Our Hurricane Florence Flood Story

At their deepest, the floodwaters of Hurricane Florence measured eleven and half feet inside our house. The flooding destroyed everything we have worked to build and renovate over the past four years.  A lot of friends have suggested I write our story and I’m finally able to share it...

I've put off writing our Hurricane Florence story for months now and it kind of seems anticlimactic at this point.  We’ve been going non-stop since the flood. And this blog hasn't really ever been about my feelings, but I've had a lot of them to work through lately.  So here it goes...

Preparing for a Monster Storm

Hurricane Florence started being talked about in the first few days of September 2018. We worried right away because when this track is forecast, it is not usually good for us.

As the days passed and Florence came closer, we decided we needed to start emptying our ground floor. We learned the hard way with Hurricane Matthew what could happen if we didn’t. It took us about a week of working in the evenings after my husband, Mike, got home from work to load up all of our tools and equipment and take each load to a storage unit.

Florence just kept delaying. She was the slowest moving storm I’ve ever seen. But the delays gave us time to do lots of extra preparations like strapping down all of the firewood we had stacked for Winter.  We left one kayak in the house, one in our storage unit, and took another one to my in-laws’ house.  

Finally on Thursday night we were ready to leave. At least it wasn’t an emergency evacuation like during Hurricane Matthew.  This time we truly felt we had done everything we possibly could to prepare for the hurricane.  We took pictures with smiles on our faces, hopeful that we had done enough.

This stinker, Zeke, is smiling.  He was scheduled to be fixed the week of the hurricane.  Doesn't he look like he knew he got spared???

Later, Mike and I talked about that night and realized we both knew this was going to be it for a long time, that we might not ever even live in this house again. We knew it was going to flood. We knew this was going to be bad. I don’t exactly know how we each knew separately, I guess just our experiences with hurricanes and seeing how slow Florence was moving and the rain totals that were predicted told us.  We felt like that blurry picture of us exhausted and sweaty was probably the last picture we would take in front of the house.

During the Storm

We drove the hour and a half inland to my parents’ house. It felt comforting to be there. The house was crowded but fun; with my brother and his wife, their two boys, and her parents there too. The kids thought it was awesome to be with their cousins and grandparents. On Friday their area lost power as the hurricane approached. Usually it wouldn’t have been impacted so much, but this storm was very different. Florence crawled across nearly the entire state of North Carolina and just kept dumping rain.  We kept a generator running the refrigerator, freezer, and a few other things.  We strung LED string lights for lighting.  It looked like a party! 

All day Friday we checked our security camera to watch what was happening. 

We caught a glimpse of our neighbor coming to check on the house. He called us and let us know it was all good so far. But then he called back Saturday to tell us it had rained so much that he felt pretty sure our property was going to flood and he had taken our chickens back to his farm to keep them safe. 

The property flooded shortly after that. We watched as the water quickly rose, which we knew meant it was five feet deep in the first/basement level of the house. 

The rain just kept falling.  The water just kept rising.

From past experience we know there is a small window of time when the hurricane lets up between my parents’ house and ours, and before the highways begin to flood from rising creeks and rivers, that we can make it back home. We saw that window come and go while we sat in the emergency room with our twelve year old son.  He had said his throat was sore Thursday as we were packing up and I had given him Tylenol. He has a chronic illness called Dysautonomia, which is a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system (controls heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, body temperature regulation), and is extra vulnerable to illnesses. By Friday he had a rash on his face and torso. By Saturday his nose, eyelids, and ears were swollen and the prickly red rash covered his entire body. We decided we had to take him to the ER. It turned out he had a massive systemic Strep infection and Scarlet Fever. The ER staff found him antibiotics and Prednisone in the hospital because no pharmacies were open because of the hurricane and power being out. We checked news reports as soon as we got out of the hospital. The roads to get back home were all flooded. We had missed the window of safe travel. There was no way back home.  But our baby was going to be okay. 

Saturday afternoon was still very windy and rainy. The rain would not stop back home and at my parents' house.  Late Saturday night and into early Sunday morning there were confirmed tornadoes touching down back home. It was such a stressful night full of worrying about all of our friends back home, but everyone was safe. 

All day Sunday we watched the water rise on our camera back home. I kept hoping it would stop, but in my heart I knew it was going in.  At this point instead of rushing up higher, the water was creeping up painfully slowly.  By 1:00 pm the floor definitely looked wet. By 4:00pm, there was two inches of water sitting on our new wood floors and the antique Persian rugs I had searched for for months. 

By Sunday afternoon while knowing there was water in the house and trying to wrap my brain around all that was going to mean, I was trying to hold it together and not worry the kids or my family.  That afternoon the part of the storm that was spawning tornadoes reached my parents’ house.  My sister-in-law and I were home with her parents and all of our boys while my parents were out checking on an elderly person and my husband and daughter were looking for an open pharmacy to fill prescriptions for our son. My sister-in-law and I heard a tornado watch announced on the radio, so we started scoping out what we thought would be good safe spots in the house during a tornado. I suggested what used to be my parents’ library closet, about 5’x5’ and in an interior area, and my sister-in-law went in it to check it out. She yelled from inside, this place is full of glass!  I had forgotten my mom had moved a lot of her collections of glassware in there for display.  Definitely not the place to shelter from a tornado!  We had tornado warnings twice and went into our safe areas. Thankfully, no tornadoes touched down near us. 

Trying to Get Home

Our son’s rash was becoming unbearably prickly in the heat. He was completely miserable. I kept putting him in my van and running the air conditioning to give him some relief.  All of the roads back east to our house were still flooded, and would be for days. We had heard rumors in community Facebook groups that a small highway that runs from Raleigh into Wilmington may open up. Some people thought the route from Jacksonville into Wilmington may open up first. We really wanted to get back to our house to save what we could before the water went higher. So Monday morning we packed up the kids and dog in our two vehicles and drove to the home of our dear friends near Raleigh, who welcomed us with open arms and air conditioning.

Tuesday morning we woke up and checked the video camera back home. It was sunny.  The water was already out of the house and heading down fairly quickly.  We were itching to get back and start ripping out carpet and saving whatever wet things we could.  Mike went out and bought everything we might need to clean up; gloves, masks, cleaning chemicals, etc. 

Sure enough, later in the morning it was announced that Highway 421 was open to get back into Wilmington from the North. We packed up our two vehicles again. I ran to a grocery store quickly and packed every open space in the van full of fresh groceries to share. Friends back home told us few stores were open.  Those that were open had armed guarded long lines to get in just a few people at a time and there was no fresh or refrigerated food available. News reports said there was very little gas available and law enforcement was guarding the stations with big weapons to prevent any issues. They said to make sure we had full gas tanks if we were coming back.  The two lane country road we slowly crawled along with hundreds of others wanting to get back home had few gas stations and a traffic jam at each one.  We filled up before we hit the road and had enough gas to make it back and not stop.

Tuesday evening we arrived back at my in-law's house in town. Thankfully the power was already back on their neighborhood!  We loaded up the kayak we had left there on Mike’s truck and he headed straight out to our house. The water was across the road for a good distance away from our house, so he kayaked down the road and then up our long driveway. I was terrified for him to go out there alone. I call him Mr. Safety because he’s always so safety conscious, so I knew he wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks, but still... He wore a life jacket and kept an open phone line with me listening. He made it into the house and put screens in and opened all of the downstairs windows to get air in and keep squirrels out.  

The Water Just Kept Coming...and Wouldn't Leave

We had been worried about our cat, Cinders, who had disappeared before the storm. Before he left for the night, Mike paddled around in the kayak calling for him.  He says he doesn't like cats, but secretly they're buddies.  Cinders answered with meows and Mike eventually tracked him down in the top of a big tree. He called to him and tried to coax him down, but the cat was not budging. Mike stayed as long as he could and decided we would just try again tomorrow because he had to make it back to his parents’ house twenty minutes away before the curfew that was in effect.

Wednesday morning we headed back to the house and did the whole process of unloading the kayak and paddling down the flooded road and up our driveway.  The water was down about three feet from its highest point before.  This was my first time seeing it all in person.  It was overwhelming but also sadly familiar.  There were so many huge trees down. Several were fallen over and leaning on each other over the driveway.  I held my breath as we went under them, hoping the little waves our kayak made didn't jostle them into falling on us. 

We tried for a while to get Cinders to come down. He climbed down part of the way as I was calling to him, but then he got scared and ran back up to his nest in the top of the tree.  We kept trying and he finally jumped down into the kayak! Success! Nope! He was sliding around on the plastic kayak and he was not liking it. I couldn't grab him fast enough and he shot right back up the tree like lightning!

Mike and I paddled up to the house and tied the kayak to the porch railing with a dog leash that we found.  I walked around inside dumbfounded for a little while.  It was just still so unbelievable.  It took me a little bit to gather myself and get to work.  The house had no electricity and it was dark inside, so we started cutting out wet carpet and padding and hauling it out to the porch by headlamp. The dyes of the Persian rugs were seeping out onto the floor.

We worked for a few hours hauling out wet carpet and packing up my clothes on the bottom racks of the closet that were wet, but salvageable.  In the afternoon we noticed the water had quit going down and was actually coming back up.  This was the second flood starting, just like during Hurricane Matthew.  We weren’t surprised but we were disheartened.  This flood was caused by all of the water flowing from the north and west into the Cape Fear and Black Rivers. Our little creek joins the Cape Fear River just after the Black River feeds in.  It was just too much water for the river and it pushed the water up the creeks and into the swamps.  After Hurricane Matthew, the second River flooding was two feet higher than the first flood caused by rain.  If that same scenario happened again, we knew we were in trouble and the water was coming into the house again. But two feet deep this time. 

We kept an eye on the water during the day.  I was using my chicken enclosure to measure the depth of the water.  

Pretty soon we realized we needed to shift gears in what we were doing. We needed to protect what we could from the water coming back in. Although our gray couches that sat low to the floor were already goners, the new leather couch we had recently bought was salvageable because it was on taller plastic feet. We lifted it up on the dining room chairs and the brass trunk up on a table and I sanitized the feet.  I have a lot of regrets about this part.  There are so many little decisions I wish I had made differently.  If only I had put more pieces of furniture up higher, I could have saved so much more.  My brain just wasn't working well enough to think about doing it.

We couldn’t fit much of anything in the kayak so we left the packed bags on top of higher things and hoped the water wouldn’t reach them before we could get back. We tried one more time to get Cinders out of the tree. This time I brought food for him to try to lure him down and I laid a towel across the deck of the kayak. Cinders the Cat wanted no part of any of this and refused to come down. Finally we had to leave because it was getting dark and there was a curfew to race back.

Thursday morning we checked the cameras and saw the water had risen over the porches again. By 10am it was back at two inches deep inside the house and rising.

Mike was able to borrow a small lightweight Jon boat from a friend that morning. Another friend boated with us out to the house in it. 

Mike and I spent the day packing up everything we could possibly save; clothes, curtains, bedding; into garbage bags. Our friend boated the bags out to the road and loaded the trucks.  The water was rising slowly and constantly. We sloshed around in it all day until it was starting to overflow the tops of our boots and the daylight was gone. 

I should clarify when I say “water,” I don’t mean clean rain water like the first flood.  The water that flowed in from the river was thick, black, oily, vile smelling acid water. It killed everything it touched, from plants to fish.  It was full of chemicals, waste from hog and chicken farms that had flooded upstream, raw sewage, coal ash waste... For weeks the stench outside burned our nostrils.  Look closely at the water here. 

That stink permeated everything in the house. Even clothes hanging in closets upstairs, nowhere close to being actually wet, smelled awful.  Friday morning my daughter and I loaded up all of the bags of anything washable from the entire house and went to a laundromat. I left a lot of loads with my mother-in-law and some with my sister-in-law.  We washed loads and loads at the laundromat all day, well into the night. 

Mike and our friend went back out to the house Friday to see what else could be done. They found a few bags we had forgotten to grab thankfully. 

They were also determined to save Cinders the Cat. This time they came prepared and screwed little 2x4 steps into the tree. Our friend climbed up to Cinders, picked him up, put him in a bag to protect himself from the insane cat’s claws, and took him back down into the boat. Mike spent a long time petting his little buddy and trying to calm him down. They eventually boated over to the front porch where the other two cats were and carefully placed him on the big table. There was plenty of fresh water and food. Cinders the Cat was finally saved!  Except apparently Cinders didn’t want to be saved.  He took a couple of bites of food, looked at Mike directly in the eyes, and then took a huge running start and leaped off the porch into the deep water. Mike said he swam like a beaver over to another tree and shot up it to the top. At this point it was decided that Cinders could stay in the tree until he wanted to come down. He finally did, about three days after the ground was completely dry. He was thin and his voice was forever changed from his constant hoarse meowing, but he made it. He seems his normal self again now, and has gained all of his weight back.

After that day there really wasn’t much else we could do but wait for the water to go down. Knowing 18” of water was sitting in the house and not being able to do anything about it was excruciating.

I kept imagining all of the furniture sitting there in it.  My mom's nursing rocking chair, my grandma's gold chair, my grandparents' end tables, several pieces I was keeping for relatives, the china cabinet and tv cabinet I had gotten for free and refinished, our antique bedroom furniture set that had been Mike's parents', our family piano, an armoire Mike and I had designed and built in a borrowed workspace when we were newlyweds living in Brooklyn.  I had just found the coolest cowhide chair in a resale shop and I was kicking myself for not thinking to put it on a table. Pretty much everything was gone. Those new wood floors were buckling. But what can you do when you can’t do anything?  I just tried to focus on the kids and getting us settled at Mike's parents' house.  Actually the kids were having a blast because they had access to WiFi and a pool, which we didn’t have at home. 

We did use that time to get the insurance and FEMA processes started and find a restoration company to do the clean up.  With the amount of destruction and tear out that was needed, there was no way we were going to be able to DIY the clean up this time.  We had a company lined up to go in as soon as we could get in. 

It took all the way to Tuesday, September 25 for the water to recede the 18” out of the house. Then the water started going down quicker and by Wednesday we boated in.  The only word I can use to describe what we found in the house is devastating.

My ingenious husband rigged up a boat battery on the ladder, safe from the water, to run the security camera and cell service to it.

My brain and heart were racing and overflowing with all kinds of feelings, but I just kind of turned them off and started working.  I had no tears falling, but they were always in the rims of my eyes for weeks.

I started emptying kitchen cabinets and packing up things we could save.  I had researched what could be saved and ways to sterilize it. That night we spent hours that night in my in-laws' driveway, washing and bleaching what we could salvage. 

Cleaning Up the Mess

By Thursday the restoration company was ready to come but the property was still flooded. We wanted them to start as soon as possible so we suggested boating them in. The guys said boating into a job was a first for them, but they were willing to do it. 

They started dragging out all of our soggy stuff and making a pile off the front porch. It eventually grew almost to the roof. I know I annoyed those guys by telling them the story of each piece of furniture they threw into the yard.  "I got that for free and fixed it up...I got that for $10 but later found out it was worth $300... that was my Grandma's chair...  I finally realized what I was doing and controlled myself.  

Finally on Saturday most of the water was gone. Outside looked like a complete wasteland. Every living thing from the waterline down was dead and brown. 

That is an 11.5' high water line on the chimney.  Our insurance adjuster said it was the highest water line he'd ever seen, and he worked Hurricane Katrina.

The new pine floors started coming out Sunday. Watching them being ripped out and thrown in a pile was heartbreaking. 

Everything four feet high and down had to come out.  The dry wall was cut and all of the lower cabinets were pulled out. Then they ripped out all of the subfloor and we were left with a hulking shell of a house.

The chinking between the logs that had gotten wet was cut out, leaving gaping holes in the exterior walls. Now is when I imagined squirrels and raccoons taking over the house because there was nothing to keep them out! 

Thankfully the cats were on varmint patrol!  

We hired a friend to move all of the debris out to the road.  Watching it all get hauled off was hard.  But then it was even harder to drive in every day and see it all out on display for everyone to see.  

Then other people from the area started dumping their flood debris there and the pile tripled in size. Several weeks later, debris haulers hired by the county came through and picked it up.  The piles filled five double trucks.

It was important to get the house secured as soon as possible.  The remediation company we hired took care of the cleanup and disinfection.  We installed boards to fill the chinking gaps and close up the house and ran fans and dehumidifiers to reduce the moisture.  

We did everything we could to protect the house.  Then we had to figure out our next move.

So Now What Do We Do?

My initial gut reaction was I was done living in this house.  It was all just too much for our family to deal with again.  We have four kids, two of whom have chronic illnesses that take a lot of my time to manage.  How could we start over from scratch after four long years of renovating this house?  But then how could we walk away from our home we have put so much work in?  Thankfully we had a safe place to stay with Mike's parents while we figured everything out.  

We worked our way through so much FEMA and insurance paperwork.  It is a full time job to just manage the paperwork after a disaster.  I was on a first name basis with many FEMA workers at the local office because I was in there so much.  Our frustration level was very high while we waited for news from insurance and FEMA.  I'll write a more detailed post soon about what we learned through this process because it might actually be helpful to someone one day.  What it all boiled down to was there was no way for us to just walk away from our destroyed house without ruining ourselves financially.  So then we started the process of renovating the house.  

So that's where we are now.  Trying to put the house back together.  We were able to move back in February, even though it is still a construction zone.  Thankfully the upstairs, where the kids' rooms are, is fine.  We're sleeping in Mike's office since our bedroom is still not fixed.  I'll keep updating the blog on our progress!

As always, thanks for reading this post.  I know it was long, but well, it has been long to live through...


willowbird35 said...

I cried reading your story. I have never lived through this kind of disaster and had no idea how far reaching it could be beyond just losing your things. I'm so sorry. I have little words and mostly emotions. Your family and your strength is a living testament to the human condition. The cat's (Cinders) story was heart-wrenching. I pray you are all able to continue to move forward. My prayers and thoughts are with you all.

Pam Bolton said...

My parents home flooded during the 70's. My mom and little brother and their collie spent the night in the attic because there was no way to get out. My dad was out of the country on business and couldn't get back for two days. Me, my mom and little brother spent two days cutting out the carpet, padding and hauling soggy furniture out to the curb before dad got home. I cry for you and your family. God will provide you with the strength you need to work through restoring your home. My prayers are with you.

Elizabeth Golden said...

It was a terrible storm for this entire area. Reading your account tears my heart out. My old neighbors had to tear their whole house down and everything in it. My old house next to theirs was unharmed. So much tragedy. Seeing all your "things" out on the street. I win't even imagine. You are brave, your family is brave. Will you stay? Sell? Having lived in Wilington/Wrightsville Beach I know these storms keep coming. Whatever you do decide, bless you. Thank goodness for all your family. That they are close. I am looking forward to the next part of this story.

Brenda said...

I live in S. FLORIDA so am familiar with hurricanes and preparing/cleaning up from them. But, I have never experienced what you’ve gone through. I’m sorry for what you’ve experienced and admire your strength in persevering. Thank you for writing your story. I hope it was somewhat cathartic.

Angie at Postcards from the Ridge said...

Wow, Dara. I can't imagine the frustration and heartbreak you've experienced. I'm heartbroken for you! It sounds like you're dealing with it as well as anyone could and have done everything possible to get the house back in shape. Hugs and prayers for you and your family as you journey through the rebuild.

Jayhawkgrangran said...

Dara there are no words to say how sorry I am that you and your family had to endure this disaster. I live in Kansas where we experience tornadoes but I must say after seeing your home devastation that flooding cleanup is much worse. Best wishes to you as you continue back to the road of normalcy ~ Phyllis (jayhawkgrangran)

The Crowned Goat said...

This is definitely heartbreaking to read, Dara, even after all this time. I can only imagine the hurt, frustration and stress you have gone through these past months. It's like every day is a lesson in perseverance which I know can be exhausting and yet inspiring all at the same time. As always, lifting you up and sending you hugs and prayers for the journey, CoCo

Jeanne said...

I just read this story now, led here by the meandering reading of blogs. You had such a journey. It's Feb 2020 now. Prayers that things are going well for you and your family. I'm going to check out more of your blog.

nanwil said...

Dara, I live in New Bern and feel your pain. We had flooding all around us, but fortunately our house was spared. However we had a lot of damage from the wind and rain and still in the midst of repairs here in 2020. Oh, and our house was built in 1880, so lots of wood inside and outside. Thank you for sharing your story...I felt like I was there with you! I stayed too, but probably will not next time. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

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