The Last Ride out of Rocky Point: A Hurricane Florence Rescue

A U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter crew assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, evacuates residents from Rocky Point, North Carolina, Sept. 16, 2018, due to flooding caused by Hurricane Florence. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dustin Williams)

A U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter crew assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, evacuates residents from Rocky Point, North Carolina, Sept. 16, 2018, due to flooding caused by Hurricane Florence.

Story and photos by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dustin Williams

Rocky Point is a small village off North Carolina Highway 210, just 15 miles north of Wilmington. It’s home to many of the 400 people who live in the wider area known as St. Helena. Weekends find them running hobby farms, enjoying time with friends and family, or prepping Sunday dinner. However, on September 16, 2018, the residents of this inland community were under several feet of water. That day they found themselves in a potentially fatal situation, trapped on what was becoming an island surrounded by rushing floodwaters and pieces of what used to be their homes.

“When we woke up that Sunday morning [the water] was right there, you know, 20 yards from our driveway,” recalls Dan Schmidt, a resident of Rocky Point. “All my neighbors south of my house had already all gone underwater and were all out at the end of [my] driveway.”

Dan and his wife Janeen Spencer are local school teachers who moved to Rocky Point about three years ago. Like many residents, they have some livestock and they farm on the side, a community effort relying on relationships to be successful.

Seeing those same neighbors trying to escape the rising water, Dan grabbed his jon boat the morning of the 16th to help the rest. He paddled through the waist deep water to help get them to drier areas and porches. After several hours, though, the current began thwarting his efforts.

An MH-60T Jayhawk Helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, evacuates residents from Rocky Point, North Carolina due to flooding caused by Hurricane Florence. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dustin Williams/released)

 

Close to the same time Dan was reluctantly tying his boat off to a pine tree, word began to spread that the Coast Guard had been contacted and was coming. No one was sure, though, how long it would be until they arrived or where exactly they would be landing.

Dan and Janeen now faced their own decision whether to evacuate. They debated whether to stay on the second story of their house and to send only Janeen’s mom, who has health issues, and her step-daughter to leave with the Coast Guard.

“Everybody kept saying the water’s ‘going to keep coming, keep coming’ and ‘we need to go now,’ because we didn’t know if the Coast Guard was going to be able to come back, or if anybody would be able to come back. That’s when we made the decision to go ahead and go. Once we knew we could take the dogs with us, it was a no brainer. No need to risk your life.”

As they were deliberating, the heavy, repetitive thudding of search and rescue helicopters reverberated through the torrential rainfall. The sharp eyes of crew saw the submerged houses of Rocky Point materialize below as the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, dispatched from Air Station Elizabeth City, circled the village.

“I was in awe of all the flooding,” remembers Petty Officer 3rd Class Sam Fuller, an aviation survival technician aboard the helicopter. “Some of the houses were completely submerged. It was a challenge trying to find a place to land.”

An MH-60T Jayhawk Helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, evacuates residents from Rocky Point, North Carolina due to flooding caused by Hurricane Florence. A total of 26 adults, 11 children, seven dogs and four cats were evacuated from the neighborhood. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dustin Williams/released)

 

The decision was made to plant the aircraft in a field at the corner of two country roads, one of which quickly descended into water so deep that a volunteer swift boat team from Indiana was ferrying people from the other side of a nearby submerged highway.

Once the helicopter had been spotted overhead, Dan once again assumed the role of community messenger, this time spreading news of hope. He took to his four-wheeler and started riding around the community on what dry land remained, urging others to take advantage of the new means of escape and not to chance the floodwaters. Not everyone heeded him.

“There were a couple of old-timers who weren’t going to leave,” said Schmidt. “One of my best friends—Danny—he wasn’t going to. He was born at Long Creek, you know, and he refused. The last thing I did before I left was teach him to put on a life jacket for the first time.”

That reluctance is a familiar challenge, says Fuller.

“When people have lived in an area their entire life and have never had to evacuate, it’s hard convincing them that they should.”

After landing, Fuller and another aviation survival technician, Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Fisher, made their own initial rounds of Rocky Point’s streets and houses, doing their best to warn the reluctant of the risk of staying behind. There was a new fear of a nearby river cresting, adding water to the already record-breaking deluge and its flash floods.

Their warnings were sometime received with uncertainty from people anxious about leaving their homes, roots, and memories behind. Fuller tried to covey the urgency. “It is always better to leave when you could have stayed than to stay when you should have left. When in doubt, evacuate. Floods come much faster than you think and before you know it, it’s too late.”

An MH-60T Jayhawk Helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, evacuates residents from Rocky Point, North Carolina due to flooding caused by Hurricane Florence. A total of 26 adults, 11 children, seven dogs and four cats were evacuated from the neighborhood. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Dustin Williams/released)

Enough people heeded Dan’s and Fuller’s alarms that soon there were significantly more people ready to evacuate than there was space available on the helicopter. This meant multiple trips. Fuller and Fisher remained behind in the rapidly submerging Rocky Point in order to maximize the number of evacuees in the helicopter cabin. Their presence also provided those still waiting with confidence that rescuers were coming back.

“It can be challenging telling some people that they are going to have to wait for the next pickup, but they were more receptive to the idea when they knew that I was staying back as well,” says Fuller. “There were so many people that needed to get out. We obviously send anyone who is injured or sick first and go from there, our main priority being to keep families together.”

Confident that they had helped gather everyone they could, Dan and Janeen waited with their dogs Dixie and Bandit on the porch of an abandoned house across from the field where the Coast Guard had set up the evacuation point. Still, though, they wanted to make sure that everyone else was able to go before they caught one of the last rides out of Rocky Point.

When it was finally their turn, rotorwash whipped the reeds and tall grass into a frenzy as Dan and Janeen carried Dixie and Bandit in their arms to the open door of the helicopter. Pouring rain made it hard to see, and engine noise made it almost impossible to hear while the crew settled everyone into the cabin. There was a feeling of momentary weightlessness as the aircraft took off. Below, some roofs of Rocky Point now barely poked out of the water below. Soon, they disappeared in the distance.

Dan and Janeen were dropped off with their dogs in Wilmington, two people of the 944 lives saved by the Coast Guard during Hurricane Florence. Forty were from the Rocky Point area alone. In Wilmington, Dan and Janeen were able to stay with friends and family for a few days, helping clear roads and property before heading back to their farm. Luckily, their property was just high enough that there was minimal damage.

The two teachers were out of work for 20 days before classes resumed. During this time, they continued to do everything they could for the surrounding communities. Alongside other local volunteers and with help from the American Red Cross, they delivered food and supplies to their students and students’ families, dropping off 200 to 250 lunches per day.

Now, a year after Florence, there is still clean-up and recovery happening in Rocky Point. Florence brought eight trillion gallons of water across North and South Carolina over seven days.

“My neighbors are still rebuilding,” says Schmidt. “I saw them pulling a FEMA trailer just the other day. Interiors [are] damaged there were piles of trash and debris that we had there for the first six months after. There’s still a lot of people hurting from the storm, that’s for sure. But then, just to watch everyone come back together and try to rebuild our community [is] just a really awesome thing. I don’t know how to totally encapsulate that. There’s so many emotions with so many highs and lows.”

Among the highs are the memories that many rescues were a product of communities pulling together and sacrifices made under the threat of loss of life and property.

“Dan and Janeen were a huge help in making sure everyone that wanted to get out, got out,” offers Fuller. “They were running all over the place and reporting back to us how many more were coming. It’s crazy how these storms bring communities together and bring out the best in people. There are definitely situations where people are just focused on themselves getting to safety, which is totally understandable, but that was not my experience in Rocky Point. Everyone we evacuated was patient and willing to sacrifice for others, especially Dan and Janeen.”

Year after year, storm after storm, the Coast Guard will always have the watch. Supported by those they serve.


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