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"It was like we were a bowl and it was just filling up:" Campground flood survivors describe sudden rise in water

"It was like we were a bowl and it was just filling up:" Campground flood survivors describe sudden rise in water

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Robbie Flowers huddled on the roof of his truck with his 1-year-old grandson as muddy floodwaters rose around him, quickly engulfing everything in sight.

It was before dawn on Thursday, Nov. 12, when Hiddenite Family Campground began to flood. Flowers had lived there since August. The rapidly rising floodwaters trapped him and Mason on top of the truck.

Flowers clung to little Mason as tightly as he could and tried to keep them both upright and above the water. Around them, debris such as propane tanks, trees and campers were whipped around by the floodwaters.

Out of the darkness, a camper appeared, pushing him and Mason into the rapids.

Flowers couldn’t fight the strength of the current. As he clutched Mason, they slammed into a tree.

The camper that pushed them off the truck careened toward them. When they were hit, Mason was knocked from Flowers’ grasp. Flowers lunged through the water for him but was stuck on the tree and the camper.

Mason was lost. The 1-year-old was the youngest of five people who died in the flood.

About 30 families were staying at the campground at that time, and some had lived there for months or years, said Campground Manager Beth Korte. They lost everything, including family and friends, she said.

It’s difficult for the survivors to explain how quickly the water flowed into the campground, which sits near the bank of the South Yadkin River at the bottom of a valley, Korte said. They had no clear warning of the destruction to come.

Wednesday, Nov. 11, was a calm night for residents at the campground. That day it had rained about 2 to 5 inches in the area, said Carolina Weather Group Meteorologist Scotty Powell, so the area was wet. There was a flash flood watch in place until the morning and 3 to 6 more inches of rain expected, but the residents at the campground weren’t worried.

They awoke on Thursday morning to rapid flooding. The water went from inches to feet in minutes, sweeping away campers and people.

The campground was in a high-risk floodplain, where there was a 1% annual flood chance, a low chance, but still reason to be cautious during heavy rain, Powell said. When the nearly 8 inches of rain fell between midnight and Thursday afternoon, it couldn’t soak into the already-saturated ground.

“It just ran off into swollen streams, creeks, rivers,” Powell said. “The South Yadkin River runs along the campground and was rising quickly. We saw record amounts of rainfall in a very short amount of time — that resulted in the flash flooding.”

Though Korte and other survivors relive the day over and over, it's hard to know exact times when the events happened.

The morning started with heavy rain, she said. Here is how it played out, according to several survivors:

4:30 a.m. Kent Korte, Beth Korte's husband, came home from work to rain and the typical water flowing on the ground around his home, which sat on the high side of the campground, nearest to the entrance. He saw no reason to be concerned and went inside to his wife. All was well.

5 a.m. Azariah Feiler, a resident at the campground in one of the campers closest to the river's edge, woke up to the sound of metal scraping on the bottom of her family’s camper. The jacks the camper was sitting on were giving out.

Then, the camper started to sway, she said. It was floating in floodwaters.

She shook her fiancé Daniel, a sound sleeper, awake. They looked outside, and the water was at the door.

5:15 a.m. Robbie Flowers woke that morning and had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He looked out the front door, which sat higher and further from the river than the closest row of campers, and saw the start of a flood. He went back into the camper to rouse his wife Annette, granddaughter Maddisyn Lawson and grandson Mason Edwards. By the time he was back outside, the water had risen over the second step of their entrance and was creeping up the hill behind their home.

5:30 a.m. Christopher McMillan, a single father, was also staying in a camper that was one of the furthest from the water. He woke up and looked out to see about a foot of water flowing past his door. He yelled for his 10-year-old son Jeramiah to get dressed. By the time he was dressed and ready to leave, about 10 minutes later, Jeramiah was sitting on the couch with 3 inches of water over the couch. 

“That’s how quickly it rose, just in the time he got dressed,” McMillan said.

At the same time, Beth Korte woke to a call from a resident. The water was rising, the caller said, and starting to come in their camper. Out her window, Korte saw swift, muddy waters were rising from the river and flowing into the valley from all sides, she said.

“It was like we were a bowl and it was just filling up,” she said.

Outside her home, Korte saw water rushing by, flowing down toward the river from the woods up the hill behind her house. Korte knew if they were getting flooding near their home, the highest elevation at the campground, others were worse off. She dialed 911. 

“I told them we were getting flooding, and it was flooding fast,” she said.

The first 911 call was received at 5:31 a.m., according to Alexander County Communications Center Director Greg Foster. In total, they received 12 calls related to the flooding at the campground.

Out her front door, Korte saw a neighbor tried to flee in a car and got stuck. The water rose to its windows and poured inside. Korte’s son jumped in to help, pulling their neighbor out.

Campers started to float and cars disappeared beneath the rapidly rising water.

With water flowing into their home, Feiler and her family rushed out, climbing over a picnic table that washed up in front of their door.

They made their way to next-door neighbor Tim Ritchie and his wife Julie. Feiler stayed there with her two kids, an infant and 4-year-old, while her fiancé went to help others.

5:45 a.m. After getting his family ready to leave, Flowers ran out to disconnect a trailer from his truck so they could try to drive away. The water rose so quickly that by the time he had the truck disconnected, the water was well over his knees.

Flowers and his family clambered into the truck, but it started to float, turning with the current. He put it in four-wheel drive, but it sputtered, stalled and was washed several yards away. The truck was stuck.

That’s when Maddisyn, Flowers' 11-year-old granddaughter, started to worry, she said. The water was rising in the truck and they had nowhere to go.

They climbed onto the roof of the white truck and tried to stay calm.

Nearby, McMillan and his son hadn’t made it out of their camper when it started to float. Then it started to roll. Then it hit something and disintegrated with McMillan and Jeramiah inside.

The father and son swam to a nearby structure, McMillan said. They felt safe — until that structure broke free from the ground, knocking them into the water again.

That's when the screaming began, Beth Korte said. Her friends and neighbors were stuck on top of campers, hanging from trees and getting washed around in the rapids and yelling for help. Rain poured down, but not so hard that she couldn’t see her neighbors in desperate need. With the rising water and its growing intensity, it was too dangerous for anyone to wade out to help.

Her husband raced to their shed to get the tractor. They’d dealt with flooding before in February, and used the tractor then to help rescue people.

The water was rising too fast. Kent was tossed around in the rush of water. He couldn’t get to the tractor. The water had risen too high for it to help.

6 a.m. On the roof of her grandfather's truck, 11-year-old Maddisyn was the only one in her family with a phone, so she called 911 and begged for help.

6:05 a.m. First responders arrived but could do little with the fast-flowing waters.

Beth Korte texted as many campers as she could: “Help is here.” It would still be hours until everyone was rescued.

6:15 a.m. The power went out as power poles snapped and fell, pulled by the water. One transformer seemed to explode in a spray of sparks.

Korte watched the chaos from her porch. By the time she decided to head to higher ground, the water had risen to her waist, she said.

She and her family trudged through the water to a hill above the camp, where flooding wouldn’t reach them. She sat in a car her husband moved to safety, wondering, “Where are the boats?” She felt helpless. All she could do was pray that her friends would be all right.

6:30 a.m. The water started coming into Ritchie’s camper. Feiler emptied a plastic bin to keep her children dry and floating as long as possible, she said. Eventually, the water rose over the door of Ritchie’s camper and it tipped on its side. Ritchie, Feiler and their families could only escape out the windows — Ritchie at one end with Feiler's kids in his arms and his wife clinging to his waist. Feiler was at the other window, scrambling toward the roof. It was chaos, Ritchie said.

They hung on with their legs inside the camper and their heads above water, waiting for rescue.

6:45 a.m. The roof of the truck wasn’t a permanent solution for Flowers and his family. The water rose over the top of the truck and washed Maddisyn and Annette away first.

Maddisyn and Annette were pushed into the campground’s playground.

“I was hanging onto the monkey bars, then it just fell over,” Maddisyn said. The water had loosened the sand and freed the bars. Maddisyn went under, struggling to keep her head above water and stay with her grandmother. They found another piece of equipment and held tight.

Flowers and his 1-year-old grandson Mason were washed off the truck, as well. Flowers relives the moment he lost his grandson over and over.

Stuck on the tree and the camper, he watched Mason float away on his back.

He yelled to Maddisyn because Mason was headed her way. The chaos was too much. Mason was lost in the turbulent waters.

Despite the tragedy, Flowers had to keep pushing forward.

“It was just hard to describe. It's like the only thing on your mind was trying to survive,” he said.

The water, now 20 feet deep and hundreds of yards across, seemed to come from two directions, creating a tide Flowers could not fight.

“You couldn't swim in it, it would suck you under," Flowers said. "It was almost like a riptide."

Around him, trees were uprooted from the ground and campers disintegrated before his eyes, he said. Propane tanks floated by, spewing their contents into the water. The air reeked of propane fuel and gasoline.

Flowers was pinned by a piece of a front porch, a large propane tank and other debris. The only way he kept his head up was by hanging on to a rope he found.

6:45 a.m. Pulling his son with him through the water, McMillan and Jeramiah made it to another structure, where they huddled and yelled for help. The water was still rising as the sun started to come up, he said.

“I was afraid it was going to go under before the rescue got there,” he said.

7 a.m. Help finally arrived. The Mooresville Fire Department’s water rescue team brought four rescue boats, Chief Curt Deaton said.

“When they first got there, there were people yelling for help right after they arrived,” he said.

The crews got the boats ready in pouring rain and jumped into action. They could see flashlights where people were stranded, Deaton said. Right off the bat, they saved a group who was being washed away in the water.

“If it was not for their actions, many more people would have died,” Deaton said.

When the rescue crew arrived, one rescue worker jumped into the water with a life jacket to come to Maddisyn’s aid, she said. He tried to keep her calm until help could come.

“I just couldn’t be calm,” she said.

She and her grandmother were some of the first rescued and brought to shore, she said.

Feiler and her children were also among the first few groups rescued. The boats then returned for Ritchie and his wife, who were hanging on the edge of the roof, their feet still in the window.

They were taken to shore and eventually taken to a shelter.

“They say I saved them (Feiler and her kids), but they saved my life because I had something I had to do,” Ritchie said. “I don’t think I would have had the strength … if I didn’t have those babies and my wife to worry about. Like when someone gets trapped under a car and a man lifts a 2,000-pound vehicle to save them.”

8:28 a.m. The survivors were loaded onto buses and taken to a shelter, Sheriff Chris Bowman said. The four rescue crews had saved 31 people from the flooding by that time, including Flowers from the wreckage in the water, Maddisyn and her grandmother from the playground and McMillan and his son from the roof of a building.

Once those people were rescued, it was clear five were still missing, including Flowers’ 1-year-old grandson, Mason.

The crews worked through the day, covering 20 miles searching for the missing, Deaton said. They broke windows, cut holes in campers and dug through debris.

“We were searching every viable place a person could be,” Deaton said.

On higher ground, the Alexander County Sheriff’s Office was talking to the survivors about the events of the morning, searching for clues as to where the missing people could be. Then the survivors were taken to a Red Cross shelter at East Taylorsville Baptist Church, Korte said.

Around 2 p.m., Korte saw the news online that a victim was found dead. Later that day, two more were found, Bowman said.

Those found on Thursday were Tyrell Jordan Reed, 18, Crystal Dawn LaVan Reed, 49, and Tina Ann Allen, 52.

The rescue crews worked until dark. Korte stayed and watched them work, she said. Then she and the remaining survivors still at the campground went to the shelter, where everyone got dry clothes and shoes and were taken to a hotel for the night. When Korte laid down to rest, the day wouldn’t leave her mind.

“Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the flooding and heard the screaming,” she said. “It still hits out of nowhere. The screaming was just the worst.”

The next morning, the Charlotte Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue team started searching for the remaining missing people, Battalion Chief Matthew Westover said.

Around 11:30 a.m., Ronald James Wintemute, 76, was found dead. Around 4 p.m., 1-year-old Mason Edwards’ body was found.

All Flowers has left are photos and videos of his beloved grandson, which he looks at on his phone and is happy to share with others. Mason loved to push around a pink plastic truck used to teach children to walk, Flowers said.

The way forward for the group of 13 families is tough, Korte said. Samaritan’s Purse helped them buy some new campers that will be placed at a fairgrounds in Alexander County. The survivors can stay in the campers for a few months, but there aren't enough campers for every family, Korte said.

East Taylorsville Baptist Church has helped more than anyone, she said. The church has helped raise thousands of dollars to put the group back on their feet.

The loss of life was so great that the loss of belongings and homes still hasn’t hit quite yet, Korte said.

“We just have to take it step by step,” Korte said.

Donations for the flood survivors can be sent to East Taylorsville Baptist Church, P.O. Box 906, Taylorsville, NC 28681.

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