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NC flooding: How 200 neighbors became their own heroes

ROWLAND, N.C. — Jasmine Thompson couldn’t sleep, and who could blame her. Floodwaters fed by Hurricane Matthew were slowly rising on the grounds of her apartment complex. The sound of the rushing water kept her awake — and worried.

She thought to herself, “We can’t stay in here.”

Earlier that evening Thompson and her fellow residents at the Lumbee Homes housing complex in southwest Lumberton, North Carolina, had repeatedly called 911, begging for rescue before the waters got too deep. But help never came, they say, so around daybreak the next morning, Thompson and the other 200 or so residents engineered their own rescue.

A shout in the morning

As the waters began to rise around the complex on Sunday night and the calls for help continued to go unanswered, it became clear to the people living there: They would have to rescue themselves.

They said they had called 911 numerous times, but no one answered.

Officials in Robeson County dispute this. Kellie Blue, a spokesperson for Robeson County Emergency Management, said emergency services went and picked up everyone who called 911 for help on Sunday and Monday. She said that rescue boats and helicopters were “in the area” of Lumbee Homes on Monday, but she didn’t know for certain whether they stopped there to pick anyone up.

It’s not clear why the residents weren’t helped. They said rescue helicopters were seen and heard flying directly over Lumbee Homes, but none stopped for them.

It’s also unclear whether Lumbee Homes, a subsidized neighborhood, was under a mandatory evacuation order.

A group of teenage boys — Jaylane Sinclair, Kashon Priest, Louis Rodriguez and Davontae McBryde — ventured out into what was then-knee-deep water, trying to find somebody who could help them.

They ran into some folks on boats who were rescuing people in the area. They told them there were others at Lumbee Homes that needed to be rescued, too. The boys say the men told them someone would be along soon to get them. But no one ever came.

“It’s like we were forgotten,” Rodriguez said.

The next morning at 5, as Thompson was near the end of her restless night, a great sound boomed from above. It was Sinclair. He was on the roof of one of the 50 red-brick duplexes in Lumbee Homes, screaming for everyone to get up. The water was still rising.

Thompson and her friends decided they couldn’t wait around for rescue anymore. They had to get out of there — now. So they went door-to-door, waking people and telling them it was time to leave.

“We took it upon ourselves,” said Shaneice McQueen, another resident. “If we didn’t save ourselves, we’d be dead right now.”

The young and the old

As Thompson, McQueen and others ran around knocking on doors and waking people up, they grew especially concerned about getting the complex’s older residents out. McQueen said there were about 20 of them. For the ones who had trouble walking, Thompson said they made sure they had their canes. If those couldn’t be found quickly, they improvised and used other items such as umbrellas or baseball bats, whatever they could find to support them.

“I had to help them to get the elderly,” resident Deloise Pearson said. “We made sure everyone got out.”

Three of the older residents were paralyzed and had to be carried out, with the help of those teenage boys — Sinclair, Priest, Rodriguez and McBryde.

There’s a lot of kids that live in the complex too, and the water — now up to the adults’ chests — was just too high for them to simply walk out, and only so many of them could be carried out on people’s backs. So the residents came up with a novel idea. They gathered up as many inflated air mattresses as they could get their hands on, about four of them, placed the younger children on them and floated them out of the complex.

They said they got all of Lumbee Homes children — about 50 of them — to safety that way.

A trek through water

The residents began wading through the chest-high water to get to safety around 6 a.m. The younger residents who were assisting couldn’t get everyone out in one trip, so they made several runs — about five or six — through the water until everyone was safe. They started about 6 a.m. and finished up by mid-morning.

“We felt like we were going to die. We asked ourselves, ‘Is this the end of the world for us?'” McQueen said, tears streaming down her face.

The water was chilly, and there was fear of what may be in all that water: Sewage? Probably. Snakes? Several. Alligators? They tried not to think about it.

“In my 50-something years on this earth, I’ve never seen anything like this” said Patty Bordeaux of the amount of water that swamped her neighborhood. She trekked through the water with assistance from her son, T.J. Butler. In her hands she carried one of the few items she managed to grab before they left — pictures of her other son, Bryan Bordeaux, who died last year.

During the trek, one elderly woman stepped in a manhole, her head suddenly going under the water. She was helped up by that crew of teenage boys. They were careful to keep another woman out of the water as much as possible. She had a pacemaker and received a small electric shock whenever it made contact with the water.

One more obstacle

Despite their fears and difficulties they pushed on, to nearby W.H. Knuckles Elementary School, which was on higher ground and dry, but it wouldn’t be for long, as the water was starting to rush in on the school grounds, too.

But before they could get inside the school and to relative safety, they had to get through a fence. The teens went back to get any kind of tools they could find to pry open the fence big enough for them to get through. Once they got to the back of the school, they were all set to break in there too, but suddenly a janitor appeared from inside.

He told everyone to get to the gym, which was the farthest point in the school away from the water.

Within a few hours, and after repeated trips back and forth, Lumbee Homes’ residents were finally safe in that elementary school’s gym.

“We saved ourselves,” McQueen said. “Everybody that’s in there is a hero.”

After staying in the gym for about two hours, the group was eventually transported by bus to a shelter at South Robeson High School in Rowland, about 14 miles away.

Living in a shelter

And now they wait, thankful to be alive, but worried about the future. Last anyone had heard, the apartments were completely submerged under Matthew’s waters, so they probably don’t have a home to go back to.

They spend their time in a high school gym — decorated yellow, blue and white — that has water and food, but no power, so it’s dark inside. Power outages are still widespread in the area, so the shelter is running off of a single generator, powering just a couple of lights and a solitary TV near the door.

Accommodations here are less then plush: They have to use one of the 11 portable toilets set up outside to use the bathroom. For now, they’re using baby wipes to clean up with.

But they were making the best of their situation Wednesday, personally thanking the many people from the community who come by dropping off donations. Kids run around seemingly everywhere, laughing and playing with toys. Thompson takes a small group of them, puts them in a circle, gives them pen and paper and works with them on learning numbers and shapes. Anything to pass the time.

Many of the people there expressed hope that FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) would come in and get them all into a more permanent housing situation.

Pearson said the people at Lumbee Homes weren’t the most close-knit of neighbors before this tragedy happened. But something about wading together through chest-deep floodwater has a way of forging bonds that won’t easily be broken.

“We know each other now,” she said.