The small motorboat was waiting at the edge of the new lake for the American Red Cross truck to deliver the chicken and dumplings. Once the boat was loaded, pilot Dennis Ellison steered it expertly down Stag Park Road, around the top of a mailbox, past a water-ringed house, on for nearly half a mile until he reached a spot where the road's yellow center line began to shine beneath the murky water, and he was back on the newly formed island he calls home.
No doubt nearly every community in this flood zone of eastern North Carolina has a story to tell about what happened when Hurricane Floyd brought more than 20 inches of rain and left a network of deadly, flooding rivers and streams. Here, in the rural farmland of Pender County, about 30 miles north of Wilmington, the 100 families along Stag Park Road will always remember how they became an instant island--isolated and, for several days, they feared, forgotten by the outside world.
"This is our tropical paradise," resident Tammy Simmons, 38, said as she greeted the noontime boat. By now, with the worst of their ordeal over and thankful that their homes and families were intact, it was something they could almost joke about.
That was hardly true a few days ago. The hurricane itself had been bad enough when it struck last week on Thursday morning, shellacking the fields and rocking the widely spaced houses with howling winds. Residents here are used to hurricanes; they've been through five since 1996.
By Friday evening, however, something completely unforeseen had occurred. On one side, usually placid Burgaw Creek, which feeds into the Cape Fear River, had spilled its banks; on the other side, Cypress Creek had overflowed. The two bridges were swamped. And on the steeper ground in between, the residents of what they later dubbed "Three Mile Island" were left high, dry and alone. In some places, they were surrounded by dank, germ-infested water an estimated 20 feet deep.
The electrical power failed and the telephones went dead. People began to eat up their hurricane supplies, digging next into their defrosting freezers.
"I had asked my husband, 'What will we do when we run out of food?' " Simmons said. "When the water got up into the field behind our house, I was afraid, because we had made an agreement, when it got up to the shed we were leaving. I didn't want to leave. You don't want to leave your home; you want to leave to be safe, but you don't really want to go."
Since the creeks had never flooded in anyone's memory, there were no evacuation orders. No one else seemed aware of what was going on here in this remote area; there were bigger emergencies in other places, involving many more people, farther inland in Rocky Mount, Tarboro, Greenville, Duplin County.
Here, the community consists of neatly kept mobile homes and small houses on big lots, separated by corn fields and woods and owned by welders, day-care workers, grocery store employees and truckers. The anchor is the white edifice of the Jordan's Chapel United Methodist Church, which has become something of a community center in the emergency. But its longtime pastor, Lenier Furr, was separated from his congregation, on the other side of the water.
On Saturday, mail carrier Harrell Hinson decided to venture out in a small fishing boat, with a list of supplies his neighbors needed, meeting up with Furr, and his wife, Debbie, to go seek help. By Monday, the Red Cross had been notified about the problems, hot meals began arriving by truck at the water's edge twice a day, and the small crisis was all but over.
This week, as people elsewhere are mourning the flooding of an estimated 30,000 homes and the deaths of at least 46 people, residents here have begun to feel comparatively lucky. They joke about who gets to be mayor and police chief of the island. Although the water remains perilously high, not expected to subside until the weekend, it has fallen enough to make passage back and forth a little easier.
"To be honest, there's been a lot of good to come out of this," Hinson said Thursday, breaking down briefly in tears as he recalled the stresses of the past week. "My home hasn't been hurt. All it is to me is a minor inconvenience, compared to what other people have been through. I've lived here 11 years, and I don't know, the way the world is now, you don't take a lot of time to know each other. Everybody knows me because I'm their mailman, but I didn't see a lot of them and know them personally. I think we've got a closeness now that we've never had before."
In the church, the residents gathered for lunch and a prayer. The Furrs managed to motor over in a small boat to join them.
"God's still in charge," the pastor said, standing under an autumn sky that was a spotless blue, as if nothing frightening had ever happened, "and he promises that he can turn even this into a blessing."
The Rain on the Plain
Hurricane Floyd and subsequent rain caused many North Carolina rivers to overflow their banks. These satellite images show a portion of North Carolina's coastal plain before and during flooding.
With at least 70 deaths, Hurricane Floyd is the deadliest to hit the country since Agnes, according to National Hurricane Center data.
Storm Year Deaths
Agnes 1972 125
Floyd 1999 70+
Alberto 1994 34
Amelia 1978 33
Celia 1970 25
Andrew 1992 23
Fran 1996 22
Hugo 1989 17
Alicia 1983 13
Chantal 1989 13
Charley 1998 13
SOURCES: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Associated Press