Fighting floods with Winston-Salem Fire Department’s water rescue team
Hurricane Matthew skirted the North Carolina coast earlier this month pounding the eastern part of the state with heavy rain and a storm surge of rising water swallowing roads, bridges and entire communities. Flash floods trapped residents in their homes and swept cars off the roads, with toxic, debris-polluted water.
The full scope of the storm’s impact is still being determined. For reference, Matthew’s floodwaters were comparable to 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. Water levels on the Cape Fear River at Wilmington broke a record from Hurricane Hazel that stood since 1954. The Oak Island pier was partially destroyed during the storm surge. Fayetteville received more than eight inches of rain in six hours on the morning of Oct. 8, and would total around 14 inches of rain. Heavy rain and flooding shut down sections of I-95 and I-40. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) is attributing 27 deaths to the storm as of Oct. 24. FEMA registrations topped 50,000, and more than $40 million has been pledged in disaster assistance, according to DPS.
As the storm surge sent a tide of misery inland from the coast, teams of first responders from across the state raced towards the rising tide to rescue residents.
State emergency managers called the Winston-Salem Fire Department’s Water Rescue Team into service in Edgecombe County. WSFD Assistant Chief Robert Owens talked about how geographical jurisdictions are redrawn during a state emergency. Owens said the state contacted local departments to lend a hand in the wake of the disaster.
“The state contacted us, they coordinate with folks in certain areas,” Owens said.
WSFD responded by dispatching an assistant chief to the state’s Emergency Operations Center, and their Water Rescue Team to counties in need. The team consists of Captain Marcus Draughn, Captain Bryan Knight, Engineer Justin Grubbs, Firefighters James Brinkley, Jason Barnes, Jack Johnson, Chris Kiestler and Ronald Garcia. The team was first told they would be deployed for 3 to 4 days, beginning on Sunday Oct. 9 and taking their own self-sustaining supplies.
But, by mid-week, the orders had turned into five-day indefinite rotations, with officials calling the situation “fluid.” Owens expected the rescue team back sooner, when he received an update reporting the “need kept getting bigger.” State officials expected the last river to crest by Saturday, Oct. 15. The number of people rescued since the storm surge heaved over the coastline reached 2,336.
Captain Draughn and his water rescue team reached Edgecombe County around midnight Oct. 9 and immediately went to work, he said. The rescues were in still toxic water and swift-moving currents filled with debris from homes and industries, Draughn said. He described a paramilitary operation, with calls coming in for rescues from helicopters surveying the area. The water rescue team, using two types of boats, an inflatable raft and a hard-bottom motor boat, to reach trapped residents, would work for 10 hours, come back to a staging area, rest for an hour, then return to work. Draughn estimates his teams performed more than 50 rescues in four days.
“When you are on the front lines, you rest when you can,” he said.
“On Monday, a vehicle was swept down the Tar River with the three occupants on the roof,” Draughn said. “The car went into the water and they were able to get on the roof. There was a good current and debris floating on top of the water and below the surface. That’s what we were running up against.”
And, he reported, the rescue situations changed from moment to moment. The team would be headed to a rescue call, often impeded by washed out bridges and flooded roads to reach an access point, and someone would notify them of another person trapped, or in need; “every structure flooded had to be checked by someone.”
Draughn’s rescue team had prepared for this work in their training, but had never been involved in an operation “of this magnitude.” The water rescue team, constituted within the WSFD in 2006, performs some kind of water rescue every year, he said. The team has not seen such a widespread event since 1999 and Hurricane Floyd, with Draughn calling their work in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew a tremendous learning experience.
“Every situation I learn something, experience is the only learning tool,” Draughn said. “We’re training all year long for these events.”
Throughout their weeklong deployment, the rescue team operated in several counties in the eastern part of the state. The DPS reported all rivers were below flood stage on Monday, but warned although flood waters are receding, the dangers associated with the flooding remains. Of the recorded deaths due to the storm, four came from Johnston County; three deaths each in Robeson, Cumberland, and Lenoir counties; two deaths each in Bladen, Wilson, and Wayne counties; and one death each in Columbus, Gates, Pitt, Rowan, Sampson, and Wake counties, according to DPS.
The 28 counties eligible for assistance under FEMA’s Individual and Households program are: Beaufort, Bertie, Bladen, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Dare, Duplin, Edgecombe, Gates, Greene, Harnett, Hoke, Hyde, Johnston, Jones, Lenoir, Martin, Nash, Onslow, Pender, Pitt, Robeson, Sampson, Tyrrell, Washington, Wayne, and Wilson.
The state and FEMA are working on housing for families whose homes have been flooded and condemned, but are warning residents that relief may not be immediate. Anyone unable to contact loved ones should call local emergency management or law enforcement, according to DPS.
The DPS is also warning of frauds and scams, to only hire licensed contractors, and to donate only to reputable organizations. For more information, citizens are being encouraged to visit ReadyNC.org or download the free ReadyNC app, which is providing real-time weather, traffic and shelter information.