Hurricane Matthew bullied his way into Bladen County on Saturday as a Category 1 storm, forcing in strong winds, record-setting rainfall and claiming two lives in Clarkton. According to most estimations, between 10 and 15 inches of rain fell over the weekend.
Though Matthew stormed in and out Saturday, Bladen County wasn’t out of the woods yet. Sunday night around 11 p.m., a voluntary evacuation was issued for the Black River and South River areas after emergency officials took a helicopter tour to assess damage.
“We’re talking Floyd levels,” said Emergency Services Director Bradley Kinlaw. “This flood is going to be only second to a flood in 1943.”
River levels continue to rise, and were not expected to crest until Tuesday. Of major concern are the South River, Cape Fear, and Black River, the latter of which is receiving additional water caused by a dam break in Sampson County. One emergency shelter at East Bladen remained open on Monday and is expected to remain open as long as needed.
Kinlaw said that, at approximately 11 a.m. on Monday, Emergency Services began a door-to-door evacuation operation on Burney Road and River Road located between White Oak and Tar Heel. Officials encouraged individuals to evacuate these areas before the roads become impassible due to flooding of the Cape Fear River.
Voluntary evacuations are still in place for areas along the South River and Black River.
The National Guard and a swift water rescue team are stationed at the National Guard Armory in Elizabethtown and have been deployed numerous times.
“The roads are still dangerous,” said Kinlaw. “If people don’t need to be out, we’re urging them to stay home, not only for their safety, but for emergency personnel. Safety is paramount. Power and DOT are out working, but many roads are washed out and will be washed out for weeks to come.”
Over the weekend, Bladen County Emergency Services received calls for 91 impassable roads. Of those, 28 were completely collapsed or washed out, many of them bridges. On Monday morning, Emergency Services was still receiving calls about roads that were continuing to collapse in the wake of Matthew.
One such collapse claimed the lives of two victims Saturday. Shawn Dale Kemp, 44, and Juwan Rolando McKoy Carter, 22, were travelling down Rosindale Road in Clarkton when the road gave way and submerged the vehicle, trapping them inside. The driver of the vehicle escaped to safety.
“I expect to see our casualties rise,” said Emergency Services Director Bradley Kinlaw. He also reported that “numerous” homes have been damaged by fallen trees and by flooding.
So severe was the damage that, on Saturday, about 180 people fled their homes to take cover in one of the four shelters set up throughout Bladen County. Of the 180 people, the overwhelming majority – 105 of them – took refuge at West Bladen High School.
To exacerbate an already bad situation, 911 service in 10 North Carolina counties, including Bladen, went out around 3 a.m. Sunday morning. The service has since been restored.
To assist with the widespread damage, the Highway Patrol and Bladen County Sheriff’s Office both requested reinforcements, and around 10 Randolph County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, saying they were told to expect to stay about one week. The Highway Patrol requested an additional 16 officers, who also arrived Sunday. Both groups will be staying for the week at the facilities at Singletary State Park and will be fed by the county.
Four County Electric has reported 28,000 outages, and Duke Power reported 23,673 customers without power. According to Kinlaw, full restoration should take two to four days. Other customers report being told by Duke Power that restoration will take one week.
Once news of prolonged outage and the enormity of the damage sunk in, Bladen County residents flocked to one of only three places open Sunday – Food Lion.
“I’ve worked here five years, and I’ve never seen it like this, even at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Food Lion cashier Lindsey Holmes.
Not a shopping cart was to be found, the parking lot from the Marathon to the Dollar Tree – including grassy spots – was full, and checkout lines extended the width of the grocery store, wrapping around the produce department.
In the early and middle parts of the week before Matthew’s arrival, North Carolina residents watched with wringing hands as the hurricane hit Haiti and the Bahamas and headed for the Carolinas. When Matthew was upgraded to a category 4 hurricane and projected to make landfall in the Carolinas, southeast North Carolina braced for the worst.
On Monday, Gov. McCrory declared a state of emergency for 66 counties in eastern and central North Carolina and sent a letter to President O’Bama requesting a federal disaster declaration. Swift water response teams were sent out to five locations in eastern North Carolina, and the Elizabethown National Guard Armory was set up as a staging location for emergency personnel.
On Wednesday and Thursday, however, the storm started heading to Florida and was predicted to run parallel to the east coast of the U.S. and make a U-turn before reaching North Carolina. Rainfall was still projected to be the greatest danger, but totals in Bladen County were expected to be 6-8 inches accompanied by tropical storm force winds of 50 miles per hour. When the last visages of the sun tiptoed out Wednesday, many people were breathing sighs of relief and gratitude at escaping another near miss.
When the storm shifted more northward early Friday and its path was projected to bring it closer to the Mother County than had been expected on Thursday, rainfall predictions began to rise and only increased throughout the day. In less than a 24-hour period, as the storm slowed down, projected rainfall totals went from 6-8 inches to more than 15 inches. While wind values didn’t change much, tornado warnings and flash flood warnings went out, and the National Weather Service began using the words “life-threatening flooding” for the region.
At 2 p.m. Friday, the National Weather Service issued a tropical storm warning for Bladen County and increased the projected rainfall to 9-12 inches for Bladen County. By 7 p.m. Friday night, the totals were projected to be upwards of 15 inches, and Bladen County, Elizabethtown, and Bladenboro all declared states of emergency and implemented curfews.
MCCrory then issued a state of emergency for all 100 counties.
Also on Friday, the towns of Elizabethtown and Bladeboro isued states of emergency and set curfews.
“I had no idea it would be this bad,” said Sha’nice Rhone on Sunday in Food Lion, where she was trying to gather supplies. “I just thought it would be like every other time they tell us it’s going to be bad, then it turns out to be nothing. I didn’t do anything to get ready.”
Kinlaw is seeing that perception played out.
“I just don’t think people realized how bad it was going to be,” he said. “This took a lot of people by surprise. It’s going to take a while to recover from this.”
Local residents who were out on Friday were talkative about the storm.
— Mark Gainey: “We have land right below us that floods and land right above us that floods easily, so we sit right in the middle, and sometimes when it rains hard both the roads flood so we don’t have any way to get out i’ve driven down the road before when all I could see was the yellow line in the middle of the road so I just drove right in the middle and luckily we have a 4 wheel drive envoy that sits high enough to drive through. sometimes We just make plans to stay in the house, or we take money out of the bank in case we need to stay in a motel and make sure we have food and batteries in case we get stuck. I’m glad they cancelled school. it shows they’re looking out for folks like us.”
—Mae Banks: “Whenever I see anything like a hurricane out there, I just start talking to the Lord, and the way I see it, we’re l=not lucky, we’re blessed. We could be like Haiti or some of those places. I just talk to the Lord, buy a few supplies, and I don’t stress about it … I don’t go all crazy or anything like that. I pick up some bread and milk, but I just don’t worry about it. I know our power is oging to go out — it goes out any time it rains, but we just put a movie in our computer or find something else to do until it’s over.”
— Ronald Williams, Food Lion employee: “It’s been a tough week. Everybody’ just came all at once when they heard about the storm. Sold 10 pallets of water in less than a day and 1,000 pounds of bananas.”
— Elsie Priest: “We’re trying to get in one more good meal before we may not have electricity. Been to Whiteville to get a generator and told they were swamped. Got last loaf of bread in Clarkton and that was at the Dollar General buying lanterns because candles aren’t safe there’s not but one person who knows what’s going to happen and it’s all in His hands anyway.”