From his seat on the back of a small jon boat, Robert Simmons Jr. surveyed the floodwater in his neighborhood in northwest New Bern. The water, which spilled over from the Neuse River during Hurricane Florence, turned streets into canals, divided by rooftops.
It was waist deep on some of those streets, and deeper still on others. All around, street signs and trees poked through the water, offering landmarks to a terrain that even longtime residents now found unrecognizable. Simmons has lived here his entire life — 40 years — he said, and now he didn’t recognize anything.
“We done been through Bertha, Fran, Irene, Matthew,” he said on Friday afternoon, sitting in the small boat and ticking off the names of hurricanes that had come through his part of eastern North Carolina. “And this is the worst it’s ever been, in this part right here.”
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Simmons recounted the story on Friday while a kitten peered through the top of his rain jacket. Simmons had taken the animal with him on the boat. The kitten clung to Simmons, as if a newborn clinging to his mother, and while Simmons spoke, the kitten mewed.
Both were wet. Both wore tired expressions.
A photo of Simmons and his kitten has gone viral — a moment that seemed to capture how thousands like Simmons are feeling as the storm slogs through the area, waters continue to rise, threatening houses and livelihoods.
As the hurricane stalled over southeastern North Carolina, Simmons sought refuge somewhere else, like thousands of others. His story is among hundreds of similar ones here.
Midway through his boat ride, his kitten climbed out of his jacket. He climbed on Simmons’ back, and then perched on his shoulder. For a moment it looked like they took in the scene around them together.
It looked like they were close, the man and his young cat, and Simmons smiled at the thought.
“I feed him,” he said with a laugh, explaining their connection. “… I’m an animal lover.”
“His momma was in there,” Simmons said, referencing his home. “But she’s a wild cat, so ...”
It wasn’t the only family separation on Friday. All day, Simmons said, he’d watched the small boats arrive in his neighborhood off Washington Street, and watched them haul away his neighbors.
His house hadn’t been flooded, he said. The water rose and stopped just outside of his front door, he said. Inside, his place was dry. And yet when he looked outside, he saw that the street he lived on had turned into a river. He saw there was no way out, and that for a while there wouldn’t be.
Inside, Simmons said he turned to his father and tried to convince him to leave. They could leave together, Simmons told him. And yet, Simmons said, “He wanted to wait it out.”
“I didn’t want him to wait it out,” Simmons said. “Yeah. Didn’t want him to wait it out. Man, it’s bad.”
He was sitting on the back of the boat, surveying the damage that surrounded him. Hurricane Florence hit this part of the state particularly hard. All over New Bern, it left flooding that shut down streets and stranded people in their homes, some of which became quickly submerged.
Simmons had prepared for everything, except for the feeling of being trapped, as if he’d had nowhere to go.
“I’ve got food,” he said, sitting on the boat. “I’ve got water. That’s no problem.
“I just got tired. I’m ready to go.”
He didn’t know the people who came to rescue him. It was a team of three younger men. None of them wanted to be identified. They’d been waiting in shallow water when Simmons approached from a small dry stretch of road. Simmons was but one of dozens of people who’d been trapped in this part of New Bern.
He climbed into the boat, his kitten hugging his neck, and soon one of the young men started a small motor. Off they went.
He said he could have never imagined this, riding atop the water and out of his neighborhood. While his house was dry, he was worried about his father, not knowing how he would fare.
“Never seen it like this,” he said. “Not right here in this area. My grandma stayed on North Hills Drive, across the highway. And they flooded out. That was – I think that was Bertha, when she flooded out.”
For the people in parts of eastern North Carolina, certain names bring painful memories.
In the late 1990s, there was Floyd. Now there’s Florence. The rain continued while Simmons sat in the boat.
Simmons said he’d had the cat for weeks, and yet when asked what the cat’s name was, Simmons gave an answer that almost sounded scripted, and too good to be true. Perhaps he’d improvised in the moment.
The kitten’s name, Simmons said, is Survivor.
Soon their ride ended. Simmons walked down a quiet road, toward a nearby shelter, with Survivor holding on.