Aftermath of Floyd: a flood of heroism

As the Stony Creek surged through the second story of a Goldsboro, N.C., home, police Capt. Jeff Stewart got a frantic call from the five people trapped inside.

There was no way to reach them by vehicle, so he and five other rescuers plunged bodily into the foul waters of the worst flood North Carolina has seen in 500 years.

All they had to work with was a rope and their own determination.

Swimming through the deadly water in the dark, they fastened a quickly improvised rope ladder to the window and ferried the family to safety - only to discover that an elderly woman who couldn't walk was still inside. Captain Stewart got her to a reclining chair bobbing nearby and floated her to safety.

"It was tricky," says Stewart, downplaying his heroics.

As North Carolina struggles to right itself in the wake of its worst natural disaster, such tales of tenacity and resiliency are more than just heroic stories.

Those who face the long months of cleanup say they will be a metaphor for how the state handles the rebuilding.

"The hurricane was powerful, but the human spirit will be the most powerful force," says Prof. A. Robert Rubin at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

That can-do mentality can be seen at work, Mr. Rubin says, in everything from the improvisational tactics that are keeping hospitals and restaurants open despite the lack of fresh water, to simple courtesy at shelters and potable water stations.

"People waiting in long lines for fresh water aren't honking at each other," says Rubin - citing a small example of the kind of civilized behavior that will help the state's residents pick up the pieces of their lives that much faster.

But it will take more than good manners to counteract the greatest devastation this state has seen since the Civil War. Damages have been estimated at more than $6 billion, and almost 800 homes have been destroyed.

Over the weekend, teams of city and county officials began building-by-building inspections in the affected areas. In Pitt County, families applying for permits are slowly being allowed back once waivers and reentry permits have been issued.

The volunteer mobilization effort has touched virtually every corner of the state as canned food and clothing drives take place in shopping center parking lots, and media outlets, the Red Cross, and churches assemble teams of volunteers to follow the receding flood waters.

And help has come from further away. Since North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt went on television last week, asking for help for his storm-battered state, Americans have donated more than $329,000 to the state relief fund.

"Everybody here has been pitching in," says Christine Wiggins as she eyes the devastation from the back of a gigantic National Guard truck. "I can't imagine people not doing it," says the librarian, who spent the afternoon reading to children cooped up in a local shelter, one of 29 still housing almost 3,000 people.

Since the flood hit, the rapid mobilization of volunteers has been credited with mitigating the damage. In nearby Greenville, for example, employees traded desk jobs for chest waders to help protect the city's water supply from the fouled flood waters.

"This water treatment plant came within three inches of going out," says Steve Fowler, a local firefighter and whitewater rescue expert who helped save the water supply.

Statewide, 24 facilities have been damaged, leaving more than 40,000 people without fresh water.

Approaching the flooded water-treatment complex by boat, the facility has the feel of a frontier outpost, exhausted but victorious after defending against an advancing enemy.

Men and women who have been separated from their families for more than a week are still at work, moving sandbags and monitoring equipment in an effort to keep city water clean. "We had strangers showing up off the street saying, 'What can I do?' " says Evonne Boyd, a human resources-manager stepping off a flat-bottomed boat to do a sandbagging shift.

The heroism has not been without cost. At least two workers have been killed, and some volunteers have found themselves in need of rescue.

Sgt. Frank Krick of the North Carolina National Guard had pulled more than 300 stranded victims to safety when flood waters swept his truck into a swollen river. He and two other guardsmen clung to branches for an hour until a Black Hawk helicopter plucked them from a treetop.

For the heroes of this flood, even the small moments of the evacuation will be remembered. "We found one little dog, tied to the ground. He was paddling like crazy against the current, barely keeping his nose above water when we found him," Sergeant Krick recalls. "He was a fighter ... did everything he could to stay alive, and it paid off."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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