Johnston County

Matthew delivers powerful punch

A small section of South Vermont Street in Smithfield gave way to rushing waters after Hurricane Matthew dumped about a foot of rain on Saturday.
A small section of South Vermont Street in Smithfield gave way to rushing waters after Hurricane Matthew dumped about a foot of rain on Saturday. sbolejack@newsobserver.com

Hurricane Matthew crippled parts of Johnston County, swelling the Neuse River to a record crest in Smithfield and claiming three lives.

Matthew swept through much of central North Carolina on Saturday, dumping more than a foot of rain in parts of Johnston and causing widespread blackouts, road washouts and broken water lines.

Two days after the last drop of rain fell, it wasn’t over for Johnston. For many homes and businesses, the worst was still to come.

Smithfield experienced some of the most damaging flooding in its history as the Neuse River crested Monday morning at 29.09 feet, nearly two feet above the floodwaters of Hurricane Fran.

All three Johnston deaths reported as of Oct. 13 were in vehicles that had driven into flooded roadways.

Diamond Shuntelle Bennett, 19, of Selma died Saturday night when floodwaters swept away her car on Interstate 95 near mile marker 85, according to the State Highway Patrol.

Thomas Bradley Page, 30, of Youngsville died when a Nissan Versa became submerged in floodwaters and was swept off Cornwallis Road near N.C. 42 in the Cleveland community Sunday, trapping five people inside. Four people were rescued. Page was found several days later.

Also on Sunday, a car traveling on N.C. 210 near Galilee Road drove across a bridge covered by deep, rushing flood waters and was swept off the road into a nearby field. A resident in a small boat tried to help the driver, but floodwaters swept the vehicle away, according to the Highway Patrol. On Tuesday, Robert Maurice Audet, 67, of Riverdale, Ga., was found dead.

Over the weekend, rescue boats and National Guard helicopters pulled hundreds of people from their homes or stranded cars, and rescues continued Monday, said Johnston County Emergency Management coordinator Kevin Madsen.

More than 500 people sought refuge in the four shelters Johnston County opened in the aftermath of Matthew. The shelter at Smithfield-Selma High School was the last to close, on Tuesday, but the Salvation Army opened a shelter at its building on Bright Leaf Boulevard in Smithfield for anyone who still needed refuge.

Johnston is among the more than 30 N.C. counties eligible for federal aid.

As of Wednesday, Johnston County water customers remained on a boil advisory because water line breaks created the threat of bacteria in the water.

The Johnston County sewage-treatment treatment plant, which lies along the Neuse River, flooded and was leaking waste into floodwaters. County Manager Rick Hester said Johnston could do little until the water receded.

“Once there’s an opportunity to get in there, we’ll have the right personnel start pumping the water out of the plant,” Hester said. “It’s unfortunately not an uncommon thing in situations like this. It’s one of our biggest priorities right now.”

For Johnston residents, bottled water was available at fire stations across the county.

At one point after the storm, the county had more than 34,000 power outages. By Tuesday, that number was down to about 10,000 and continued to fall.

Matthew washed out portions of more than 93 roads in the county, and major highways such as interstates 40 and 95 near Benson were closed to traffic in both directions because of flooding.

The marina at Holt Lake South in Four Oaks was underwater Sunday morning. Later in the day, Smithfield police closed the West Market Street entrance to town as floodwaters began inching toward the roadway. The Smithfield Town Commons was underwater Monday.

Homes and businesses in low-lying areas near the river flooded Saturday and some did again on Monday as the river crested.

Jonathan Gaskins and his family have lived at 404 S. Third St. in Smithfield since 2003 and had never seen flooding as severe as what they saw Saturday and Sunday. Gaskins was out clearing debris his yard on Sunday, the water just a few feet away.

“It was worse last night,” Gaskins said Sunday afternoon. “It flooded the road and up closer to the house. We got a little water in the basement.”

Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr said pollution in the river was likely a result of the severe flooding.

Schools close

Johnston County students didn’t return to class all week after Matthew, but teachers were allowed to return Wednesday if they chose.

On Monday, nearly two-thirds of the district’s schools were still without power or water, but conditions improved dramatically through the night. By 10 a.m. Tuesday, just eight schools were still waiting for utilities to come back online, and by the end of the day, only Clayton Middle School was waiting to come online.

Princeton Middle/High School saw the worst of the flooding in the school system, with two inches of water filling the first floor of the school, chief operations officer Patrick Jacobs said during Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.

“The flooding was extensive on the first floor of the main building; (a cleanup company) had to cut out Sheetrock and cabinetry and things of that nature,” Jacobs said. “Most of the other schools had some flooding, ceiling tiles, roof leaks, the normal things we have.”

Beyond the schools themselves, the biggest obstacle to normalcy is the roads parents and buses use to bring students to school. Jacobs quoted a figure from the N.C. Department of Transportation that 80 percent of Johnston’s rural roads sustained some amount of damage.

The computer program the school district uses to determine the most efficient route for buses was not running, which combined with the damaged roads meant the school system didn’t yet know the best way to get some students to school.

Perhaps the worst-hit building was Facility Services, the school system’s maintenance building at West Market Street and N.C. 210 in Smithfield, Jacobs said. Around a foot and a half of standing water was inside the building, he said, and a number of utility vehicles were covered with water.

“It was 100 percent underwater,” Jacobs said. “We moved most of our fleet Sunday to the front parking lot. Unfortunately, it flooded all the way out to Highway 210. Several of the vehicles were totally submerged. Some are still there; we just couldn’t get to them.”

School officials suggested an indefinite halt to middle school athletics but said high school sports teams might be able to resume optional practices this week, though games appear unlikely.

“We’re not going to put anyone in harm’s way for the sake of a ball game or a practice,” Superintendent Ross Renfrow said.

A mixed bag for businesses

Restaurants across Smithfield kept their doors closed Sunday because they had no power. Some, like Scott Gandolf of Gotham’s Deli on Market Street, had generators running to keep food in refrigerators and freezers from spoiling.

Smithfield’s loss was Selma’s gain, though, as scores of people packed the McDonald’s and Bojangles. Selma’s power flickered, town leaders said, but remained steady.

Daisy Johnson, an employee at the Bojangles in Selma, came to work at 8 a.m. Sunday and was heading home in the afternoon after a busy day.

“It feels like over 1,000 (people),” she said, pointing to both the people inside and cars in the drive-through line, which was backed up onto U.S. 70. The restaurant had power and running water, Johnson said, and got a delivery truck Sunday.

“We haven’t run out yet, so we’re good,” she said. “People are coming from all over because they don’t have power or water.”

Rose and Jay House of Smithfield, along with their 3-year-old son, Justin, were having lunch at Bojangles. They had been without power since about 6:30 p.m. Saturday and lost water Sunday.

“There’s some trickling,” Rose House said. “But there’s hardly any water pressure. We had some flooding in our yard, but nothing in the house.”

“And our TV broke!” Justin House said, noting he was bored without it.

Marissa Summerlin and her wife, Jessica, came all the way to the Selma Bojangles from Goldsboro.

“It’s a mess in parts of Wayne County,” Marissa Summerlin said.

Courtney Bradley and her 2-year-old son, Kayden, were having lunch with Elijah Sutton and talked about the storm damage over chicken and biscuits. All three live in Smithfield.

Bradley said she had water but no power Sunday. The opposite was true for Sutton. Flooding on his street stranded him and his neighbors until Sunday, he said.

Bradley, who works at McDonald’s on Bright Leaf Boulevard in Smithfield, said employees worked at the Selma McDonald’s after water flooded and caused computer problems at the Smithfield restaurant.

“The computers started sparking when the water got inside,” she said.

Sutton said he and Diamond Shuntelle Bennett, who was killed in the flooding Saturday, had been classmates at Smithfield-Selma High School.

“We went to school together,” Sutton said. “She was on her way back from work. The last thing she said was, ‘The car is replaceable, I’m not.’ 

Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett

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