Hurricane Florence barely grazed the mountains of Western North Carolina, but some Haywood County first responders found themselves right in the storm’s path, witnessing firsthand its tremendous, destructive power.
And yet, there’s nowhere they would have rather been.
Several men from Waynesville Fire Department, Haywood County Sheriff’s Office and Haywood County Emergency Management Services all gave their time and talents to aid in the hurricane preparation and response effort in the eastern part of the state.
Those who went said in addition to having the opportunity to serve those in need during a massive natural disaster, they also brought lessons back to the mountains that could serve Haywood in the event of a disaster.
The responders had different duties, depending on where they were. For example, paramedic Clay Bryson talked about a few hospitals and nursing homes they evacuated in Pender and Columbus counties.
“One nursing home we were evacuating had flooded during Hurricane Matthew in 2016,” he said. “They had actually built up a berm around the entire facility that was 18 inches above the flood water they had seen in Matthew, and all it did when it started going over top was it created a big fishbowl and the water just poured right into the nursing home.”
While in Whiteville, Bryson said they were treated well and had comfortable accommodations. However, once they moved on and stayed in a state-provided dwelling, it was a different story.
“It was a muggy 91 degrees out, and we stayed in a warehouse with no AC, and if you wanted to use a bathroom you used the porta john in the warehouse,” he said. “If you wanted a shower, you got in a truck that 200 other people had taken a shower in the day before to do it.”
EMS Deputy Director Travis Donaldson noted how much more difficult some tasks were because of the flood waters and tornadoes, including body recoveries.
“We’d normally take an ambulance to go get them,” he said. “But for one, they sent a Humvee and some National Guard people to go get one medical call that was deceased because we couldn’t get an ambulance to the call.”
Bryson noted that while in Columbus County, vehicle access to the area was completely cut off by flood waters for two days.
“In the southern part of the county, they would have to bring someone from an ambulance to a National Guard boat where they would have to be picked up by another ambulance to take them to the hospital,” Bryson said. “They couldn’t get their ambulances up the interstate.”
While his EMS colleagues were out in the storm, Haywood County EMS Operation Officer Zach Koontz was with the Duplin County Emergency Operations Center Overhead Management Team as part of a six-person unit that ordered resources and planned the emergency response in the county. He said most shifts were 12 hours, but they went upward of 18 hours.
“They did a great job of responding as far as what went on,” he said of those in that county. “But they needed some help documenting everything that occurred because a lot of these counties are very small and there are a lot of one-man shops.”
Those from the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office acted as “jacks of all trades,” said Deputy David Greenhouse, who along with four other deputies spent their time working with a couple volunteer fire departments and small sheriff’s offices. Their duty was to keep the peace, which included guarding and distributing supplies.
“There were a bunch of thefts before we arrived down there so they put two deputies 24/7 at every fire station,” he said. “That’s where all the food and supplies were going. I think three fire stations had been broken into the night before we got there, and I think six to nine pallets of MREs had been stolen.”
Greenhouse noted that tensions were highest just before the hurricane hit but that once they had to pull together, the people there were great to work with.
“When we got out there, everybodys' tension was high,” he said. “They were kind of on edge, asking 'where’s this? Where’s that?' We’d say, it’s coming guys.”
“But after everything arrived, those people where we were at were great,” he added. “They’d bring us food, and they tried to do everything they could to make things easier.”
While most were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work right away, Waynesville firefighters hit a bit of a snag right off the bat. Just as they arrived in Hoke County to work with the Rockfish Fire Department, their engine broke down, prompting an impromptu three-hour repair.
Waynesville Fire Captain Rickey Mehaffey said he was proud of how his guys came together to make the repair and get on their way to helping those so desperately in need.
“Like anything else, you have to adapt and overcome, which they did. And it was impressive,” he said.
While firefighters aided in evacuations, swift water rescue, fire suppression, and medical calls, most of what they did was making sure people could get where they needed, which meant moving a lot of fallen trees.
“We did a lot of road clearing so if people needed to evacuate they could. That’s what we did the most of,” Mehaffey said.
Once Haywood’s emergency responders returned, Donaldson posted his heartfelt thoughts on Facebook.
“Every one of us would leave tomorrow and do it all over again, but the feeling of coming home is an unreal feeling,” the post read. “Some of the things that we experienced and saw over the past week will live inside us forever.”
“Keep the people — who call these areas home — who have suffered so much damage and destruction in your prayers for the next long while,” it continued. “Their world will be forever changed from the damages they have experienced both mentally and physically.”
The men who travelled to help folks in the eastern part of the state came away with many lessons, perhaps the most important of which was to be thankful for what they have.
“I didn’t realize until we got down there how fortunate we are here,” Bryson said. “In Columbus County, Whiteville Rescue Squad is the only paramedic-level ambulance service in the entire county.”
The first responders noted that in some counties, there is one person who may play the roles of maintenance man, dog catcher and emergency response manager.
The sentiment was echoed by many, and most were also thrilled to get the invaluable experience. Koontz said the situations they were in prepared them for things in a way no training ever could.
“It was great learning experience for myself to help plan and better prepare our county with the lessons learned,” he said. "Deploying down there is a class that you’ll never be able to take.”