Special report: Floyd didn’t pose big threat – at first

Published 9:12 am Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series commemorating 10 years since Hurricane Floyd and the flooding that ravaged Franklin. On Friday, we will focus on the ruin that the flooding caused. On Sunday, we will recount the rebirth the city continues to experience.

Like many natural disasters, the flood that devastated Franklin and her neighbors 10 years ago came with no warning.

For a region that warily coexists with the annual threat of being hit by a hurricane and makes preparations every time for such a calamity, 1999 was an oddball year. That’s when two hurricanes, Dennis and Floyd, drenched the area within days of each other.

The storms caused some immediate damage but no one, not even people who had lived in Franklin since birth, predicted the destruction that Dennis and Floyd would leave in their wake.

For some, decisions based on those predications made shortly after Floyd passed proved to be disastrous.

For others, the shock and disbelief of what was transpiring gave way to fear and desperation.

But for all, 10 years later, the disaster helped bring revitalization to downtown and brought a community together.

It all began with a rainy August.

When the rains came

Two events set the stage for Hurricane Floyd’s catastrophic flooding. A couple of weeks before, an unnamed storm dumped five inches of rain in two hours. Then came the remnants of Hurricane Dennis, which dumped up to eight inches of rain on the region.

“That saturated the soil,” said Keith Lynch, the senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Wakefield. “Floyd just exacerbated the problem.”

Taylor Williams, who was an attorney in private practice at the time, agreed.

“We had an unusually large amount of rain in August,” Williams said. “There are a lot of low, swampy lands around us. Normally the swamps dry out in July in August, but that particular year the swamps were full of water.”

Mary Christy Morris, office manager for Mackans Office Supply & Painting, which in 1999 was called Franklin Office Supply Inc., said the rain before Floyd had pounded her downtown storefront.

“Dennis put out a lot of rain,” Morris said. “It blew out all of our front windows. Fortunately there wasn’t much damage done on the inside of the building, other than the windows just being gone. The front part of the store where the windows were is tile, so it was pretty much an easy clean-up.”

Morris said the front of the building was boarded up for a week while replacement windows were ordered.

“Everybody got news that we had another storm system coming in, Hurricane Floyd,” Morris said. “We called the glass company and asked them if there was any we could get the glass back into the windows. We were afraid that if we didn’t have the glass in we wouldn’t be protected with just the wood that was up.”

Morris said that despite a delay in having the windows delivered, the glass company stepped up to the task. The night before Hurricane Floyd hit, workers from the glass company arrived at the store about 5 p.m. and began installing the new windows. They finished about three hours later.

“It started to rain, but we all felt that installing the new windows would be a better thing to do to try and protect the inside of the store,” Morris said.

She paused. “Little did we know.”

Bracing for Floyd

After Dennis’ deluge, Franklin residents and officials had little time to react to news of a second hurricane headed toward Western Tidewater.

“We really didn’t have any preparations for it because it came on us so quickly,” said Franklin Mayor Jim Councill.

Councill said that a couple of years before, state officials had come to Franklin to test the city’s emergency operations.

“We went through a practice and were able to flush out anything that needed to be tweaked so when the real storm came we were prepared,” he said.

Hurricane Floyd made landfall at Cape Fear, N.C., as a Category 2 hurricane in the early morning of Sept. 16, 1999.

As reports called for the storm to move into Western Tidewater, government officials followed the usual hurricane protocol. Emergency operations centers were established and emergency shelters were opened. Conference calls were made with the NWS and emergency managers from different localities, according to Wallace Twigg, a regional coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

The excessive amount of rain that had fallen before Floyd did play a role in the planning and preparation, according to Carr.

“We knew that certain areas of the city that were prone to flooding would flood,” Carr said.

Franklin, Southampton and Virginia Department of Transportation officials warned residents that flooding could pose a significant risk, considering the amount of rain that had fallen in the weeks prior.

While some flooding was expected, Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said that there was never any indication that it would devastate the area. He said that the county made all of the normal hurricane preparations. A voluntary evacuation was ordered for mobile homes and the county was preparing for debris removal.

“The immediate threat was a wind issue,” he said. “We did not perceive an inland flooding threat.”

Russ Pace, the current director of Franklin Public Works, said the department prepared for the storm by having workers on standby to help with debris removal and other tasks after the storm passed.

“In an event like that, there isn’t much that we can do,” Pace said.

Broad Street resident Fannie Haley listened to weather reports on the television and stocked up on nonperishable foods before the storm.

“I was closed that day because the hurricane was coming,” she said about her in-home daycare business.

“Me and my son Terence were going to stay here,” she went on. “We were going to sit around and watch TV and if the lights went out, we had stuff to eat.”

Going into the storm, Councill said that what he expected from Floyd “was certainly nothing like what we got.”

The NWS predicted the storm would hit the area on Sept. 16 with heavy rain and wind.

According to Lynch, Floyd dumped between 10 and 20 inches of rain across the already soaked region.

Carr said that the storm came through Thursday night, and “it was nothing spectacular.”

He said that when he left the emergency operations center the next morning, it looked like the city had come through the storm virtually unscathed.

At The Tidewater News office on Armory Drive, photographer Wendy Bryant let out a sigh of relief.

“The storm wasn’t that bad,” she recalled. “It was like ‘Oh, wow, we made it through that one.”

Bryant, now Wendy Harrison, said many residents were wary of storm reports since the region had remained unscathed for many years.

“I’ve lived here a long time,” she said. “I remember us having a close call between 84-86. We had a lot of wind. I think people had a hard time taking this storm seriously. We just didn’t get hit like that.”

“Birds were chirping, the sun was shining bright and I said, ‘Well, it looks like we’ve escaped this with very little to minimal damage in the area,’” Carr recalled. “Then we noticed the river. It kept rising.”

Sunny skies, rising waters

The later morning after Hurricane Floyd hit offered few clues of the upcoming disaster.

“It was just a beautiful, gorgeous day,” Williams said. “It was like the day after a thunderstorm. The air was fresh, the sun was bright and the humidity was down.”

But by the afternoon, water started to enter the downtown area.

Ditches all over the city began to back up as the Blackwater River swelled. The ditch that cuts across the south end of downtown flooded, eventually making South, Barrett and Bogart streets impassible to small cars. Be-Lo and Family Dollar, two stores that anchored the south end, were underwater. So was the nearby pavilion at Barrett’s Landing. The floodwaters crept northward and eventually spilled into the parking lot at City Hall.

Stormwater pipes under the city also filled with water that had backed up from the river. Manhole covers popped off and stormwater drains began pouring water into Franklin and Jackson streets.

“As the water started to fill up the roads, the cars would run through it no problem and the trucks were playing in it,” Williams said. “Then as the day got longer it got so deep that the cars couldn’t run through it anymore. Once the cars and the regular trucks couldn’t go through it anymore, the high-riding trucks were the only ones going through.”

Williams added, “That’s when you started to realize we were going to have a problem.”

Stanley Piersa was at his Janet’s Gifts store on South Street, when the water started seeping under the door. He frantically tried to move all the cloth items in his store about two feet higher, thinking that would keep them dry.

“Water had started coming under the door and then got up to our knees,” he said. “We heard something spitting in the back because we have floor (electricity) receptacles. They were shorting out. I turned the breaker off and went home because it was too dark to work.”

Meanwhile, Williams said he saw Benny Burgess at his building on Second Avenue.

“He had a jon boat and he had on hip boots,” Williams said. “He was going into his office and opening up his filing cabinet drawers and dragging out the whole drawer. He was putting them into his boat and he was bringing out a boatload of files at a time to the hill on Second Avenue. David Benton was there with a pickup truck. Benny and David were putting the file drawers in the back of the pickup truck, and when the truck got full David would take it somewhere and another crew would take it off.”

Williams thought of assisting Burgess, but then realized he had made no preparations to protect the contents of his own two-story office, located on First Avenue.

“I thought my building was a whole lot higher up than Benny’s,” Williams said. “Maybe possibly I would get water in my building and it might affect the bottom drawer. So I started taking files out and moving my files upstairs.”

Around 4 p.m., Williams assembled a crew of three families, including his own, to move valuables in his office to higher ground. By that time police had erected barricades on the streets leading into downtown, and the electric service had been cut.

“It had gotten to the point that they weren’t letting anybody drive vehicles through the water anymore,” Williams said. “People could walk into the downtown on either railroad track, but they couldn’t walk in anywhere else. So we walked in on the railroad tracks, got off at Fred’s, walked to the front of my building and went in the front door. We had brought flashlights because we knew we were going to be there awhile and we started moving things upstairs.”

Before entering, Williams looked down First Avenue and saw that the floodwaters had advanced about halfway up the sidewalk in front of the Schewels store next door. The water was 30 to 40 feet away from his office’s front door.

“We moved files upstairs,” Williams said. “We picked up all the computer components and put them on desks. I didn’t move my library. I had a 2000-volume library of different kinds of law books.”

He added, “I left work in progress on my desk and on the secretary’s desk. Had I known how much water I was going to have in the office, I would have moved desks and chairs and my library. I would have moved all of that stuff up. I just thought I was going to get a little bit of water on the floor of the building.”

Asked if that was the general impression among people in the city at the time, Williams said yes.

“After all, the highest the water had ever gotten was during a flood in 1949,” Williams said. “The water did not cover Main Street. It got up to Main Street, but it did not cover it.”

Williams and his family left the office and the downtown area after nightfall, believing everything important to be safe.

“When we left it was dark,” Williams said. “We walked out using flashlights. I could tell that the water had come up the sidewalk some more. Everyone went home. We were tired. We watched a little TV and then went to bed.”

Most people thought that they had seen the worst of it that night.

“Everyone thought that the water would stop,” Councill said.

But it didn’t.

And, by morning, “the bathtub” was full.