LUMBERTON, North Carolina — Breana Lawson thought she was safe with her five children on a highway near Lumberton.
Instead, they drove into raging floodwaters, got trapped in their sinking truck on Interstate 95, and barely escaped with their lives.
“It was dark. It didn’t seem like I was going into an interstate, it seemed like I was driving my truck into a river,” Lawson said Tuesday.
“I said, ‘this doesn’t seem right.’ I put it in reverse to back up … and within 30 seconds, it was (water) from my ankles, up to my knees.”
‘It wasn’t grounded anymore’
Lawson believed she’d not make it out alive, and started making calls to family and friends to say goodbye. She pushed her kids out through the window of the truck, one after another, begging strangers to save them.
“It wasn’t grounded anymore, I could feel this Dodge Ram on 26-inch tires floating,” she said.
The mother and her five children managed to escape, but they lost almost everything.
The truck she was driving belonged to her late husband, a Philadelphia firefighter. Lawson was on her way to Florida from Philadelphia with her husband’s belongings — many of them of sentimental value. He died of cancer last month, she said.
Two days after their narrow escape, Lawson and her children were at a shelter in Lumberton, pleading with strangers for a ride to the bus stop so they can go home.
As she waited for help, she held on to her children. Next to them were a few items she salvaged from her husband’s truck: a picture of him standing near a fire truck, another one of him in the military, and his high school diploma.
A lot of his possessions, including his will and the truck, got destroyed by the fast-running waters, Lawson said. “I’m just lucky to be here … I’m glad I’m here with my kids,” she said. “I’m depressed, I’m stressed … I just wanna go home.”
Lumberton is one of the cities inundated by flooding after Hurricane Matthew hit parts of the state last week. More flooding is forecast for some riverside towns in North Carolina, where boats and helicopter crews have rescued thousands.
Of the 27 deaths blamed on Matthew nationwide, 17 are in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday. Major rivers in the state are expected to be above flood stage through much of the week.
“I cannot stress (enough) to people, especially on the Tar River. If we say the water is coming and we say do not drive through that water, we mean it,” McCrory said.
Floodwaters rising fast
The federal government has declared disasters in 31 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, McCrory said. The declaration allows federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
Authorities went door-to-door to let about 500 people in the Black River Basin know a mandatory evacuation had been ordered.
“A lot of folks in the flood area have been without power, so they have no idea what’s coming toward them,” said Tammy Proctor, spokeswoman for the county emergency management.
She estimated floodwaters were rising 3-to-5 inches per hour.
Lawson is seeking shelter in an area that’s badly-hit.
Many roads remain flooded and impassable, including a stretch of Interstate 95 near Cumberland, the governor said. He urged people not to drive through high water.
About 3,000 people in Robeson County, where Lumberton is, were sent to shelters, county spokeswoman Kellie Blue said Monday.
Homes, restaurants and business have been lost, she said.
In Lumberton, one person died when he was shot by a sergeant with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, authorities said.
The sergeant and two Robeson County sheriff’s deputies were conducting search-and-rescue operations Monday when they encountered a man in a flooded section of town, state patrol said in a statement.
The man “became hostile toward the officers and displayed a handgun,” prompting the sergeant to shoot him, it said.
The trooper identified as J. F. Hinson was placed on administrative duties. The person killed has not been identified.
Deaths in other states
In addition to North Carolina, which has reported the most deaths from Matthew, Florida said four people died, and Georgia and South Carolina had three fatalities each.
The US deaths came after Matthew devastated parts of the Caribbean, killing more than 300 people in Haiti, according to Paul Altidor, the nation’s ambassador to the United States.
Other media are reporting a much higher death toll in Haiti.
CNN’s Polo Sandoval reported from Lumberton, and Faith Karimi wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Jason Hanna, Holly Yan, Ray Sanchez and Doug Criss contributed to this report.
By Faith Karimi and Polo Sandoval