News-Star: Opinion

I underestimated Hurricane Matthew

The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew caught me off guard, and I suspect I wasn’t alone. The surprise was partly because a beautiful day, sunny, breezy and cool, dawned the day after the storm. In hindsight, what I failed to appreciate was how much rain had fallen on Johnston County the day before.

I should have seen the flooding coming. On Saturday, during the torrential rains, I saw water where I had never seen water before. In Smithfield, it was streaming across South Bright Leaf Boulevard near the ABC store; a small part of the road eventually washed away. It was streaming too across South Bright Leaf Boulevard near the building where Smithfield Councilman Perry Harris has his business. The last I saw, Mr. Harris was throwing damaged inventory into dumpsters.

Later that day, in search of a place to watch my beloved Cubs after my cable TV failed, I again found myself navigating unchartered waters. On Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Smithfield, I crossed water three times before I got to College Road. That had never happened before. At Johnston Community College, the pond in front of the Paul A. Johnston Auditorium had spilled over its banks, another first for me.

Still, I was surprised to awake Sunday morning to see that rain had swollen Holt Lake to the point where water submerged the marina in my neighborhood, Holt Lake South. The scene — pontoon boats still moored but floating well above the submerged docks — struck me as a slow-moving version of bumper cars at the State Fair.

I had never seen Holt Lake do what it did on Sunday, and I have lived there 16 years. A neighbor who has lived on the lake for 43 years said he had never seen anything like it either.

After seeing the marina, my wife and I set out in search of breakfast and other storm scenes. Finding storm scenes, it turned out, was easier than finding breakfast, at least in Smithfield. First we came upon East Smithfield’s Smith-Collins Park, which was underwater. We then saw floodwaters encircling the stage on the Town Commons and a sinkhole on South Vermont Street. Just up the street from the sinkhole, Sloan and Kelsey Stevens were surveying the damage after a tree fell on their home.

Such scenes were commonplace and would become more so as the floodwaters continued to rise.

Scenes of business activity, meanwhile, were rare. On opposite sides of Smithfield, McDonald’s and Waffle House were open but too busy, perhaps because other breakfast spots — Cracker Barrel and Golden Corral among them — were closed because they had no power.

In terms of restaurants, Smithfield’s loss was Selma’s gain. At Bojangles on U.S. 70, the line to get into the restaurant was backed up into the road. Ditto for the McDonald’s at U.S. 70 and Ricks Road.

Because I live in Four Oaks and work in Smithfield, my view of the world can be narrow. I was certain, for example, that central Johnston County had borne the worst of hurricane. I’m not sure that was the case.

At one point on Sunday, my wife and I tried to enter Smithfield via Galilee Road and N.C. 210. But the water on N.C. 210 struck me as too high for our compact SUV, so we turned around and headed west. Here’s what we found: The stoplight at N.C. 210 near Interstate 40 was dark. So was the stoplight at the top of the I-40 exit ramp at N.C. 42. In other words, other parts of Johnston had it as bad or worse than my piece of the county. We never lost power in Four Oaks, for example, though I sure did miss by cable TV and Internet.

I mentioned earlier that the aftermath of Matthew caught me off guard because the next day was gorgeous. I suspect that lulled many people into a false sense of normalcy. My wife and I, for example, weren’t alone in venturing out on Sunday. And we all encountered flooded roads and dark stoplights that made driving unnerving at best, dangerous at worst.

I guess most of us assumed things were mostly OK. They weren’t.

In my 32 years in Johnston County, I have ridden out hurricanes Fran, Floyd and, now, Matthew. (I was also in Charlotte in 1989 for Hurricane Hugo.) Of all those, Matthew seemed the most benign, until the Neuse River on Monday crested at 29 feet, two feet above the record that Fran set 20 years before.

Before Matthew, I was in the habit of judging hurricanes by the force of their winds, not their rains. I won’t make that mistake again.