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In New Bern, 'downtown is literally underwater'

There is plenty of past in this city: 308 years of it, colonial governors, Union troops, communities of freed slaves and yes, hurricanes, plenty of them. But none of it, at least nothing that anyone alive could remember, seemed to prepare New Bern for Hurricane Florence.

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Richard Fausset
Campbell Robertson, New York Times
NEW BERN, N.C. — There is plenty of past in this city: 308 years of it, colonial governors, Union troops, communities of freed slaves and yes, hurricanes, plenty of them. But none of it, at least nothing that anyone alive could remember, seemed to prepare New Bern for Hurricane Florence.

“It’s been flooding ever since our history started,” said Steve Bengel, who was driving around the inundated city Friday morning with his wife, Sabrina, a town alderwoman, and looking at one street that had been submerged in 5 feet of water. “But not like this,” she said.

New Bern, a quaint city of 30,000, was overwhelmed by Florence in a way that shook even the most well-prepared. More than 360 people had been rescued since Thursday night, from first floors, second floors, attics and rooftops. By Friday, the list had started to grow again, with 140 people in need of help.

“With the deterioration of the weather, people are calling back and saying, ‘The water is creeping back into my home. Can you please come get me?'” said Colleen Roberts, a spokeswoman for the city.

Places that had never flooded were taking on water, and places that had typically flooded a little were turned into lakes. The two rivers that come together at New Bern, the Neuse and Trent, were both repulsed by a storm surge-swollen Pamlico Sound. Their waters emptied into the streets of the city instead. Comfortable neighborhoods of retirees were filling up along with the city’s poorer districts; most of one public housing complex now sat several feet deep in the engorged Trent River.

The onslaught was nowhere near finished — the storm was not going anywhere fast, the tide was coming in again, and the rainfall, projected to reach an astonishing 40 inches, was just getting started. The rescues were not finished either.

“As long as it doesn’t come up to the second floor, we’ll be fine,” said Cynthia Diraimondo, who had left her steadily flooding one-story home Thursday afternoon to join two families in a two-story dwelling up the street. The water level rose inside the house overnight, reaching about 7 feet. It receded a bit by morning, she said, but she knew it would come back again.

“We are praying and hoping for the best,” she said.

The badly flooded areas were all around town, not isolated to just one spot, said Jameesha Harris, an alderwoman, who heard from constituents whose relatives had fled to their roofs. “Downtown is literally underwater,” she said.

Since a mandatory evacuation was ordered for New Bern earlier in the week, city officials had tried to get word out. They knocked on doors, left flyers and rode the streets broadcasting on firetruck bullhorns. They offered rides. “If you were even afraid that you might flood,” said Jeffrey T. Odham, an alderman who made the rounds, “then you probably could flood this time.”

The state had set up a shelter at a National Guard facility two hours inland, and hundreds had gone. Four local shelters had been set up, as well, for last-minute deciders, and they filled up.

But still, some people remained. They stayed because they were up there in age, on dialysis, because they did not hear of the mandatory evacuation, because they had faith that God would keep them safe, because they loved their homes and did not want to leave, because it had never flooded badly where they lived.

But as Thursday afternoon turned to evening, it had become ever more frantically clear that Florence was not going to be like any hurricane in memory. Surgewaters marched down streets and crept up front porches, knocking on windows and sending people to second floors, then attics, if they had them.

“It was close to dark, I’d say probably 5, 6 o’clock, and these floodwaters were really starting to rise and were rising quickly,” Odham said.

People lost power all over town. A local television station, surrounded by floodwaters, had to evacuate in minutes, the weather forecaster walking off the set mid-broadcast. Those who did not get out had been told: If there is no room in the attic, go higher. And some did, clambering up onto the rooftops to wait.

Friday’s daylight revealed a city largely submerged, and a population stunned and scattered.

Gerald Richmond, 35, sat in the darkness of a city parks and recreation bus with an old family friend, an older woman in a housecoat. They were alone in the bus, having just decided to evacuate as the water inched up the front porch.

“We didn’t think it was going to be this bad,” he said as the rain pounded on the bus. Essence Keys, 25, left her apartment in Trent Court on Thursday afternoon, walking out the back door as water came in the front. She has been at a nursing home, where she works, ever since. Things have been hectic with the arrival of residents from another home. Her two little boys are in another part of town with her grandmother, who has no cellphone and no power — and thus no way to get in touch. As for the state of her own apartment, who can say.

“I don’t have nothing but the clothes that I had on yesterday,” Keys said.

Overnight, the door to Meghan Margarum’s house flew off, and the ground level started to fill with water. She called a friend, who called 911 and — told that conditions were too dangerous for rescue operations — dove into Facebook. Connections were made, friend to friend to mail carrier to a group from Texas that arrived at Margarum’s front door in a skiff Friday morning.

People had to improvise like that. The predictions seemed to bear out — everyone said this would be a catastrophe of a lifetime — but history, past experience, was not much help at all

“The flooding is going to be something that in my lifetime I haven’t seen before,” Steve Bengel, 62, said. “I have never seen this amount of flooding.”

He and his wife had driven the town, seen his 108-year-old business surrounded by water, seen the flooding in Trent Court, looked down streets that descended into water, and had now returned to the downtown historic district of New Bern, “a mix of Charleston and Williamsburg,” as Sabrina Bengel put it.

“Oh gosh, Steve,” she said, looking at the downtown. “It’s really bad here.”

They looked at the high-tide water mark on a friend’s home — 4 feet. The wind was whipping. They drove toward the mall, beyond the historic district, to see how it was holding up. A woman named Linda called on the phone.

“We survived last night. I figure we can survive anything,” Linda said.

Sabrina Bengel was not so sure. “We’re going to have at least another 24 hours of rain.”

“Well, the Lord looked out for us last night,” the woman on the phone said.

Linda, it turned out, was Steve Bengel’s sister. “She’s the Eeyore of the family,” he said. “You know, ‘The sky is always falling.’ Today she may be right.”

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