In North Carolina, far a way from the shoreline, Hurricane Florence has left mile after mile of destruction – and as of early this week, some of the rivers hadn’t yet crested. It’s a sight not soon to be forgotten by a handful of local firefighters who’ve just returned from a 10-day tour of duty in the disaster area.
“In the towns that we did end up searching, just to see the devastation and the destruction,” Harwich firefighter Eric Elliott said. Elliott was part of the 46-member Southeastern Massachusetts Technical Rescue Team, comprised of specially trained firefighters from Barnstable, Bristol, Plymouth and Norfolk Counties, sent as part of the first wave of rescuers in advance of the powerful storm.
The group included Elliott, Josh Ford and Brad Letoile of Harwich Fire, Kevin Delude of Orleans Fire, and Nelson Wirtz and Kevin Moore of Chatham Fire.
“It’s sad. It was a very sad place to have to go,” Moore said. “But it was an amazing experience,” and a great opportunity for the team to learn. It was the first disaster deployment for the regional technical rescue team, which includes firefighters trained to rescue people from swift-moving water, high altitudes and confined spaces. Other local firefighters deployed to the disaster area with FEMA.
The Southeast Mass. team was dispatched to Raleigh, N.C., and arrived last Saturday night, about a day after the storm made landfall. Once a menacing Category 4 hurricane, Florence had weakened to a Category 1 storm, but it was the potential for torrential rains that worried forecasters. The team was dispatched to Morganton, N.C., where officials were expecting a direct hit.
“They were expecting the storm to turn north and hit them,” Elliott said. Instead, the storm surprised forecasters by veering south. “So we ended up going back to Raleigh and eventually being deployed to Kinston, N.C., where we searched in Jones County, Trenton and Pollocksville.”
Pollocksville is a small town on the Trent River, which meanders more than a dozen miles to New Bern, where it meets the Neuse River, which, in turn, leads to Pamlico Sound and the ocean beyond. Trenton is another small town on the Trent River, about eight-and-a-half miles further inland than Pollocksville. Between the towns are miles and miles of agricultural land, with crops that looked damaged or destroyed.
Pollocksville was completely isolated, cut off by a flooded bridge, with the main road to New Bern only opening to traffic on Sunday. Just getting from one place to another was an enormous challenge, Elliott said.
“There were lots of road blocks. It was hard for us, just getting to the rescue areas,” he said. They arrived to find that the waters hadn’t receded. A week after the storm, the team made its way through downtown Pollocksville, going door to door, searching for survivors.
“There was still water up to the second floor of some of the structures,” Elliott said. Fortunately, the rescuers encountered few residents.
“People had largely evacuated” he said, and those who remained didn’t need much help.
“Unfortunately, they’ve had practice,” Moore said. Residents of the area know to heed weather warnings, and some have seen serious flooding before.
“The people were phenomenal,” he said. “They were very happy you were there, even though there wasn’t much you could do for them, personally.” The residents were grateful, hospitable, and seemed very resilient, Moore said.
“We did happen to run across animals that had been left and deserted, some of which we ended up bringing to the National Guard,” Elliott said. Countless pets and other animals have been rescued from the flood zone, many suffering from injuries and dehydration. A couple of dogs became the team’s impromptu mascots, and it was tough to hand them over to animal control officials at the end of the job.
“We couldn’t take them,” Moore said.
While rescue workers from inland communities brought their own strengths to the team, the Cape Cod crew had particular proficiency with small boats. Chatham experienced a storm surge last winter and had to deploy its swift water rescue team to Little Beach to evacuate a stranded resident.
“And now, going down here, we saw a lot of things that you just don’t expect. The destruction,” Moore said. The regional tech rescue team drills together for 24 to 48 hours once a year, and those training sessions left members well prepared.
“We worked very well together, which was fantastic,” he said. But the Hurricane Florence relief effort is far from over, and some places haven’t yet been searched, Moore said. Thousands remain displaced from their homes, and many of those will be returning to heartbreak. Directly or indirectly, the storm is blamed for 48 deaths, potential long-term environmental damage, and losses likely to top $38 billion.
“The rebuilding that these people are going to have to do is just unbelievable,” Elliott said. “It’s absolutely going to be a long haul.”