Ellen Gladden was still trying to repair Paye Funeral Home and Memorial Chapel from the damage caused by freak storms in late September when Hurricane Matthew rolled in on Saturday.
“Here is where the water was two weeks ago,” she said, bending down to show a mark on the white brick exterior about 2 feet high.
Then she stood and pointed to a fresh high-water mark more than 5 feet off off the ground, left when Cross Creek near Murchison Road returned to its banks sometime Sunday.
“And here is Matthew,” she said.
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Gladden is like many residents and emergency workers in Fayetteville and surrounding Cumberland County, weary from back-to-back storms that, for this area, should have been once-every-couple-hundred years. The storms on the night of Sept. 28 brought up to 10 inches of rain to parts of Cumberland County, sending the Cape Fear and Lower Little rivers and a web of smaller streams out of their banks and into homes and businesses.
The ground had scarcely dried out when Hurricane Matthew began to advance up the coast after hitting the Bahamas, Haiti and Florida. Forecasters warned of additional flooding, not just in Fayetteville but throughout the Sandhills, but few people expected the 14 inches of rain that dropped on Fayetteville as Matthew crashed into a cold front.
Before the storm, Gladden had funeral home staff carry some furniture to an upstairs apartment in the building, which stayed dry, but everything on the lower level was submerged in muck and mud and tossed around like flakes in a snow globe.
“I can’t do anything with this,” Gladden said, indicating the building is a total loss. In the chapel, water had tossed solid oak pews on top of one another like pick-up sticks. An upright piano lay face down and an organ was thrown over in a corner. Caskets were tossed around in another room. A closet full of brand new clothing Gladden offered to families for burials was soaked. Her parking lot, buried deep in sand, looked like a beach at low tide.
Gladden found an unopened bottle of embalming fluid in a stand of trees across the street.
Sunny post-storm skies and residual gusts of wind promised to help dry some of the funeral home’s fixtures, and Gladden’s son, Shawn, and two other men began the heavy work of hauling the items out Sunday afternoon. The pile they assembled outside the front door looked like a yard sale.
Michael Martin of the Fayetteville Fire Department said there were pockets of similar destruction all around the city and the county.
“We’re still in response mode,” he said, so officials have not begun to count the number of homes and businesses flooded, though they had tracked the number of water rescue calls – 254 – and the number of people rescued — 699. Four people remained unaccounted for Sunday, and Martin said they were cases in which someone had called for help but when rescuers arrived, they couldn’t find anyone.
The county had to call in help to conduct the rescues, and it came in the form of teams from Charlotte, New Bern, New Jersey, New York and Ohio. Sunday afternoon, Martin said, 50 people were still out answering water rescue calls. As the water receded in Fayetteville, it was rising in Hope Mills, to the south, and teams were pulling people from cars and houses there.
Through the day, some conditions improved in Fayetteville and Spring Lake. At the height of the storm, the county had closed more than 50 roads because of flooding or downed trees. Fewer than 20 remained closed by late Sunday.
Crews were working to repair a broken water main in the hopes of restoring regular water pressure and lifting a boil-water ban that went into effect on Saturday night.
Fort Bragg, closed for all but essential personnel through the storm, had returned to normal operations. County schools and offices will be closed on Monday, and the downtown library branch is expected to be closed for a week because of flood damage.
Though officials begged local residents to stay off the roads Sunday to allow them to take care of ongoing emergencies and prevent new ones, traffic was steady. Traffic signals that were out because of power outages created some treacherous crossings. Drivers who found the rare convenience store that had electricity to pump gas, or the odd restaurant that was open and serving food, sometimes waited in line.
The county was still operating five shelters, which were housing fewer than 200 people, though the Red Cross said the number could increase Sunday night because of fresh flooding in Hope Mills.
Tanna Thompson came to the shelter at the Spring Lake Recreation Center with her three young children on Saturday, after waiting hours in the hopes that her power would come back on. She remained there Sunday, checking her phone periodically for a text from the electric company that would tell her the lights were back on.
She expected to stay a second night, and had gone home to pick up a few things to make herself and the children more comfortable. She got some cozy blankets and her daughter’s pacifier. Without it, the baby woke her about once every hour.
“I made sure I grabbed it today,” Thompson said. “We’re going to sleep tonight.”