Search-and-rescue, FedEx and pet whisperer: Coast Guard works to evacuate NC town

A woman stands on the porch of a home as members of a U.S. Coast Guard team preform search and rescue in Lumberton, N.C.


By SCOTT WILSON | The Washington Post | Published: September 18, 2018

LUMBERTON, N.C. — It's the mailboxes you really have to watch for when you are boating through suburbia.

Many are just under the surface of the opaque brown water as the Coast Guard motored through Mayfair, a comfortable neighborhood far from the ocean but too close to the Lumber River.

At the corner of Wellington and Berkley Streets, Dan Paz, a boatswain's mate, stepped from a skiff into thigh-high water onto a home's submerged stoop. "Welcome Y'all," read the sign hanging from the front-door knocker, the water lapping up to nearly touch it.

No answer.

"He might have gotten out, I don't remember what kind of car he had," Ryan Abshear, the boatswain's mate piloting the 16-foot boat, called up to Paz in the bow after scanning the submerged driveway.

A satellite dish poked just above the water's surface at the corner of the house, like a submarine's periscope. The boat's handheld radio came on with word that a second Coast Guard "punt team" had picked up a person who wanted to leave an inundated home a few streets up.

"Uber service," Paz said.

For many in this flooded neighborhood, Monday was a time for those on higher ground to get used to living a life circumscribed by water, a condition many had endured during Hurricane Matthew two years ago — but not to the same extent. For others, it was time to flee for the few patches of dry ground left in this city of 22,000 people about 20 miles from the South Carolina border.

What was once Hurricane Florence has been plodding across North Carolina, turning cities into islands, and in some cases, neighborhoods into islands within those islands. The new landscape has pressed the Coast Guard, operating here many miles from the coast, into a combination of search and rescue service, FedEx and pet whisperer.

The three teams that fanned out through Mayfair on Monday morning brought out worried young families, who did not believe the spill water from the Lumber River would reach quite as high as it has in recent days.

They also delivered medicine that needed to be refrigerated from one house to another with a generator, several flooded streets away. They transported a lady's dog from her swamped home to a neighbor's dry backyard.

They freed up a boat, still secured on its driveway trailer, and delivered it to a nearby friend with permission to use it. They chauffeured a man tasked with watching over his neighbor's houses to each of them so he could open the higher windows to air them out.

"Just watch your wakes out there," said Master Chief John Mitchell, who runs the unit based in Huntington, W.Va. "Some of the houses that may not be flooded will be if you fly by them."

Abshear and Paz headed straight down Wellington Road after pushing off from the staging area at Mayfair's entrance, itself cut off to the roads around it by high water.

There was a stranger along — the sun — after days of storm. The humidity was stifling, made worse by the heavy rubber waders required for walking around in contaminated water.

After pulling up to the front doors of several houses along Wellington, Abshear grounded the flat-bottom skiff where the submerged street rose gradually to dry land.

Most everybody had declined the Coast Guard's invitation for a ride out, even Joy Bukowy, whose home at 3150 Wellington Road had flooded in the back and seemed well-within risk of the still-predicted, one-foot-at-least rise of the Lumber. Her sedan sat stuck in her front yard, soaked and unable to start.

"We've kept an eye on it," said Bukowy, who has lived in the two-story colonial for nearly 25 years. "Of course, all you can do is hope, and it really didn't get bad here until last night."

Many who live in Mayfair are elderly — grandparents who raised their kids in the brick and clapboard houses with tidy front yards and have now paid off decades-long mortgages. In recent years, a good number of the homes have been renovated, their owners taking advantage of mortgage-free budgets to invest in improvements.

Florence drowned those plans. Many do not have the flood insurance to make the improved homes whole again and they are not leaving them now.

Paz knocked on the door at 3170 Wellington Road. Brent Lamb, dressed in a tank top and shorts, answered.

"We're taking people who want to go out of here," Paz told him.

"I got me and my wife and three kids," Lamb responded, asking how much time they would have to get ready.

"Five minutes?" said Paz, a 10-year Coast Guard veteran originally from Snellville, Ga. "I couldn't really tell you when we might come back if you don't go now."

Lamb ducked inside the two-story gray house with black shutters to begin getting the family ready: his wife, Julie; his 4-year-old daughter Laci; and his one-year-old twins Lucas and Olivia.

Dixie, the family pug, went unmentioned but not unforgotten.

Paz walked back to the skiff to get a handful of life jackets.

The Lamb family had been staying with Julie's parents, Rusty and Lori Lindsey, who have lived in the house for three decades. Before Florence struck, the Lambs worried that their own home, across Interstate 95 in the Tanglewood development, would be hardest hit. So they moved in for the storm.

Their house was only lightly touched by the hurricane, and it now even has power. But Rusty and Lori, both vital and healthy, would not join the mini-exodus.

"I mean, they told us during Matthew that that was a once-in-a-lifetime storm - and that was two years ago," said Lori Lindsey, laughing as she did.

Rusty picked up windfall from their tall front-yard pines with a wheelbarrow, oblivious to the thick heat. Lori played with the babies and Laci, who wanted her family to either stay with "G-G and G-Da" or have them come along.

Paz returned with the lifevests.

"Look, I forgot to mention we have a dog, too," Brent Lamb told him.

"That's fine," Paz said. "We can't leave the family dog."

The lifejacket fittings were a bit rocky.

Olivia — no problem. Lori Lindsey snapped a snug yellow vest around the baby, who never even dropped her pacifier.

"The little banana," Lori cooed. "She just doesn't want to leave her G-G."

Lucas - no, not going to happen. After some thrashing around, Paz said it was fine if Brent wanted to hold him in the boat. And Laci — grudgingly, and eager to get it off.

The family set off for the short walk to the skiff, Julie holding Laci's hand.

"I want them to come," Laci said.

"I know," Julie said. "And when G-G and G-Da get some sense, they will join us."

Abshear and Paz took the family to the staging area in two shifts. Laci and Brent, who works for the county sheriff's department, waited for the second ride, Laci's pink sparkly sandals sinking in the mud.

"I called work yesterday and told them, 'If you want me to come in, you're going to have to come and get me,'" Brent Lamb said. "I'll probably go into work right away now."

The skiff returned. Brent stepped in, and Paz handed him Laci, who clutched his left leg with fear. The boat tilted when Paz entered, and Laci gave a small gasp.

"Great, you scared her," Abshear told Paz.

Abshear turned the boat and began cruising toward the far shore. Then, a shout from behind. It was Rusty, standing on the lawn, holding high a mesh bag full of sippy cups.

Abshear swung the boat back around.

"Got to have the sippy cups," Paz said.

Boatswain's Mate Dimitri Georgoulopoulos looks out during a search.

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