It was 6:50 AM and I awoke from a deep sleep to check my phone and see that a tornado warning was just issued for my direct path, in Wilmington NC. I ran to the upstairs bedroom where my comrade and trusted forecaster, Nic Roberson, lay asleep in bed. I shook his leg and he woke up to me saying “Good morning and congratulations, we are in the first tornado warning of the day!”
This was the morning of October 8, 2016, a Saturday, and this was the day predicted for Hurricane Matthew’s landfall along the North Carolina/South Carolina coast. Nic and I prepared over a week in advance, and after a long drive the night before we were more than ready to start a day of documenting the hurricane. Note: Nic and Dan are both expert storm chasers with almost a decade of forecasting, teamwork, and storm chasing across the country. Do not attempt to intercept a hurricane unless you are with a professional.
The time was now 7:15 AM and Nic and I were scrambling to get our equipment out to my car and get to the beach. The tornado warning was still active, and the imbedded supercell was on the way. We drove to Wrightsville Beach and ran out onto the sand to get a better vantage point of the sky. The view was gorgeous. Low rotating clouds almost stretched to the ground and the wind was whipping at 50 mph. Wind this fast was enough to lean against for balance and also caused the power to go out in our area.
After a few hours at Wrightsville Beach, we noticed that the entire eyewall of the hurricane was likely going to make landfall for the first time near Myrtle Beach, SC. The eyewall is the strongest convective wind and rain that forms just outside of the hurricane eye (center of the hurricane). We packed up our gear and drove south through the empty highways toward Myrtle. During the drive, the wind was consistently strong and sideways driven, and the rain was moderate to heavy at times. Fortunately our route was elevated and flooding was not an issue at this point.
We entered Hurricane Matthew’s eye at Myrtle Beach as a Category 1 hurricane (it was a Cat. 2 just before it hit shore). The intense eyewall consisted of slightly faster wind and much heavier rain than before, and we kept driving until we entered the calm and overcast eye. With some moments to think, we devised a plan to drive inland to Fayetteville where flood warnings were already in place. The hurricane still had much more water to dump on that area and we knew it was going to get rough.
It was approximately 1:30 and we were entering back into North Carolina through Tabor City. We had already witnessed flooding in low parking lots and yards, but as soon as we entered Tabor City we saw some of our first flooded roads. And by flooded, I mean a river is now crossing the road at a fast pace. Most of the flooding I have covered involves almost-still pools of water, but this was something a lot different. The speed of the water rushing across the road was enough to sweep most people off their feet, and it definitely put motorists in danger. This didn’t stop most people from attempting to drive through.
Nic and I found a way around these flooded roads and continued to head north another 15 miles, where we found out we could not go any farther. There were three possible roads north, and all three had rivers crossing with multiple feet of water. In an attempt to reroute and get to higher ground, we drove to the center of Williams NC, south of Whiteville. A very small town with only one gas station at the town intersection. It was on a hill though, and there were not many trees to cause a threat to our vehicle.
We drove every small road around Williams in attempt to find a safe crossing before concluding that there were none. As we scouted a route, the wind picked up and started blowing down trees and causing new roadblocks. We were slowly driving and I saw a very large tree fall and take down power lines before hitting the side of the house below. I looked at Nic and he saw it as well. It was time to go back to the safety of Williams and re-plan.
Outside of the Williams gas station (a sign hung on the door saying closed), we met a family that was on the way to Myrtle Beach, but also trapped in this small town. We all sat in our cars and waited, knowing there must be other people in this town. After 15 minutes or so, a truck pulled up with a member of the Williams Fire Department. He said that their fire station was on the other side of the gas station and we were welcome to come take refuge, although the actual shelter with beds and food was located across the flood water back in Tabor City. Nic and I were safe in our vehicle and had enough food and water for a few days, but we thought the fire department would figure out a better plan than ours.
The family, the firefighters, Nic and I sat around a couple of long tables in the fire building, as calls on the fire scanner came in, only to be denied due to inaccessibility. I heard a call come through the scanner of a civilian trapped in her car after a heart attack in the middle of the hurricane. This bothered the firefighters when they saw the location was beyond a flooded road and they were unable to respond to the call.
After 9 hours in Williams, it was dark and wet but the destructive wind was over. Before falling asleep in our vehicle, Nic and I decided to take one last scouting mission back through the country roads to see if the conditions were any better. Our first few roads looked worse than before, definitely no way of crossing. After almost an hour of driving the radius of the town, we came upon a road that was flooded earlier in the day but now passable. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We decided to try not and get too excited as we waved Williams goodbye, knowing that there might be more challenges ahead. Our goal at this time was to get back to an area with working electricity, hot food and gasoline.
The time was 12:30 AM and we were on Hwy 74 north, almost to Lumberton. The sky was still dark with no light pollution, and the highway was covered with trees, only to be passed in the far side of the road where some branches were removed for access. As we entered Lumberton, still no sign of electricity and only more flooded roads and buildings. We returned to the highway and decided to drive straight to Greensboro, which was out of the way of the hurricane. We passed through four cities without power before eventually seeing a few lights in Asheboro, just south of Greensboro. Our normal reality had returned, and we eased up and finished our drive.
I woke up the next morning, October 9th, and had an odd feeling of estrangement from the flooding that I was apart of and already dedicated myself to documenting. I was hearing reports of a mandatory evacuation at Lake Surf, a community northwest of Fayetteville. A dam was likely to bust and cause massive devastating to the area. I passed by no media correspondents the day before, and if this day was the same, my coverage could be very important to help the people in need.
Lake Surf was a mess…roads randomly blocked off with flooded roads throughout. As I filmed my first scene, I came across commuters trying to cross floodwater to get to Fayetteville, people looking for loved ones whose houses were deep in the floodwater, and teens attempting to cross some of the higher river-roads for fun. I helped people in any way I could, which meant letting them know which routes were dry and which ones weren’t. One resident pointed across a street, now unrecognizable from the 3+ ft of rushing water, and said “My house is over there, around the corner in the deep water”. He and his family kayaked away from their front porch with a few possessions and their dogs. He told me that they knew to leave when they saw a couple of large pickup trucks floating down the road. They set their horse free and took a few pictures before making it to safety. The seemed positive given the situation, and the father said “You want a real story, how about the fact this city is in millions of dollars in debt and the dam has needed repair for a long time. It was only a matter of time before this happened”. I stood with the family for a bit as we watched the floodwater rush across the road, a silent mutual understanding of devastation and the power of nature.
I returned to Greensboro, and five days later drove back east toward the coast to Kinston, NC. Although the hurricane was long gone at this time, the amount of flooding caused downstream rivers to peak days later. In the case of Kinston, the worst flooding was expected six days after the hurricane with a new record of river height at 28.30 ft, well above flood stage. The National Guard and other groups were protecting dangerous road accesses near downtown, but I drove around a little bit to find a number of lower income communities without road blocks. “We lost everything” one civilian told me as he pointed to his smaller sized house, partially underwater. The city was out of power and people were grilling early dinners in their front lawns. The residents seemed glad I was there, and they looked like they needed all the help they could get. One older man stopped my car to give me a pat on the shoulder and say thanks. He told me of how appreciative he was that I was documenting the devastation in his city, and was positive that more help would be coming.
The sun was starting to set a deep red color, and the mosquitoes swarms were thicker than I have ever seen. I knew that I captured what I could, and the next stop was home. I still feel a deep connection with the people I met and the loss of their communities, and I know that the amount of devastation will take years to rebuild.
To help with the rebuilding, visit North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund or the Red Cross.
Watch my full video story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVV1nqSUCEU