One year later, Bladen County residents are assessing the wounds left by a Category 1 hurricane. Dubbed “Matthew” by the National Hurricane Center, the 14th storm of the Atlantic tropical season coasted in like a lamb, compared to other storms, on Oct. 8, 2016.
“I was standing outside on my porch during a hurricane, for crying out loud,” said Bobby Kinlaw, Elizabethtown resident and former police chief in town. “The wind wasn’t that bad.”
As that Saturday wore on and Matthew parked itself over southeastern North Carolina, however, the torrential rain came. And continued coming. Then came some more. Storm drains and culverts unequipped to handle the 18 inches of rain that fell in a 12-hour period in some places meant water backed up everywhere. With a ground already saturated from an abnormally high rainfall in September, water literally had nowhere to go.
Trees, made strong by nature itself, toppled under a different expression of that same force — water.
“All I could hear standing outside were all these trees falling around the house. It was incredible,” Kinlaw recalled.
As backed-up water sought its lowest level, even asphalt couldn’t stand in its way. Roads first began flooding, then collapsing altogether as torrents — intent on a path — shouldered their way through streets and roads, ultimately getting victory.
The emergency services office in the lower level of the courthouse was inundated with calls from people declaring roads were flooded and impassable.
“That’s another one,” a worker yelled tat Saturday, a refrain to be repeated numerous times throughout the weekend as residents called in road events. “Peanut Plant Road is flooded.” The street was written down on a white board, added to the nearly 100 that ended up being reported, 39 of which were total washouts.
The worst, however, was yet to come. A damaged generator at a cell phone tower meant many customers, already without power or access to roads, now had absolutely no way to communicate with the outside.
“It was the most helpless feeling — not being able to go anywhere because the roads are blocked off, not being able to check on family to see if they were OK, and just not knowing. Not anything,” said Tar Heel resident Nona Blackwell. “I couldn’t charge my computer up to check the news, and my phone didn’t work.
“I was thinking, ‘Does anybody even know this happened and how bad it is?’ How would they? Who could tell them if none of us could communicate with anybody? I remember it was days before my family got a hold of me and told me they had just seen it on the news, and I was so relieved. I was worried that no one would come, because they didn’t know.”
As news got out, however, even area residents were surprised at the what had transpired.
“What I remember from right after the hurricane is that picture of Tory Hole,” remarked Billie Hall, who works for the town of Elizabethtown. “I had my kids’ birthday parties there, and I remember sitting in (the amphitheater) and looking up, and it seemed so high. Then to see those pictures, and that it was all under water, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Throughout the week, things just went from bad to worse, however, for many residents. Tammy Faircloth lives in White Oak, and, when flood waters broke a dam upstream, she got bad news.
“The (White Oak) Fire Department knocked on my door and told to leave my house, because the dam broke, and the flood was coming,” she recalled. “I tried to think, ‘What is it that I would need if my house were completely gone?’ I was grabbing clothes, birth certificates and other important documents, and anything I could think of that we would need if we didn’t have a house. I wasn’t even putting it in bags, just throwing it all in piles, because they didn’t give us a timeline, just told us it was coming. It was a really scary time.”
Though Faircloth’s home was spared, others in the White Oak area, as well as areas like downtown Bladenboro, were not.
“(My husband) Robert and I had gotten out after the storm and were riding around taking in what had happened, and we saw the drainage downtown was overwhelmed with water,” said Bladenboro resident Rona West. The couple utilized military contacts to obtain sand bags and began, along with their daughter, filling them with sand.
“We were out in the pouring rain filling these bags, and some people saw what we were doing,” Rona remarked. “Randy Sykes stopped and started filling up sand bags, then the mayor came along, and he jumped in … by the time we got back, the water was knee deep. It was just too much water too fast, and we were fighting a losing battle. It was heartbreaking to see.”
According to data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Matthew is estimated to have caused approximately $10 billion in damage, making it the 10th most destructive hurricane to affect the U.S. The storm caused 34 deaths, 25 of which were in North Carolina. According to the NOAA report, three of those deaths occurred in Bladen County — two males whose vehicle plunged into floodwaters on a collapsed road and a 70-year-old male found drowned 50 yards from his vehicle.
Though Matthew came in and out in less than 24 hours, his effects are still being felt.
“I think it changed the way people prepare,” remarked Beverly Robinson, who also works for the town of Elizabethtown. “I didn’t really do anything to get ready other than what I normally would do, because I had no idea we’d be out of current for eight days. I think people take it seriously now.”
West noticed a difference with this year’s surge of hurricane threats.
“People are just on edge,” she said, “like they aren’t going to be caught off guard again.”
“I’ve always been very cognizant of storms and their danger,” said Faircloth, whose husband is a lineman and oversaw a crew that helped Four County restore power after Matthew. “But this made me aware that even though a storm isn’t bad, the aftereffects really could be devastating.”
Not all of Matthew’s effects are negative in nature. West and Hall see the storm as having changed, or at least highlighted, people’s hearts in a good way.
“People can say what they want about small towns, but when it comes to people needing help, they just step up,” West commented. “When we were filling those bags, we just turned around, and there were three other people there, and I thought, ‘Where did they come from?’ That’s just what people do. It’s amazing.”
“I think it changed the way we have compassion for people who go through it,” she said. “It was bad, but nothing like José or what they’re going through in Puerto Rico. You understand now.”
At least for West, Matthew’s marks, though painful, are helpful.
“It’s like a battle scar,” West commented. “It didn’t take you out, but it makes you more resilient, and you move on and try to make things better than before.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.