It’s been nearly six days since Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Charleston County, S.C. and the tropical storm’s atmospheric remnants have long since dissipated into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving blue skies across Eastern North Carolina for the better part of the week.
In some cities across the east, displaced residents are beginning to get an idea of their losses as the river levels ease off, but in Kinston officials, business and homeowners are bracing for the riverside city’s toughest test in recorded history.
Preparations for flooding events along the Neuse River began even before the rain arrived, as crews cleared storm drains in anticipation of the first October hurricane to strike the Carolina coast since 1954. Every day this week volunteers have gone door to door in neighborhoods expected to flood to warn about the rising water, but it was clear Thursday morning that time was beginning to run out for those evacuating.
The Neuse crept up during the group prayers of more than 150 community members gathered at Tiffany West Park Thursday morning before Mayor B.J. Murphy and council members Felicia Solomon and Robert Swinson gave the latest update: 29 feet.
Flood stage is 14 feet for the Neuse, which begins in Durham County and empties into the Pamlico Sound near New Bern. “Floyd stage” — the record set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 — is 27.7. By 9 p.m. Thursday the river was at 27.92 and still expected to pick up another foot before finally cresting, although levels are expected to stay near 26 feet through at least Monday, Oct. 17.
Murphy said while towns in Robeson and Edgecombe counties had mere hours to prepare for the most devastating floods to hit the region in a generation, Kinston’s week of advance notice should reduce to zero the chance of loss of life.
“I feel like Noah,” Murphy said from on top of a picnic table, “because I’m trying to warn you: The water is coming.”
Chris Suggs of Kinston Teens directed volunteers to Pearson Park, where children, parents and grandparents alike were shoveling sand into bags to distribute to businesses and residences making final preparations just yards away from approaching waters.
On Wednesday, Suggs, Murphy and others marched down Cedar Lane in East Kinston to ensure all residents were aware of the mandatory evacuation order. By Thursday afternoon, those residents could see the water coming up their driveways.
Kinston utility trucks arrived just as the floodwaters claimed the portion of the neighborhood beyond Oakmont Drive to begin turning the power off. Neighbors were warned that as the waters reached each transformer it would be shut off to avoid risk of electrocution.
One lineman pointed out that citizens out shooting cell phone pictures and video of rising river levels at Tiffany West Park got in the way of his crew, slowing them down as they race to give residents every second of power possible before shutting it down.
Teresa of Cedar Lane was preparing to leave as soon as the water reached her neighbor’s driveway across the street. With the power shutoff imminent, she knew food left in the freezer would spoil even if her sandbags kept the water from reaching her belongings.
On the other side of Bynum Elementary School, all 82 units at the Wingate Townhouse Apartments were surrounded by water. Wednesday the parking lots were dry, but residents Thursday afternoon returned to find they would not have another chance to grab belongings left behind in the initial evacuation.
Water was halfway up the driveway of Cedar Lane resident Allen Williams Jr. Thursday where just a day before he was packing to evacuate. One woman helping him pack shouted at Murphy, although he was well out of earshot, saying his concern was insincere.
If officials really cared about the area, she said, they would find a way to lower water levels in the Triangle upriver well ahead of tropical storms like Matthew and Floyd to lessen the impact for weeks after landfall.
“It’s not fair,” she said.