CLARKTON — Thurman Packer’s daughter Amanda pushed his wheelchair to where Gov. Roy Cooper stood.
“I’m dying,” he began. “Please, help me.”
In his lap rested an oxygen tank, helping him to breathe. Packer says he has blebs, a condition associated with collapsed lungs.
His conversation with the governor wasn’t long Wednesday afternoon. They spoke in a hallway of the former Booker T. Washington Primary School, outside a door Packer said was his first-grade room.
Cooper listened with compassion, had a FEMA representative take down the family information, and offered encouragement.
Packer’s story is one of many where Bladen County families are facing a struggle, with wonder of what will happen next. He worries for his wife Christy and his daughters Amanda and Katie, the latter of which is nearing a degree from Bladen Community College.
“Thank-you for telling me your story,” Cooper told him before moving on to Bladenboro. “It’ll help me as we try to get assistance to everyone.”
Bladen County took a beating from Hurricane Florence, which made landfall Sept. 14 and then virtually parked itself over the region for three days. Elizabethtown received 35.93 inches of rainfall, Bladenboro was severely flooded, and the community of Kelly’s 14-mile earthen dike had a breach big enough for a pair of tractor-trailer rigs.
The Cape Fear River that flows through the county rose to its highest levels since World War II. Nearly two weeks since the storm’s deluge, water is still standing in many areas, tear-outs of homes litter some roadsides and scores of families face uncertainty.
Packer said he’s not without sin, but he lives for God.
“And my Bible says He’ll open doors no man can open,” Packer said.
Asked if he thought the governor could deliver, Packer said, “My grandpa taught me a long time ago, if I tell you I’m going to help you, then I’m going to help you or bust hell wide open trying.”
He hesitated and then added, when it comes to politicians, “It’s a money thing.”
Cooper has been in the crosshairs since Hurricane Matthew, the storm of October 2016 that devastated Bladen and several other eastern North Carolina counties. He was campaigning at the time, on the way to beating then-Gov. Pat McCrory.
Since then, consensus opinion has been the money to help people put their lives back together has been slow to arrive. And that was two years ago.
Wednesday in a school once home to educating him and now a shelter for his family and 37 other people, Packer was thinking of the present.
“We have a shelter over our heads, and three meals a day,” he said of the refuge. “But they’re going to close this eventually. Where am I going? Where are my wife and kids going?”
He shared pictures of mold in his home. He spoke of his family living in a tent before the storm arrived.
“When I was on my feet, I helped people,” Packer said. “I did what God asked.”
He paused to catch his voice.
“Now it’s my turn. I need help.”
Thurman Packer, his daughter Amanda alongside, chats with Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday at the former Booker T. Washington Primary School that serves as a shelter for Hurricane Florence evacuees.
Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @alanwooten19.