HOPE MILLS, N.C. — Hurricane Matthew came through this county in a fury, dumping rain at a rate of two inches per hour, but by nightfall Saturday, Debra Cain figured its havoc was over. The wind and rain had so shaken her house’s foundation that her front door wouldn’t fully close. She spent the night with her neighbors and slept fitfully on the couch.
Then she woke up before sunrise, looked out the window and screamed.
Tim Edge, 43, came out of his bedroom, grabbed a flashlight and gazed at his street. It had turned overnight into a lake.
Water lapped at the front steps. Mailbox posts were two-thirds submerged. And on lower ground, across the street, a firehouse barely poked out of the murky, brown water.
“You have oceanfront property,” Cain said.
Edge started gathering clothing into plastic bags.
They could either swim out or call for help, and nobody wanted to brave waters where copperheads might be slithering. And so, there would have to be another rescue mission in North Carolina.
For all the attention paid to Matthew’s churn along the coastline, its most lasting damage is emerging many miles inland, where rainfall totals were greatest and flooding overwhelmed dams and drainage systems. Fifteen inches deluged Fayetteville, N.C. — three times more than the city normally sees in a month — and by Sunday that water was spilling across neighborhoods and highways, trapping people and animals, and leaving inland North Carolina subdivided into countless crisis-stricken islands. Officials reported eight deaths and nearly 1,000 water rescues statewide.
More than half of those rescues took place in Cumberland County, which includes Fayetteville, particularly in areas like Edge’s neighborhood, where residents had initially figured they were safe. The 911 calls started Saturday but surged Sunday, when officials at an emergency management center saw the result of a paralyzing and unpredictable water flow:
●A driver waiting on the hood of a car;
●A family that had just seen a front door knocked in by currents;
●A woman in a wheelchair with water up to her torso;
●Several hundred people sent to shelters for the displaced.
With the destruction it left behind, Matthew resembles Hurricane Floyd, which socked North Carolina in 1999. Most of Floyd’s fatalities occurred because of flooding after the rain had subsided.
This time, as Matthew headed up the coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent several teams to North Carolina — firefighters from New Jersey, New York and Ohio who double as federal rescue workers during disasters. Some of the rescuers saw duty after Katrina, Ivan and Sandy. A few had even climbed into the twin towers during 9/11. The 80-person unit from Dayton, Ohio, left Thursday night in a convoy, and by Sunday morning teams of four or five were getting addresses of homes by walkie talkie and moving from one hot spot to the next, armed with rafts, 16-foot boats, life vests, ropes and chain saws.
“We’re sticking with 12-hour shifts for our first responders,” Fayetteville Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Martin said.
“Yeah, on paper,” said Steve Shupert, a rescue team manager from Ohio. “But we’ve been awake 30 or 40 hours. And that’s without supper or breakfast.”
In Cumberland County, Ohio Task Force 1 began its Sunday with a panicked call before sunrise. A family in a deluged home needed help evacuating someone. “She was in the upper ranges of 300 pounds,” said Ryan Hogsten, a fire captain in Lexington, Ky. By the time the rescue team reached the house, water had risen to chest level. The woman was losing consciousness but managed to say that she didn’t want to die.
“We basically floated her out of the house,” Hogsten said. “That was a close call.”
As the rescue team members moved through Cumberland, they saw roads closed, water spreading, traffic backed up.
Around noon, a new emergency call came in at Fayetteville’s emergency center.
The word was radioed in to the Ohio rescuers: Brooklyn Circle. Several people stranded. Maybe some animals, too.
Kevin King’s team got there first.
A quarter-mile from Edge’s house, the road was no longer drivable. Water stood several feet high, so rescuers put their boat in the water. They navigated past a barely visible parking sign and over fire hydrants. A snake darted through the water. After several minutes, they reached the driveway at Edge’s home.
“C’mon in,” one of the rescuers said.
Cain clutched her miniature Australian shepherd and took some careful steps toward the water. Edge’s wife, Billie, and 16-year-old son Wyatt carried several bags of belongings.
They had never felt like their lives were in jeopardy, they said, but now they worried about different things. Cain, a widow who drives a school bus, said that she had lived in her home for 30 years; now, she feared it might not be habitable. Edge, a pastor, said that he would have to tear out the family’s hardwood flooring, at best. Neither had flood insurance.
After 10 minutes, the rescue boat deposited everyone back on dry ground. Edge fed a Slim Jim to one of his dogs.
“We could go to Momma’s tonight, but I don’t know about Cannon Road,” Billie said.
“I heard Cannon Road is closed,” one of the rescuers said.
The group stayed still for an hour, uncertain of where to go, and they stared at the new lake on Brooklyn Circle. Almost certainly, they said, the water had rushed here after a nearby dam break — one that they had heard about the previous night while listening to a battery-powered radio. A creek ran parallel to the road, but it was at the bottom of a 30-foot hill.
“So just think about that,” Edge said. “Before the water even started to fill in up here, it had to fill up those 30 feet from the creek.”
Cain pulled out a cigarette.
“That’s the power of water,” she said.