When Hurricane Matthew trudged through North Carolina, its devastating floodwaters did not discriminate. A Smithfield town councilman was among those cleaning up and counting up his losses after the storm.
Perry Harris and his wife are wholesalers who supply Christmas decorations, licensed collegiate gear and the like to Kirkland’s, Hallmark and student stores at colleges around the country. They keep their ever-changing inventory in a warehouse on South Bright Leaf Boulevard in Smithfield.
In advance of Matthew, Perry and his sons piled merchandise on pallets and moved computers, just to be safe. But during the height of the storm, something happened that no one could recall seeing before: Water rose and crossed South Bright Leaf near Wilson Street.
“We thought it was safe; we felt OK, but we were wrong,” said Harris’ wife, Jean.
In the end, as much as two feet of water swamped the warehouse. When the Harris family made it inside the next day, what they found was devastation.
“We opened the doors and everything had floated,” Harris said.
“It was in a shambles,” Jean Harris added. “It was just hopeless. There wasn’t anything we could do.”
“You couldn’t even get inside,” Harris said, describing a sea of boxes and merchandise spread across the warehouse. “It was awful.”
The floodwaters drained quickly, and the Harris family – Perry, Jean, daughters Alice and Marney and sons Ryan and Chad – began trying to salvage what they could from the soggy mess. Others joined the effort.
“It’s been family, friends, our church and people we don’t even know well,” Harris said, amazed. “The outpouring of support from the community has been unbelievable.”
Two Smithfield businesses, The Diner and Little Brown Jug, brought food or helped unpack boxes. Mayor Andy Moore and his family helped too. Ten-year-old daughter Whitley was there on Wednesday sorting through boxes of Christmas ornaments, though she and other youngsters paused occasionally to build forts with the many boxes.
The Clayton Middle School football team even called to ask if it could help, an offer Harris said he was tempted to accept in the face of the mess that was his warehouse.
As the Harrises and their volunteers separated the damaged from the salvageable, they created a hybrid winter/college wonderland of glitter and bright colors flanked by mountains of dull cardboard.
Amid a cleanup born of loss, the Harrises and their many helpers managed to share jokes and laughter.
“We’re not defeated,” Jean Harris said. “We’re not ready to give up.”
Harris said he would seek help from from FEMA and other government sources, but he wasn’t holding out much hope.
“If we get anything, it might be loans,” he said. “But we’re going to take a huge loss, and most of my employees, including my kids, are probably going to have to find other jobs.”
“It was particularly bad timing because this is our most important time of the year,” Jean Harris said, pointing to now-damaged boxes of goods that were ready to ship to retailers for the holidays.
“This is a multimillion-dollar problem,” Harris said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to ship a tenth of this, so I’ll lose most of my income from the warehouse.”
In another blow for the business, Harris and his wife will have to put off their annual trip to China, where they source most of their goods. And they’ll like lose the tenants who rent space in the warehouse.
But while the family has suffered a significant financial loss, they know they’re not the only ones who fell victim to Matthew.
“We were luckier than a lot of people,” Harris said. “We didn’t see any damage at the house. ... We’re all OK.”
Now it’s a matter of moving forward.
“We’re going to try to regroup and pick up the pieces to put them back together,” Harris said, “even if we end up missing some pieces.”
And he’ll continue to county his blessings, including the many people helping the family amid its loss.
“The overwhelming love people have shown us … it’s what has made me able to bear this,” he said. “I don’t know how we’ll ever say thank you.”
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett
Undamaged goods for sale
On four days this month, the Harrises will offer undamaged goods at deep discounts. The sale is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 21-22 and Oct. 28-29. The warehouse is at 1517 S. Bright Leaf Blvd., Smithfield.