A former Marine traveled through darkened Lumberton streets after a harrowing shift in the local Emergency Department following the storm. He had an eerie feeling passing empty streets with people huddled next to flooded parking lots. It was the same feeling he had when deployed to Third World countries. .
You know you are at the epicenter of a national disaster when Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel is broadcasting live from a nearby swamped street. But for every negative story or eerie feeling during Hurricane Matthew, there were dozens of positive stories and heroics that will never be heard though the brave actions were felt.
Emergency personnel from all over the state and nation descended on Robeson. Water rescue teams from Asheville to Missouri plucked victims from area homes. Law enforcement from countless agencies stood next to local officers. County fire tankers followed city fire trucks to supply water. Local EMS and rescue personnel climbed aboard ambulances arriving from places like Iredell, Watauga and Wake to guide the arriving help. Even the ASPCA showed up to rescue area animals. Local rescue teams, police, firemen, hospital staff and linemen didn’t sleep — not even when help arrived.
Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte deployed the State Medical Assistance Team staffed with disaster specialists to open a mobile hospital in a vacant street next to the hospital. A hospital employee broke into tears when a hospital generator designed for shorter outages suddenly billowed black smoke forcing momentary plans to possibly evacuate the hospital. All this after ER staff worked in darkness on patients in need brought miraculously to their doors through impassable roads.
Political differences were suspended. A Republican governor stood shoulder to shoulder with local Democrat officials. The governor wore boots and worked to solve problems Robeson was experiencing. Few will know how the governor even responded on his personal cell phone to frantic requests for aid in Robeson. He solved them quickly with local officials, who rallied their communities.
All this will be well covered in the media. But neighbors helping neighbors is more than a medical center slogan. It reflects the community and the unsung heroes are many.
Men waiting on a flooded road to ferry strangers to their homes after the storm were just helping out. A report surfaced of a business owner manually pumping fuel from his tanks, free to victims in need. On a dark trail flooded with 6 feet of water, Fairmont public works and rescue unit personnel braved dark water repeatedly, simply to keep a generator working at a sewage plant. The stories are too numerous to document. But the impact was clear.
Lara Trump even came back to Robeson. She had visited a few weeks earlier and though donations from campaigns always have an air of political motivation, the campaign didn’t request media coverage. Lara simply came dressed in jeans as her father-in-law presidential candidate Donald Trump sent a tractor-trailer load of supplies to Robeson. He sent them knowing the county is heavily Democrat. But the county needed help and Trump was personally aware of our plight.
Senate candidate Danny Britt and legislative candidate Brenden Jones both suspended their campaigns to pitch in personally as well.
It was a once-in-a century disaster. The county will take much time to recover. In some places it will never be the same. And while there were many things that could have been done better, even the best systems would have been overwhelmed.
There is the realization that our county is vulnerable. But, the lasting impact is the resilience of Robeson and its people. Every outside volunteer commented on the kindness local citizens extended to them as Robeson appreciates their help.
A disaster doesn’t develop character. It only reveals it. And though Robeson may be economically poor, its character is still rich through the worst of storms. Neighbors helping neighbors in more than a tagline.
Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.