I drove through the hurricane. Don’t be like me.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer investigates truck in dangerous flooding

Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jordon Shevlin, a rescue swimmer from Air Station Atlantic City, NJ., gets battered and buffeted to investigate a truck caught in dangerous flooding in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Sept. 16, 2018.
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Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jordon Shevlin, a rescue swimmer from Air Station Atlantic City, NJ., gets battered and buffeted to investigate a truck caught in dangerous flooding in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Sept. 16, 2018.

Driving into Rockingham, with rain flying sideways, traffic stopped dead and my phone beeping flash-flood warnings, I knew I’d made a terrible mistake.

I tried to drive through Hurricane Florence, and now I was stuck.

Before you call me stupid, let me explain.

As a reporter, I’ve slogged through Hurricanes Fran, Floyd and Matthew. As a cautious father, I gave up risk-taking around the time I sprouted gray hair. As an avid backpacker, I understand the fierceness of nature.

Headed back to work this week? Try these apps, sites to navigate local roads.

But after four days in Wilmington without power or Internet service, I thought I’d seen the worst of Florence and could safely navigate the roads back to Raleigh.

I was wrong. Let me sheepishly tell you why in hopes you won’t follow my dumb example.

Flood waters continue to rise in Lumberton Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 in the wake Hurricane Florence.

Up-to-date information is hard to get

I did a few things right.

I checked the road closings page put out by N.C. DOT. From Wilmington, I could see that much of Interstate 95 had closed and so had part of Interstate 40. But I didn’t see anything posted about U.S. 421, so I set out north with three hours of daylight to spare.

I told my wife I was coming, so at least one other person knew my whereabouts. But by the time I hit Pender County, she was able to scroll deeper into DOT’s list of hazards and find 421 shut down at Harrells.

Here’s where I fished out my stupid hat.

I turned down N.C. 210, hoping to make it to Fayetteville, based on the advice of a trucker I found at a gas station. But five miles down the road, I hit deep water that turned asphalt into a lake. Under no circumstances should you or anybody else cross water deeper than a few inches. I turned around, but by then I’d lost an hour of daylight.

So I tried U.S. 74, a last-ditch exit. DOT’s site declared it open except for two lanes in Columbus County, and that post was only a half-hour old. But by the time I got there, the water was flowing across the whole highway, still just shallow enough to see bottom.

So I pressed on.

The point here: DOT is working very hard to provide updates. But Florence is much, much faster.

In his noon press conference on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, NC Gov. Roy Cooper talked about the damage done by Hurricane Florence, from the coast to the mountains. Photos capture the devastation across the state.

There is no “out of the woods”

I thought if I could just reach Rockingham, I could outrun the storm and cut north on U.S. 1. In Wilmington, Florence chugged along at only 2 mph, so I figured I’d punch through the western edge before long.

This was foolishness.

No corner of the state is untouched by Florence. You cannot drive around it — only through.

While I was driving and the sky turned black an hour before sunset, my sainted wife tweeted DOT to ask if U.S. 1 was a viable option, jogging through Laurinburg on U.S. 1.

The response: Absolutely not.

Like every other northbound route, U.S. 1 had closed.

Right about this time, traffic stopped completely. I could only see tail lights in front of me. I saw no headlights coming the other way. I sat there with maybe 20 other cars for approximately 30 minutes, not moving, while my phone beeped out warnings.

While I sat there in the dark, I imagined spending the night inside my pickup. I didn’t know if we were crossing a river, and I imagined water rising around the tires. If that happened, I figured, I’d climb on the back of the tow-truck in front of me and bang on the window, asking the driver to let me inside. Worst-case scenarios become frightfully likely in a hurricane.

But then cars started moving, and we headed west again. I have no idea why we stopped, and I didn’t investigate. I just drove west and didn’t stop until I hit Monroe and the Holiday Inn Express.

I had driven 177 miles to find safety. It took five hours, and I got farther away from home and scared my family needlessly.

The storm was raging in Monroe when I left to catch I-85 in Charlotte and eventually back to Raleigh. But the water hadn’t crossed the road anywhere along the route by Sunday morning, so I made an easy trip back to Raleigh.

This will change. Probably by the time I finish typing this sentence.

When I checked conditions this morning, DOT reported roads unsafe anywhere south of U.S. 64 and east of Interstate 74 — a huge chunk of the state.

I’ll go them one better. Stay home. Eat pop tarts. Watch a movie. Live to tell the story.

FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team California Task Force 2 performs a swift water rescue of man trapped in an SUV in Cumberland Co., NC Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. The team deployed from Los Angeles to support the response to Hurricane Florence.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08

For more travel information: https://tims.ncdot.gov/TIMS/default.aspx

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