Fearing a failing dam, evacuees huddle in vehicles with pets and children

Rising water and a failing dam triggered by Hurricane Matthew have forced hundreds to flee homes in Moore County, some of them waiting out the flood while packed inside trucks and vans with their children and pets.

Emergency officials said Tuesday that 78 people refuse to leave the flooded area near Vass despite a mandatory evacuation order, placing them in greater danger if the Woodlake Dam breaks. The force of water over the spillway has helped a hole there grow from the size of a Volkswagen to the size of two ambulances, said Nick Picerno, chairman of the Moore County Board of Commissioners.

“God bless them,” Picerno said of the residents who chose to stay. “We will pray for you.”

Residents reported evacuations from the neighborhoods around N.C. 690 starting on Saturday, and many of them said they had been ordered out twice.

Mitch and Lynn Franklin got word to leave just before midnight Tuesday, carrying their five children to a shelter in Vass. The shelter held 22 people Tuesday afternoon and expected more.

“Two of them were already knocked out when we got here,” said Mitch Franklin, holding his 1-year-old son Rocky. “We had to get people to hold them for us while we filled out the paperwork.”

But the shelter would not take animals, and many in the path of the flood opted to fend for themselves rather than put pets in the county shelter.

Melinda Vigario, 26, spent Monday night in a van parked in Vass with her husband Justen, 7-year-old son Logan, 6-year-old daughter Rebecca and a pair of dogs.

“And I’m pregnant,” she said.

More than a dozen family members clustered in the parking lot of the Neighbors Country Store on Lobelia Drive, where they received free water and pizza. Vigario’s daughter Rebecca wiggled a loose tooth and wondered how the tooth fairy would find her.

Between the 16 people gathered there, many of them sitting in the beds of their pickups, they had seven dogs and three cats.

“My mom’s cat that’s in the van is ... so traumatized it’s in anybody’s best interest to stay away,” Vigario said.

Vigario’s mother, Bonnie, who is diabetic, bought all the children a set of clothes from Goodwill before driving into Vass to see about vouchers for the medication she and her husband take.

She and the family reported being told the dam had been breached when it was still intact, and many said they had sneaked back to retrieve valuables and found no water around their homes. They said they suspect the danger has been exaggerated to keep them from returning home.

“It’s almost like you’re living in fear every day,” said Bonnie Vigario, 52.

Still, others reported the water from the Little River and Crains Creek high enough to cover cars.

Jennifer Bibey, 28, watched the water climb to the third step of her mobile home before she and four others, including her 5-year-old daughter, Madison, were lifted to safety by helicopter. Dropped at a fire station, they and their dog spent the night in a truck.

“I just tried to get my daughter comfortable,” she said, “and the dog was fine.”

At a news conference in Vass, Picerno said the water over the eroding dam has not lowered enough to assess the damage, let alone repair it. It sits on a private country club’s land at Lake Surf, and if it broke it could spill millions of gallons of water.

The evacuation order remains in place, but officials acknowledged they cannot force people to leave.

“I hate it,” he said. “Sorry for the inconvenience. The last thing we want to do is let people back in and that thing cracks open.”

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