Driving into Rockingham, N.C., 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.
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.
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.
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.