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Hundreds rescued in town of New Bern as Hurricane Florence batters North Carolina coast

Hurricane Florence left its mark in New Bern, N.C., on Friday, Sept. 14, leaving hundreds stranded and waiting to be rescued. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

NEW BERN, N.C. — Pamela ­Rodgers used an abandoned car — swept off the road and deposited in front of her two-story apartment building — as a flood gauge, to determine when she needed to leave. She watched as the water crept up to the tires. Then the side door. Then, on Friday afternoon, the car disappeared: A heavy gust of wind and waves covered the entire sedan for a few seconds.

 “That’s when I knew we needed to go,” said Rodgers, 48.

She didn’t dial 911, but instead called an emergency rescue number she had found online. Within 20 minutes, volunteer rescuers David Rouse and Christopher Hawkins were en route with a boat to her apartment in this low-lying Colonial-era city. 

Inside Rodgers’s home, they found five adults and seven children — including a 9-month-old baby — ready to flee with trash bags full of covers, pillows, clothes, toothbrushes, phone chargers and diapers. It took two trips for Rouse and Hawkins to get the entire family to dry ground.  

Along the N.C. coast, people emerged the morning of Sept. 14 to see what damage Hurricane Florence left behind after the storm made landfall. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Alice Li, Whitney Shefte, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

In the boat, Rodgers was terrified that they would slip into the water and drown, so she watched the steadfast expressions of Rouse and Hawkins.

“And that kept me calm,” Rodgers said.

In the early hours of Hurricane Florence’s landfall, bad luck, geography and human stubbornness made this picturesque city of 30,000 the center of North Carolina’s problems. At least 360 people were rescued in New Bern and the surrounding county, where people had remained behind despite a mandatory evacuation order.

There were no reports of deaths in the area, although at least four people died in other areas related to the storm.

New Bern is dozens of miles inland, but its downtown is flanked on two sides by the Neuse and Trent rivers. Starting Thursday, they were inundated from above — as 13 inches of rain fell — and from the east, as Florence’s high winds drove in water from the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

Water levels rose 10 feet in a few hours, pouring into yards, streets, businesses and homes. That exceeded the worst flood in recent memory, when Hurricane Irene pushed water levels up eight feet in 2011, said Colleen Roberts, a city spokeswoman.

The first wave of panicked calls came in after dark Thursday, as Hurricane Florence sent rainwater surging downstream and ocean water surging upstream. The two floods met in the middle at the little river’s-edge city of New Bern.

People called 911 from their living rooms, standing in chest-deep water; from the roofs of their cars, on flooded roads. On a single street, 17 people said they needed rescue.

“They’re actively calling us as they’re being chased by flood­water,” said Gene Hodges, a spokesman for Craven County, which includes New Bern. He recounted the mounting desperation of some callers’ conversations with dispatchers:

“I’m on the first floor,” they would say.

“Well, get to the second floor,” a dispatcher would respond.

But soon the panic would mount: “It’s coming up to the second floor.”

“Well, get to the attic.”

And finally, “Now I’m on the roof.”

Just downstream from New Bern, Ariel Heath of James City, N.C., suffered through the traumatic night. She and her boyfriend stayed in an apartment over a garage, on a property owned by her boyfriend’s family. They decided not to leave town — despite the evacuation order — because they hoped to make “preemptive strikes” if they saw flood damage, fix it before it got worse.

But the water rose waist-high, disabling Heath’s SUV. The rain and wind were so loud that she didn’t hear a huge tree fall. Everything smelled of gasoline, which was covering the water’s surface.

“There were animals everywhere trying to get to safety,” said Heath, 27, recalling the chickens and squirrels scurrying outside.

In the middle of the night, the city of New Bern posted a message on its Twitter account with a capital-letter tone that showed how dire things had gotten.

“Currently ~150 awaiting rescue in New Bern. We have 2 out-of-state FEMA teams here for swift water rescue. More are on the way to help us. WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU. You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” read the tweet, posted at 2:27 a.m.

At WCTI television, based a few blocks from the Neuse River, green water poured into studios and control rooms. “#HurricaneFlorence forced our team out of the studio last night,” the TV station reported in a tweet. The staff evacuated in the middle of a meteorologist’s report, and switched over to using a sister station’s storm coverage.

In the middle of that night, some people called out for help via social media, posting messages requesting assistance for themselves or their relatives. In many cases, strangers would relay those emergencies to the authorities — which left rescuers searching for people with secondhand information, which was sometimes vague, outdated or just plain wrong.

“It’s really delaying our crews from really getting some of these rescues underway, because they don’t know who they’re looking for,” Roberts said. “That’s been really tough on us.”

The rescuers in New Bern also included a flotilla of “Cajun Navy” volunteers — many of whom had rescued people in Texas last year during Hurricane Harvey. This year, they drove to the Carolinas with a mismatched fleet of kayaks, fishing boats, shallow-draft duck hunting boats, airboats and pirogues.

On Thursday night — as Florence’s winds gusted to 45 mph and 13 inches of rain fell — Cajun Navy volunteer Todd Terrell said it became too rough even for these rugged boats. So they floated people to safety on air mattress.

“A lot of people did not get out, tried to drive out, and a lot got stuck. So a lot of people, we were rescuing from the tops of their vehicles,” Terrell said in an interview early Friday. “It’s real bad right now.”

After the tide had gone out, some people came out to survey the damage: in the streets, the flotsam included a coffee table, a loose set of steps, the remains of a shattered Life is Good clothing store, and — in one place — a giant statute of a bear wearing a powdered wig. Bear statutes are a trademark of New Bern, an homage to its namesake of Bern, Switzerland. They are bolted down. They are not supposed to float.

“Some of our beloved bears have wandered off,” the city wrote on twitter, with a photo of a bear sitting in the middle of a flooded road. “This one ended up in the middle of S. Front St!”

But the calm only lasted for a few hours. By Friday afternoon, with rain still pouring down, a second wave of hundreds of rescue calls began — including the one from Rodgers and her family.

Even after they were rescued, they worried about a neighbor, who was stranded with her 2-month-old baby.

Finally, at about 6:30 p.m., just before Rodgers’s family was getting into a car that would take them to a New Bern shelter, the rescue boat pulled up to the curb with her neighbor, cradling the infant tight against her chest.

“They got her!” Rodgers screamed.

After that, volunteers Rouse and Hawkins headed back into the water. They estimated they’d made 15 trips in two hours, despite the alligators snaking through the neighborhood. They steered around the roofs of submerged cars and the tips of metal fencing. In a darkened apartment with a flickering candle, they found a man stranded and alone.

He said he had no idea his neighborhood had turned into a disaster zone. He struggled to balance himself while climbing into the boat, so Rouse and Hawkins put one of their coolers into the water to give him a boost.

“I thought I was safe as usual, as always, as ever — but it flooded,” he said.

As night fell in New Bern, power was still out in much of downtown. Water levels had stabilized and had even begun to fall again. But authorities said they were still worried as the storm was headed upstream, which meant that all that water had to come back this way to the ocean.

“I’d like to think we’re past the worst of it,” said Lt. David Daniels of the New Bern police. “But it’s kind of like plumbing — the water’s gonna come down those rivers.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.