The smell of bleach permeated downtown Windsor on Friday afternoon, the day after the Cashie River, swollen by rains from remnants of Tropical Storm Julia, spilled over its banks.
Businesses and schools were closed in the small Bertie County town, which has become more accustomed than residents and shop owners like to cleaning up after drenching rains.
Bertie was one of the 11 counties in northeastern North Carolina for which Gov. Pat McCrory issued a state of emergency this week, and Melinda Eure knows the drill all too well.
As she helped Joe Cherry scrub down the insurance company that his father started more than a century ago, Eure recounted what she and her family went through Wednesday night as Julia drenched the area with rain.
Much of what she kept on the ground floor of her beauty and tanning salon was moved to the second floor of her shop across the street from J.B. Cherry Insurance Co.
Then the waters came. By Thursday morning they had risen so high that emergency responders in boats motored through the town of about 3,000, rescuing 65 people from flooded buildings and cars, including 61 residents and staff from a nursing home. In all, according to McCrory’s administration, swift water rescue teams rescued 138 people in the northeast part of the state.
“This would be national news if we didn’t have all the reporters in Charlotte right now,” Gov. Pat McCrory said Friday at a news conference, referring to the unrest over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
The Cashie River, a meandering waterway that rises in northwest Bertie County and flows southeast into Batchelor Bay and Albemarle Sound, crested late in the week after as much as 17 inches of rain fell within a 72-hour period, according to Windsor officials.
This would be national news if we didn’t have all the reporters in Charlotte right now.
Gov. Pat McCrory
Mayor James Hoggard issued a warning to people on Thursday: “Stay away from downtown. …It’s dangerous.”
Eure was downtown Friday with her daughter Frances McKeel, 13-year-old granddaughter Elizabeth, her granddaughter’s friend, Carley Dawson, 14, and grandson Drake McKeel.
Shop owners and their families freely lent each other a hand pulling out wet furniture, carpets, floorboards and more to begin the same drying-out process they’ve gone through before: in October 2010 after a tropical storm sent flood waters almost to the top of stop signs, and in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd submerged much of the town.
“We’re just a family, a community, everybody knows everybody, helps everybody,” said Eure, a lifelong Bertie County resident and business owner for 21 years. “When Floyd happened, I didn’t know what to do, but you learn.”
Windsor still home
Turner Sutton, a retired plant pathologist who worked at N.C. State University, had walked to the center of downtown to check on how high the waters had risen in the storage unit where he had kept much of the furniture from his Raleigh home.
Sutton grew up in Windsor, and like many residents considered it his lifelong home, even if jobs and other ventures took them away for a while.
“This is discouraging for the business community,” Sutton said as he surveyed what looked like at least a foot of water lapping against the door of the storage facility. “Windsor is a small community, and people really work hard to start a business and be successful.”
The three floods they have experienced take a long time to rebound from, if they ever do, many business owners said.
But even amid their woes, they found solace and relief in the fact that no one had died in the storm.
Cherry, who was grateful for the help from Eure, was on the side of the street where the high-water mark was about 10 inches instead of the two feet or so that crept into businesses across from him.
“I’m really lucky,” Cherry said.
Excitement set in early Friday afternoon as the clouds disappeared from the sky and news circulated about three buffalo sloshing through water still pooled on York Street.
In the Cashie wetlands, Windsor has a mini-zoo with buffalo, llamas, peacocks, alpacas, ostriches and emus.
The zoo has a plan in place to get the animals to higher ground when the Cashie floods, and the sight of buffalo plodding through town and llamas gathering on hilly yards is no longer rare in Windsor.
Duane Jones, who was sitting outside the home he bought four years ago, went to bed Wednesday night wondering whether the river would spill far enough over its banks to cause trouble for him.
His neighbor had gone to stay on higher ground with her daughter, but he decided to stick it out even though a shelter had been set up at the high school.
When he awoke at 4:30 a.m., his house was still dry inside.
Some time between 8 and 9 a.m., water seeped – then rushed – into his home, leaving a high mark of at least half a foot.
By Friday afternoon, Jones, a mechanic for the state Department of Agriculture, had pulled up all the carpet on the first floor of his home, moved furniture outside, called around in search of a storage unit and started to plan the removal of one layer of floorboards to prevent mold from settling in.
Jones found out after the flood that he did not have flood insurance, but already town officials had come by to talk with him about possible sources of funds he could tap.
“It is what it is,” Jones said.
‘We have been prepared’
Nick Tennyson, secretary of the state Department of Transportation, toured Bertie and Chowan counties on Thursday to survey the damage.
As the floodwaters receded on Friday, state transportation crews assessed damage to the region’s roadways and began making repairs in some places.
Three primary routes remained closed on Friday – U.S. 17 Business in Windsor, U.S. 13 north of Windsor and N.C. 45 in Hertford County. Numerous secondary roads also were still closed.
State environmental officials monitored public water systems, water treatment plants and large farms.
In Bertie County, where peanut farming plays a major role in the economy, some worried about peanuts still left in the field and how the crop would fare after the heavy rains.
“Needless to say, over the past week North Carolina has faced three extremely difficult situations,” McCrory said in a statement, recounting the fuel shortage earlier in the week after the pipeline trouble in Alabama, the unrest in Charlotte and the floods. “I want to assure our citizens that North Carolina is addressing each of these situations head on. We have been prepared, and I am proud of the collaboration between our law enforcement and our emergency response teams to protect the citizens of our great state.”