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Dispatches from the land of heartbreak: A journey into hurricane country

  • 10 min to read

Index-Journal staff writer Adam Benson accompanied a group of men from Greenwood as they delivered aid to communities deeply affected by Hurricane Florence. This is his account of that journey.

Thursday, Sept. 20

Just before 5 a.m.

There’s a silent beauty to Greenwood in the pre-dawn hours. That darkness seems different than at dusk; the promise of sunrise and a new day brings a sense of alertness, of hope that something bright will happen while that star shines down.

In those quiet morning moments, it seems impossible that devastation is happening anywhere. But as a band of volunteers would soon find out, sometimes the light illuminates mind-boggling destruction, such as what Hurricane Florence wrought upon the Carolinas.

I spent the weekend embedded with what I called the Greenwood “Convoy of Care” — locals with no ties to relief organizations, churches or nonprofits. Steve Cribbs, James Long, Kenny Talley and Jason Taylor were drawn to help their fellow Americans.

And they did.

5:25 a.m.

Unsure of a destination, the convoy — equipped with 3,000 chicken leg quarters, two industrial-strength cookers and a panel van laden with supplies — began its journey at a local service station. Veterans of prior disaster relief runs, the group made sure to fill portable gas tanks should normally accessible roads become impassable. There was concern that GPS applications would falter as officials closed highways and other routes almost in real time.

6:25 a.m.

With the ambitious goal of cooking 3,000 pieces of chicken in about 72 hours, Cribbs — a 43-year-old Greenwood resident who owns a home building company — knew heavy equipment would be needed.

Just before 6:30 a.m., we arrived at Ron McDaniel’s sprawling Saluda home. Cribbs helped design countertops for McDaniel’s outdoor kitchen area — just one of several professional connections he’d call on over the next few days to help with the mission.

An agricultural sprinkler system threw a touch of moisture in the air, and misted the horizon as the convoy pulled into McDaniel’s driveway, where he lent Cribbs a large-scale grill worth several thousand dollars. Kevin Prater, managing partner of Sports Break in Greenwood, had already let one of his grills go as well.

McDaniel also donated two large propane tanks. The pungent smell of fertilizer wafting through our windows, we got back onto the road and headed through downtown Saluda.

We had a destination in mind.

7 a.m.

My mother, Lenore, and stepfather Eddie Letellier — an Air Force veteran who served with the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing from September 1972 through 1975 — relocated to an Horry County community in the early 2000s from New Hampshire.

Lee’s Landing, where they live, sits on the banks of the Waccamaw River about 15 minutes from downtown Conway. Mom loved planting fresh flowers annually, making sure a birdbath in front was full. Like any house, it became a sacred place. Pets were laid to rest under a tree, their names written onto a piece of wood by my stepfather. Property lines touch, affording a chance for neighbors to become friends.

For the first 10 years, it was an idyllic situation — the biggest concern being summertime’s incessant mosquitoes. But since 2016, early falls have been dominated by a crippling fear as the river sailed past its 11-foot flood stage: What if we lose our home?

That was close to happening in 2016 with Hurricane Matthew, which pushed the Waccamaw to an all-time high of 17.87 feet. For people who live along South Carolina’s rivers, monitoring National Weather Service hydrology charts becomes a daily habit during storm season.

By the time the convoy was turning onto Interstate 26, an orange-and-purple sun was rising. I was on the phone with mom, who was growing increasingly certain her home would be lost to Florence. She had suffered a panic attack a day earlier after monitoring the evacuation of her 12 beloved cats — all made it out safely. The convoy was headed to a staging area at the top of her road.

8 a.m.

Fearing the weight of their supplies would create mechanical problems, the convoy stopped at a Tractor Supply in Lexington to purchase spare tires. It was also a chance to regroup, check routes into the Grand Strand and further shore up logistics. By this time, the outer reaches of Florence were evident. Shortly after getting back onto the highway, a trailer merged in front of us: “God’s Soliders United Volunteer Missions Disaster Relief.” We stopped at a Waffle House about 10 minutes later, unsure of when — or if — there would be time to eat again.

11:15 a.m.

Traveling through Marion County, the visual impacts of Florence were becoming clear. Swampy waters were bubbling along the side of the highway, and a U.S. Geological Survey team, accompanied by several state troopers, were analyzing a small bridge over the Wateree River as the current swirled beneath them, pulling in limbs and other debris.

1:30 p.m.

Almost eight hours after departing Greenwood, the convoy pulled onto the top of Lee’s Landing. Christopher Lee, a young father of two children, owned a large piece of property just beyond the Waccamaw’s waters, and he allowed people from the flooded community to park their vehicles there.

It’s a staging area for first responders as well, who’d set up a small tent that was used as a launch point for water rescues.

“I was raised to help other people out. I love it, and I don’t want no money and no hugs for it. To see people walking in and out of there, the money and things they’re going to lose, it’s the least I can do,” he said. “As long as everybody has their needs taken care of it, it’s worth it. This breaks my heart.”

Mom and Eddie — who had evacuated days earlier and were now staying in a condominium donated by a family friend — met us there. Like thousands of others whose lives were turned over by Florence, they both had empty looks. She came up to me, wept in my arms and then immediately asked the convoy what she could do to help.

By this time, the river had risen to nearly 20 feet and the neighborhood was almost desolate. Some animals were still left behind, and volunteers from the Humane Society — some from as far away as San Diego, braved the polluted, dangerous waters to save them. Crews pulled four rabbits and a pot-bellied pig from the area while we were there.

Meanwhile, Cribbs and company fired up the grills and began cooking. Mark Timms, a Charleston resident and Greenwood native, joined up later in the afternoon and stayed with the group through the weekend.

For a journalist, Cribbs isn’t an easy interview, for two reasons: Whatever task is upon him, he throws himself fully into, so it’s almost impossible to pull him away. Second, he laces his conversations with a lot of profanity.

Once his goodwill trip wrapped up, here’s how he described it in a Facebook post:

“This is an operation everyone should be involved in one way or another. Compassion is a hard thing to come by, sadly. Lots of people I know have completely ignored or are unaware about the extent of what has happened so close to home and carried on with their lives as usual, with the football games on TV and small goings-on as if nothing has happened.”

2-8 p.m.

I had an opportunity to boat into my mother’s neighborhood. It turned out we were able to motor straight to the front door. Property lines were gone. A kayak and tarp were floating in the water near her front door. Water was flowing through a window and underneath the house.

“We are not going to survive this one,” my mom told me. “And God as my witness, I am never living on the water again.”

Mom was right. In a matter of hours, their Embassy Lane home would be destroyed by Florence.

Greenwood’s convoy only made it through about 100 pieces of chicken on the first day, which influenced the next leg of the trip. But we were embraced — literally — by people who had spent the last week or so eating MREs, potato chips or nothing at all.

Friday, Sept. 21

8 a.m.

After spending the night at a quaint vacation home Cribbs owns in Myrtle Beach, the team gathered — coffee in hand (and a Pepsi for Talley) in his front driveway to come up with a plan. Lee’s Landing had been closed to through traffic, and was too far off a main highway to draw enough people.

“I want to feed people, that’s why I’m here,” Cribbs said. He connected early Friday morning with a representative from the Cajun Navy, an ad hoc group of volunteers who travel across the Southeast for disaster relief.

We knew eastern North Carolina was crippled by Florence, and one of Cribbs’ contacts suggested trying for tiny Maxton in Robeson County — just over the state line. After collecting their cooking equipment, the convoy made for the Tarheel State. Traffic was nightmarish, adding three hours to the trip. It was time Cribbs used to do payroll from his truck, in constant contact with his wife, Kristi.

1 p.m.

About five minutes off Interstate 74, Queheel Fire Station No. 15 is a beacon of modernity in the middle of ramshackle buildings, boarded up businesses and dilapidated homes.

It was jarring going from Lee’s Landing to essentially a full-blown FEMA operation. The department has been converted into a regional shelter. There were tables arranged in a horseshoe brimming with essentials, from toiletries and diapers to canned food and beauty products. Palates of bottled water were assembled in stacks and handed out wholesale to people.

Officers from the U.S. Marshals and members of the North Carolina National Guard were on hand to coordinate distribution efforts. As an open carry state, many of Queheel’s paid firefighters had weapons as an added safety precaution.

Queheel Fire Chief Shawn Phillips, hobbled by recent foot surgery, said Florence’s flooding made it impossible for his team to survey damage in the northern part of their district. Maxton — population 2,700 — would see thousands beyond that arrive at the fire station in need of aid.

For this impoverished community, access to fresh food is a daily struggle. But when the power gets cut off because of downed trees or flooding, sometimes it will take weeks for people to save enough money so they can replenish their refrigerators.

In this place — which has a 43.3 percent poverty rate, more than three times the national average — financial stability is a pipe dream for many.

Meanwhile, Cribbs and company were granted the fire station’s rear entrance to begin cooking. They soon found themselves in conversation with representatives from non-governmental organizations about sharing grill space or other supplies to maximize resources.

3 p.m.

As a lunch crowd filled up on Greenwood’s chicken and baked beans, I had an opportunity to ride along the Lumber River into parts of Robeson and neighboring Scotland counties to see what Florence brought to the area.

It didn’t take long before we encountered a backhoe and pickup truck from the state highway division, working to create an earthen berm and stall the river’s progress. Nearby, the Sycamore Hill Church soaked in the Lumber’s waters — the flood line from Matthew visible on a back wall of the church’s fellowship hall.

A large solar farm was steeped in water, and we passed several homes whose wooden frames and front porches were warped or altogether broken off, floating in black, swampy waters.

Back on Lee’s Landing, the Waccamaw continued its punishing rise and my mom and stepdad crept more surely toward the inevitable.

“This is hell. I don’t even feel like I’m part of this world,” mom told me over the phone. Then she asked how folks in Maxton were holding up.

3-10 p.m.

If 3,000 pieces of chicken sounds like a lot, you should see what it looks like. Team Greenwood had packed it full of ice in large coolers, about 15 of them. Each weighed about 200 pounds. But — in a nod to Greenwood’s famous Festival of Discovery — the organizers found enough time to experiment with marinades, and even found a large pot that allowed some of the chicken to be fried.

A homeowner on Lee’s Landing gave the group 50 pounds of frozen catfish for the road — providing hungry North Carolinians with an extra treat.

As Cribbs, Long and Taylor worked the grill, Talley busied himself with passing out supplies to people and even riding with members of the fire department to survey other areas.

“I don’t really care about the cooking. This is what I want to be doing,” he said.

Over the course of seven hours — and lots of laughing with a dirty joke or two — the group cooked about half the chicken they had brought. Eager to get an early start, we spent the night on air mattresses, inflating them on the Queheel station’s floor and hoping an off-hour call wouldn’t cut into the few hours of sleep we planned.

The evening ended with a large prayer circle in the middle of the pay — a Pentecostal flavor tinging the devotion.

Saturday, Sept. 22

7:30 a.m.

With a full day of cooking ahead, Cribbs and Taylor decided to use the grills for breakfast as well, feeding first responders and early arrivals to the fire station. They drove into nearby Laurinburg and purchased nearly $500 worth of supplies from Walmart, including gallons of cooking oil, barbecue sauce, eggs, bacon and paper towels.

A store manager, learning what the purchases were for, waived the entire amount. As the smell of bacon and fresh eggs filled the early morning air, hungry residents were allowed to take plates.

11 a.m.

With thousands of chicken quarters still uncooked, several members of the volunteer group began reaching out to area churches, fire departments, food pantries and other entities, offering to deliver raw product or cooked trays.

Through speaking with members of the Queheel Fire Station and locals, we learned that a nearby community that remained inaccessible for more than a week because of Florence’s flooding was starting to come back, though many of its residents are elderly.

We turned down a simple dirt road, along which Marlon Dial was waiting out front with his daughter. With a deep North Carolina accent, close-cropped haircut and silver cross around his neck, Dial walked over to us with a smile. We ran more than 200 pieces of chicken into the tucked away neighborhood. Dial was going to oversee its distribution.

But he wanted us to see something first. So he hopped on an ATV and guided us down a bumpy road — potholes filled up with standing water.

“We had it pretty bad down here,” he said, pointing to the mouth of his driveway. “It went down the circle and around the corner and tied into the (Lumber) river, and that’s what caused all the chaos.”

A half-dozen homes were being gutted, and appliances covered in algae, dirt and other contaminants thrown out by the river were part of the landscape.

2-10 p.m.

The remainder of Saturday played out like the previous day, but later in the afternoon, personal friends of Cribbs spent a few hours helping with food preparation and distribution. Publix donated about 300 cakes from its bakery, and pieces were cut liberally to give storm-weary residents a slice of luxury amid the hardscrabble routine.

Throughout the afternoon, members of the Greenwood team headed into various parts of the community, food in tow, to make none of the food went to waste. It was the only day on the feeding tour that we stayed in one place — providing an extra window in which to cook.

After another night on the firehouse floor, we packed up our grills and headed back to Greenwood. The only breaks that were taken over the course of the weekend were for volunteers to speak with their families.

Sunday, Sept. 22

Noon

During the four-hour drive back to Greenwood, James Long — a veteran of hurricane response efforts who traveled to Texas last year after Harvey — remarked on why he puts so much of his personal time into such causes.

In all, the group spent about $5,000 out-of-pocket to finance the massive feed.

“I’m doing this for my soul. I’m doing this because I have kids, and I want them to learn about the right way to do things,” he said.

While en route to Greenwood, the Waccamaw River had lifted to 22 feet — and mom’s home finally had all it could take. They boated back in and found waist-deep water in every room. Family photos, Eddie’s Air Force discharge papers, some jewelry and a newly purchased TV was all that could be salvaged.

“Went to see my house today as I stood in waist deep water as shock and numbness enveloped me I knew all has been lost. As I tried to hold on to whatever I could as the floor was floating under my feet I watched 14 years of memories succumb to water. All is lost. I am completely devastated and in pieces. Life will not be the same. I have no words. ... I am lost and shattered,” mom wrote on Facebook.

Greenwood’s Convoy of Care is planning another trip into Conway and other hurricane-hit parts of the state later this week. For information on how to help, call 864-980-6368.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.