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Portraits from the storm: The victims, volunteers and heroes of Hurricane Florence

Tony Thompson was in his mobile home on Friday night when he says it exploded around him as Hurricane Florence moved inland over Newport, N.C. Thompson lost his home and most his possessions. He moved over to his sisters home to spend the night. Several hours later a large pine tree fell on her home but luckily it did not destroy her home or injure either of them. Thompson says he feels lucky to be alive.
Tony Thompson was in his mobile home on Friday night when he says it exploded around him as Hurricane Florence moved inland over Newport, N.C. Thompson lost his home and most his possessions. He moved over to his sisters home to spend the night. Several hours later a large pine tree fell on her home but luckily it did not destroy her home or injure either of them. Thompson says he feels lucky to be alive. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Tony Thompson stepped into the wreckage of his mobile home and showed how Hurricane Florence peeled off his roof, ripped off his walls and scattered everything he owned into the furious night.

He recalled ducking under boards to escape his living room in Newport while glass windows exploded around his head. He fled through knee-deep water to his sister’s mobile home nearby, only to have a pine tree snap and fall on its roof.

And when Florence finally finished its devastating crawl across the state, Thompson considered what it left him: the clothes on his back and a still-beating heart. Nothing else.

“This is it,” he said, tears in the corners of his eyes. “This is it, and I’m homeless now. I don’t know what to do. This is everything I’ve got. Everything I own. Sad. But I ain’t the only one. It’s more people than me. But that’s all I’ve got. I’m homeless now.”

The story of Florence’s destruction can be told with chilling numbers: 90 mph wind, 8 trillion gallons of rain, $22 billion in damage and lost revenue, 37 people dead.

But these are the faces of Florence, a sample of thousands of people battered physically, financially and emotionally by the historic storm.

Whether victims, volunteers or accidental heroes, they took the hurricane’s worst. The impact from Florence rings out through their stories.

Lesha Murphy-Johnson, Wilmington — She walked in her blessings

As the mother of four, Lesha Murphy-Johnson encouraged people to walk in their blessings, living thankfully with a smile.

She had three daughters, a job with the Wilmington Housing Authority and a new side business of her own: Glasses and Shotz private bartending.

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Lesha Murphy-Johnson and her 7-month-old son Adam were killed Friday, Sept. 14, when a tree fell on their home in Wilmington, N.C. Contributed

Best of all, she had a baby boy to complement her three daughters — the son she’d always craved.

“People who walk in their blessings are not jealous of other people that walk in their blessings,” she wrote on her Facebook page in June.

On the morning Florence hit Wilmington, she hunkered down inside her brick ranch with her husband, Zac, and their baby, Adam.

The storm gusted up to 90 mph, bending pine trees to the ground. But the hardwoods did not bend, and a giant oak crashed into their roof just after sunrise.

For eight hours, firefighters and other rescuers tried to free them from the wreckage, using air bags to prop up crushed roof beams. They knelt and prayed in front of a fire truck as the rain pounded around them.

Then at 3 p.m., rescuers announced that Zac Johnson had been freed from the tree that pinned him, but his wife and infant son did not survive. Under their helmets, the firefighters wore faces of exhaustion and grief.

But on her Facebook page, posted months earlier, Murphy-Johnson offered this encouragement beyond death.

“Thought for today,” she wrote. “Sit back and think about everything that you lost and everyone that did you wrong. Now, I want you to know that everything that you lost was taken away to prepare you for something BIGGER AND BETTER.”

Commanding officers of the U.S. Coast Guard survey the flooding in New Bern, NC Saturday ,Sept. 15, 2018 to assess the impact of Hurricane Florence.

Mike Haddock, Trenton — Salvaging what he could

Three days after Hurricane Florence churned through Jones County, Mike Haddock needed a boat to reach his front door. The floodwater in his front yard stood 6 feet deep in some places. Inside, water still covered the floors. In the den, it rose to his waist.

Haddock and his wife, Michelle, had just moved into the house — a brick ranch off of Wyse Fork Rd. near Trenton — two months earlier. It had been Haddock’s grandparents’ house, and Mike and Michelle had it remodeled and renovated. They planned to put down roots.

Now, days after the storm, they’d come to save what they could. Family members arrived to help Mike, 48, and Michelle, 45, load their belongings onto boats. Their wedding pictures sat in the back of a pick-up truck off the side of the road, ready to be taken somewhere else.

“We came down yesterday,” Mike said, pointing to the floodwater in his front yard, “and this is what we saw.”

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From left, Mike Haddock, 48, Katlyn Humphrey, 19, Michelle Haddock, 45, and Justin Humphrey, 24, remove possessions from the Haddock’s flooded home using a jon boat Monday, Sept. 17, 2018 in Trenton, NC following Hurricane Florence. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

They tried to salvage everything they could. One jon boat returned from the home carrying two TVs, a chair and a Bose speaker. Another carried more family pictures. On a table inside, Michelle had placed two Bibles. They were both soggy, the pages wrinkled and stuck together.

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The Haddocks are religious. They’d weathered the storm in their church. Their pastor was helping them load their belongings in boats. Michelle said the Lord would carry them through, holding up one of the wet Bibles. She’d been through this before, with Hurricane Floyd.

“I lost everything in my first home,” she said. “So this is the second time.”

After cleaning out the house for a while, she and her husband climbed into a boat. It was a short ride from the front door to the road. The sight was overwhelming: a front yard covered by water, a partly submerged house rising in the middle of it. Michelle covered her face and began to cry.

Renee Askew lost her home and all of her possessions after Hurricane Florence flooded her home.

Krystale Smith, Spring Lake — A harrowing night in her car

Krystale Smith saw the Little River rise high enough to flood 11 apartments in her Spring Lake Complex — water so fierce it carried off a boat from the parking lot.

People hunkered down on the upper floors until the fire department shut off the power, chasing away stragglers.

So Smith took her two daughters and slept in the only safe place she could find: Her car.

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Zoey Smith, 4, stands with her mother Krystale and 2-month-old sister Hailee while Krystale receives information about nearby shelters from New York Urban Search and Rescue team members at the Heritage at Fort Bragg Apartments in Spring Lake, N.C., Tuesday Sept. 18, 2018. The family has been living out of their car since their ground floor apartment flooded earlier this week. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

“I have been calling people to help me but no one has come,” she said. “I have no one to help me around here because I am from Greensboro.”

The river rose to record heights, spilling over Bragg Boulevard and choking off the small, mostly military town. With rescuers knocking on doors and telling residents to leave, safe housing quickly turned scarce.

Smith took her daughters — Zoey, 4, and Hailee, 2 months — to a local shelter, but found it full past capacity.

Then, faced with another night in the car, she followed a search team’s directions to another shelter, hoping for a few beds.

As she left, Smith realized her need was even more dire. She was running out of formula.

See images of Hurricane Florence's devastation from the air as photojournalist Casey Toth flies along with a National Guard relief mission to Trenton, NC on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.

Ashley Thomas, Murrells Inlet, SC — Trapped 100 miles from home

Ashley Thomas never experienced a hurricane.

So when word came to evacuate Murrells Inlet, her new home south of Myrtle Beach, she packed up three kids, her husband, Dave, and two cats.

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The Thomas family fled their home south of Myrtle Beach but got stranded in Lumberton after a 45-minute wait to pump gas. Returning home required a loop around Greensboro and Charlotte, but they made it unscathed. Courtesy of Ashley Thomas

But the Thomas family could hardly have landed in a worse refuge: Lumberton.

Their adventure started with a 45-minute line for gas. By the time they stocked up on junk food and juice, the flooding caught up with them.

“We couldn’t get out,” she said. “Every way we went was blocked. There was water everywhere.”

They were trapped 100 miles from home, and most hotels had already filled with storm refugees. Finally, they found room at the Knights Inn, which warned “No breakfast.” Also no electricity, no air-conditioning, no fan and no sleeping. Add to that no break on the price.

By Monday morning, the last bands of rain had passed, and the Thomas family looked eagerly to home. They checked with neighbors who defied evacuation orders and discovered conditions all clear — except for an alligator in the neighborhood pond.

No sweat. Just a nine-hour drive from Lumberton to Greensboro to Charlotte to Columbia to home.

The first priority for Thomas post-hurricane: a shower.

Thousands of residents in Wilmington, N.C. are still without power and Rose Ice Company opened Monday to service peoples need for ice.

Beth Bratz, Wilmington — ‘Just to be that safe place’

Just before dawn on Sept. 14, winds from Florence gusted up to 90 mph in Wilmington, knocking out the power at the Comfort Suites.

But as residents stumbled downstairs in the dark, Beth Bratz was already brewing coffee and serving up Danish, making a cozy disaster area.

As general manager, she could have shut her doors like most hotels on Market Street. But much of her housekeeping staff lives in flat, low-lying neighborhoods — the kind Florence would overwhelm.

So she invited them to bunk at the hotel, along with their spouses, children, dogs and at least three news crews. Thanks to a donated generator, they watched Florence rampage past by the light of a desk lamp.

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Mitchell Floor (left) holds a flashlight as Comfort Suites general manager Beth Bratz (center) and employee Dee Branch go to make coffee as Hurricane Florence rages in Wilmington, N.C. Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. The area lost power around 4 a.m. and the facility was running small lights, phone chargers and the coffee machine on a generator. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

“The whole reason I did this is just to be that safe place,” said Bratz, 38, mother to an 8-year-old son. She sobbed behind the front desk as the wind howled outside. “I know that there are going to be some people that are not going to have a home to go to.”

Florence knocked down 100-year-old oaks, sent the Cape Fear River over its banks and cut power to a city of 100,000. But Bratz passed out bananas in the dark, wishing she could have sheltered more.

“I felt terrible turning some people away,” she said. “If somebody were to show up with their grandmother or their mother, I know I couldn’t turn them away.”

The air smelled of gasoline and dozens of electronic devices beeped in futility. Some slept on the sofa in the lobby, sitting up.

But the Comfort Suites became, for a day, a makeshift hearth for a family of stragglers.

Staff writers Virginia Bridges, Zachery Eanes and Tammy Grubb and staff photojournalist Robert Willett contributed to this report.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08

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