Surry County Emergency Services Director John Shelton’s telephone conversation with a reporter was interrupted shortly before noon Tuesday by a call from flood-ravaged eastern North Carolina.
“They are wanting to keep our morgue trailer a little longer,” Shelton explained after speaking with a disaster-relief official in that area, where dead bodies are being located in the aftermath of flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew dumping 17 inches of rain.
“They’re still finding people who actually drowned, most of which were in their vehicles,” added Shelton, who said regular morgue facilities in that area could not accommodate a death toll that had reached 25 in North Carolina at last report.
In addition to sending the six-person morgue trailer to Wilson County to help with the dead, public safety agencies and volunteers in the Surry County area have provided comfort to the living in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
First there was the storm itself during the weekend of Oct. 8, then widespread flooding that occurred in the days since as major rivers such as the Neuse and Tar began to crest, leaving behind a trail of devastation.
In addition to Surry Emergency Services, members of the Surry County Sheriff’s Office have ventured to eastern North Carolina to lend assistance, along with local personnel of the N.C. Highway Patrol, American Red Cross and others.
“It’s really sad,” Sgt. Mitch Haunn of the Highway Patrol said Tuesday of what he encountered last week after journeying to Kinston and Lenoir County with an eight-person group of officers from Troop B of that agency, which covers about 10 area counties.
“I went through Hurricane Floyd in 1989 and the water level eclipsed Floyd,” Haunn said of the recent situation in eastern areas.
“We take so much for granted,” he said of residents in this area compared to what those in the stricken region are facing.
“You see people that don’t have anything left except for the clothes on their back,” Haunn added. “They’ve lost everything.”
The duties of the area Highway Patrol officers deployed to Lenoir County mainly included being stationed at barricades where roads have been closed due to flooding — “ensuring the integrity of the barricades,” Haunn explained.
“A lot of what we dealt with was just people who were lost,” he said. “Most people were glad to see us.”
While his group returned home during the weekend, other local troopers remain in disaster-relief mode. “We now have four deployed to various parts of the state,” Haunn said of officers from Surry.
They include Brandon Stokes and Terry Bullington, who are in Fayetteville, and a third, Brandon Cox, who was on a standby list to serve in a location Haunn did not know Tuesday. Austin Beck, another Surry trooper, went to Lumberton, also a hard-hit city.
“We’ll probably still be sending people down there for weeks to come, I think,” Haunn said of Highway Patrol personnel.
The Surry County Sheriff’s Office also supplied assistance.
“We had a group that left last Friday for Robeson County and they just got back last night,” Sheriff Graham Atkinson said Tuesday.
They included Justin Stirewalt, a detective, and deputies Larry Jones, Becky Carson and Mickey Estes, who answered a call for aid from the Sheriff’s Office. “They weren’t forced to — they volunteered to go,” Atkinson said.
Those officers served in a security capacity at emergency shelter facilities for people who were evacuated from their homes.
“They have to have people posted at those shelters all the time,” Atkinson said of officers being on hand to defuse possible fights and other problems during what is a tense situation for those involved.
Jones said things went smoothly, and the local officers made a lot of friends among the flooding victims they encountered.
The sheriff said the local group had to put in 14-hour days under uncomfortable conditions, sleeping in cots on gym floors and scrounging food wherever they could.
Surry Emergency Services
The situation at the eastern end of the state has kept Surry Emergency Services busy.
“We’ve sent equipment down there,” said Shelton, its director. “We’ve been hauling equipment back and forth down there.”
Shelton explained that such assistance is part of a longtime program in which Surry emergency personnel supply aid to coastal areas when needed.
“We’ve always been a state resource for disaster relief down there,” he said.
Myron Waddell, assistant emergency services director for Surry County, has spent three days down east, including serving in a central office to help coordinate regional relief efforts. Eric Southern, another member of the local unit, also was there for three days.
Kenny Hooker of Surry Emergency Services delivered a digital signage board to eastern North Carolina, with Kent Southern sent to help out in Kinston.
“I don’t know that we’re through with that yet,” Shelton said Tuesday of relief efforts by local personnel.
He also mentioned Marcus Draughn, who has been working in the flood-stricken region on behalf of Skull Camp Fire and Rescue in Lowgap and the Winston-Salem Fire Department. Some local residents have lent assistance through their involvement with the Samaritan’s Purse organization.
Such efforts have required some to put their primary jobs on hold, while others have devoted their vacation time to provide disaster relief.
Meanwhile, Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips is collecting water supplies in the county to be delivered to the town of Princeton, with the help of a box truck from fellow Commissioner Larry Johnson’s granite company which is being used to pick up water. The entire haul will be transported to the area in need by a tractor-trailer H&W Trucking of Mount Airy is volunteering.
“It is a paradox that what caused people so much devastation is now what they need the most,” Phillips said Tuesday of the water being gathered.
Red Cross aid
The Piedmont Triad Chapter of the American Red Cross, which includes Surry County, also has been involved in the disaster effort.
“I’m sure that at least 20 or 25 people have been deployed out of that 11-county area,” said Tom Dunn, disaster program specialist for the chapter.
“One of the Mount Airy people did haul a trailer down to that area, I believe it was Greenville,” Dunn said.
Tom Bayer, 73, who left with supplies from Greensboro, was expecting a three-hour trip down and back. But because of the many difficulties encountered along with the way, including road issues, he departed one day about 2 p.m. and didn’t return until about the same time the next.
The area Red Cross has delivered two trailers to eastern North Carolina loaded with 205 cots, along with blankets and a couple of generators. “They were pulling cots out of everywhere in the west,” Dunn said.
Disaster brings out best
“It’s heartbreaking to see what has went on down there,” said Shelton, the Surry emergency services director.
Yet there has been a silver lining to the cloud — the fact local residents rush to help when a disaster occurs.
“I think we’re really fortunate in this county that so many people are willing to do that,” Shelton said.
Sgt. Haunn of the Highway Patrol echoed those sentiments.
“Sometimes a bad event like this brings out the best in people,” he said of those who’ve provided assistance to areas where residents have been through a horrendous flooding ordeal that will continue to bring misery for months to come.
“It’s going to take those people a long time to get over that.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.