nolan Lynch, was at least a hundred yards away, and he was still walking, one foot in front of the the other, determined to drive his truck through the horribly dangerous flood waters.

The man shook his head, and so did others, with one guy groaning: "It's up to his knees!"

The man walked with such purpose, I fought back a grin, but then let it go. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.

Also, Governor Cooper was right. Stay off the roads, folks. It's a circus out there.