Floyd victims recall ordeals|They recall rescues and relief operations

Published 6:02 pm Wednesday, September 16, 2009

By By JONATHAN CLAYBORNE Daily News Correspondent
Ernie Coleman’s comfortable suburban home is situated in a cul-de-sac above a winding branch of Tranter’s Creek west of Washington.
Framed by a large, green and well-manicured lawn and a wide, sloping driveway, Coleman’s house was the picture of placidity on a recent, cool evening.
In the backyard, a small deck overlooks the calm, tree-lined water, which winds sleepily, at an apparently safe distance, 10 feet below.
At first glance, this might seem an unlikely location for a flood.
“This was not in the flood zone,” Coleman said of his house and land as they stood a decade ago.
The family had no flood insurance at the time, he said.
“We didn’t have the wildest imagination we were going to get flooded,” he said.
But the view was starkly altered Sept. 16-17, 1999, and the scene drastically revised the Coleman family’s perception of the nearby water.
‘It’s going to stop’
Sgt. Ernie Coleman works with the N.C. Highway Patrol.
His wife, Gloria, works at a local beauty shop.
His daughter, Candice, 16, is an aspiring journalist.
All three sat down recently to retell the harrowing stories they garnered from the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, which passed through the region 10 years ago this week.
Life was, and is, good for the Colemans. For a brief time, it appeared the good life would continue uninterrupted after Floyd blew past eastern North Carolina before skipping northward along the East Coast.
The sun was out the morning after the storm, and everything seemed fine, Ernie Coleman said.
Then the water began to rise.
This wasn’t tidal flooding, which would not hit the Tranter’s Run neighborhood where the family resides; this was runoff from overloaded creeks, streams and rivers farther west.
At first the water came not from the arm of the creek out back, which lies more to the south of the property, but from the west.
The rising flood first made its presence known as it surrounded the shell of a house that was being built across the street, forming a deep pool that would almost totally obscure the structure.
Then it crept up, inch by inch, until it began to cover the foundation of the Coleman home.
“Wow, this is amazing,” Coleman remembered thinking. “But it’s going to stop.”
It didn’t.
Coleman kept track of the water’s rise as it covered the foundation’s bricks, one by one.
“About every 45 minutes to an hour, a brick would disappear,” he said.
As the hours crept by, the water began seeping through air-conditioning vents in the floor.
The family’s cars were being flooded, and evacuation routes were being cut off.
Still, there had been no official call for an evacuation of the area.
“Nobody was being evacuated yet,” Coleman said.
Candice Coleman remembered watching her bicycle float away, only to be retrieved by a neighbor.
“At the time, I thought it was the coolest thing, being so young,” she said.
When the bike floated away a third time, her father told her not to worry about it.
But, as the flood began to reach a height of around 5 feet in his yard, Coleman realized that his community was in real trouble — that it had, for all intents and purposes, become an island.
‘It looked like the Pamlico Sound’
It soon became apparent that the Colemans would have to seek shelter at a neighbor’s house, which had a second story.
The family had packed up the handful of belongings with which they would depart.
With his daughter on his back and his wife at his side, Coleman led his family through the black, swirling torrent that flowed over what had been the lawn.
Coleman knew the current would be strong; he would see it carry away lumber that slapped down mailboxes on its way through the freshly drawn channels of this strange, new river.
He had already seen whitecaps break over his property, and he had gazed with wonder at unearthly eddies that underlined the hazards that lay ahead.
Yet, he was taken aback when he had to hold on to the railing at his front steps to avoid being knocked down.
With his daughter clinging to him, Coleman stepped into a shallow depression in the earth about halfway between his front door and his neighbor’s house — a small ditch, really, that still stretches the length of the front yard.
He was shocked by the power of the current. He experienced his one true moment of fear in the crisis as his daughter’s feet touched the water and he nearly lost his balance.
“It almost took me under,” he said.
This is the Floyd memory that most stands out in Candice Coleman’s mind.
“I started crying because I was really scared,” she said.
Once safe and somewhat dry, two families waited in the neighbor’s house. Other neighbors who owned boats began organizing homegrown rescue attempts.
Somewhere along the way, Ernie Coleman and a neighbor ventured back into the Coleman home to save some of the family’s possessions.
The neighbor placed some photo albums on top of an armoire, Gloria Coleman said.
“So, they were saved,” she said.
After a time, the neighbors’ boats began coming in for rescues.
“It looked like the Pamlico Sound with boats on it,” Ernie Coleman said of the vicinity. “The current was so strong that they were coming to us in a big loop.”
Neighbors had to join hands to pull the boats in once they finally got close enough to effect a rescue.
After an ordeal that lasted hours, residents ended up on a dry spot on U.S. Highway 264, where they waited to be taken into Washington on National Guard trucks.
Coleman said that none of his neighbors were among those being evacuated by helicopters at the time.
“Everybody was pretty much in shock,” he said.
With most of his home under water, Coleman had to find a place for his family to stay. He arranged for a hotel room for two or three nights.
But good fortune smiled upon the Colemans when friend and then-Washington attorney Wayland Sermons Jr. offered to let them stay at his summer home in Bath. The family spent about two weeks there.
All the while, the Colemans worked to get back into their own home. Ernie Coleman went to work during the day, and spent every afternoon and night putting his house back together.
All of the Sheetrock, furniture, carpets — everything from about waist-height down had to be torn out. Friends and neighbors helped, with some just stopping by out of the blue to lend a hand and materials.
The rebuilding effort would take around three and a half months.
“That was a long three months for all of us,” he said.
The Colemans spent their first night back in home on mattresses arranged on the floor. It was Christmas Eve.
Still, Coleman said his family was lucky compared to many other flood victims.
“We lost a lot of money, but we still had each other and moved on,” he said.
“I was just thankful we were able to get back here,” Gloria Coleman added.
The family has no plans to move away.
But they still keep Floyd close at hand, in circular, flood-related pictures carefully cut out and pasted into a family photo album.
And, occasionally, there are reminders of what happened here — reminders like the incomparable Hurricane Katrina, which hammered the Gulf Coast in 2005.
“You hope and pray they get the help like we had,” Gloria Coleman said.
These days there is no visible evidence of Floyd at the Coleman home.
The family now has flood insurance, though, and for two or three years after the storm, Ernie Coleman would joke: “Well, we’re going to stay right here — unless it happens again.”