BOILING SPRING LAKES — When the Patricia Lake dam breached Saturday night, City Manager Jeff Repp knew his city had a crisis on its hands.
An engineer consultant had crunched the numbers: The lake at maximum capacity could hold about 1.6 billion gallons of water, and the 2-feet of rainfall from slow-moving Hurricane Florence had generated an additional 4.5 billion gallons.
“Essentially we got three times the amount of rain that the lake could hold, so it was only a matter of time that the dam would fail,” Repp said.
The dam breach caused a chain reaction. When the city’s smaller lakes began to overflow, six sections of Boiling Spring Lakes Road — the city’s major thoroughfare — and three sections of South Shore Road collapsed, according to Repp.
Repp said that one washout between North Lake and Patricia Lake was about 300 feet wide.
Call of the Guard
The National Guard’s 881st Engineer Support Company, based in Rockingham, arrived to nearby Shallotte four days later and began sending soldiers to Boiling Spring Lakes to clear broken asphalt and fill collapsed sections of the roads.
“I’ve been in the National Guard for 11 years. We’ve never done anything like this,” Sergeant First Class Ashley Snider said. She noted the large scale of the company’s current projects, which is coordinating with the Brunswick County Emergency Management Center along with the NCDOT to fix roads throughout the county.
The company immediately began coordinating with the town’s Department of Public Works and police department to determine the highest priority areas.
“Our mission out here it to temporarily get (the roads) passable by putting in fill material, then compacting and adding more fill material, to create a drivable, stable road,” Captain Richard Warner said, driving a 4-ton Humvee through the dirt roads northeast of Patricia Lake. People in passing cars were honking their horns and saluting him.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) would come in later, he said, to perform more permanent repairs, like installing new road culverts.
Warner then pointed to Spring Lake Park and said an Army Chinook helicopter had recently delivered water and MREs (Meal, ready to eat) to residents in need.
He stopped to check on a team spreading crushed gravel stone on one of the side roads damaged by heavy detour traffic. Operating a backhoe loader equipped with hydraulic chain saws was specialist Austin Hunt, who is looking to pick up his E-5 sergeant rank soon.
As a civilian, Hunt works fire and rescue in Robeson County and received permission from the National Guard to stay back to help with numerous water rescues taking place along the Lumber River. He saw rescue teams come in as far away as Oklahoma and Colorado to help with the county’s rescue efforts.
“I don’t think they were expecting the river to flood like it was,” Hunt said. “It was way worse than Matthew. As soon as things died down, I told them my bags were packed and I was ready to go … Now I’m on the recovery side, trying to patch everything back up and hopefully get everything stable enough so it’s passable, so the state can come in and finish the rest of it.”
Hunt, who just turned 25, joined the fire department at 13 as a junior member because his grandmother was a firefighter. His decision to join the National Guard also came from a sense of family duty.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side was the last serviceman to come into the service. I didn’t want that to pass with him, so I decided to join. He was a Marine, artillery, deployed to Vietnam.”
A community effort
At the city hall Captain Warner touched base with Chief of Police Brad Shirley.
“Once Florence made landfall, it just stuck around. I heard you could walk faster than the storm was moving,” Shirley said. “We had some people needing to evacuate with the waters rising. Officers were using city trucks with four-wheel drive to get around. Roads were crumbling from over-wash.”
He said his officers began working 12 to 20-hour shifts, and along with himself and the city manager, his entire staff was sleeping at the city hall on cots and air mattresses.
When three officers from the Graham Police Department walked in, Shirley stood up and gave them bear hugs and kissed one on the cheek.
“Our partnerships with the other local agencies, state agencies, federal agencies, the military — to be able to come in and help support us, to be able to get back to normal operations — it’s indescribable, the benefit they have given our town, our citizens. We couldn’t do it without them,” Shirley said.
City Manager Repp said that the city was now shifting focus from recovery to repair. Water was fully restored and about half of the city’s power grid was functioning: Duke Power teams were being assisted by crews from Quebec and Holland.
He estimated that the entire town would have power within 24 hours.
“That’s a good feeling … now people can get back to their homes,” Repp said.
Back at the 881st Command Center in Shallotte, SFC Snider said the community’s support had been a major boost to the morale of her company. Residents had been dropping off food and drinks, were paying for soldiers’ tabs at restaurants, and even offered to wash their clothes.
“It’s a close knit town, and it feels like family here already,” Snider said.
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