They say March comes in like a lion, but for this small-town newspaper reporter, that’s an apt description for February 2020. Getting back into the news as a small-town reporter last month, I knew I would see my share of “excitement.” I just didn’t know it would be so much so soon.
It all started with a rash of house fires. I would be out covering an event, or sitting in the newsroom typing a story for the next edition of the newspaper and the scanner would go off. Within minutes I’m chasing fire trucks and watching smoke rise up into the clouds as I approach the scene, not knowing what I’ll see when I arrive.
Homeowners watching from their yards as firefighters spray water from their hoses to put out the flames, fan out the smoke and survey the damage. Not knowing what kind of devastation they would find when they set foot back in their homes, or even where they would spend the night. I would approach the homeowners, say, “I am so sorry for what’s happened to your home,” and do my due diligence, capturing a heartbreaking moment in their lives for the newspaper’s readers.
Fast forward to Super Bowl Sunday. We have an early deadline that day to make sure all staff make it home in time to watch the “big game.” Just as I’m heading into the house around 4 p.m., a strong gust of wind knocks down tree branches in the yard. I sit down on the sofa, thinking, “I hope this storm passes over quickly,” and that’s when the lights flicker and go out. I hold my breath for a moment as they come back on, then go out again and stay out. I start gathering my things and thinking about where I will spend the night. I’m not staying out in the country in the dark.
My gaslight in my car comes on as I start driving down the gravel path to the main road. I stop at the Pilot gas station on 58, which has lost power as well. I go further down the road to Sheetz, and they have lost power as well. I’m thinking not only am I going to miss the Super Bowl (I’m not exactly an avid sports fan, but it would be nice to at least catch the halftime show), but I’m also going to run out of gas in my car. I finally find a gas station that has power further into town, show up at a friend’s place and crash there for the night. In the morning, I go to work, call the power company about the outages and write a story for the paper. I never did watch the Super Bowl.
A somewhat quiet few days go by until Thursday rolls around, and I am not prepared. I head out to the Riverdale area of town in the morning and talk to the business owners about their plans ahead of predicted flooding. I get a call from the news office while I’m out. There’s been a wreck on Highway 58 east, and a tractor-trailer is overturned. I park my car on the side of the road, raise my umbrella and walk down the highway dodging mud puddles along the way to get the photo of the overturned tractor-trailer. I hope that the driver of the tractor-trailer is going to be OK.
Rain pounds on my tin roof all night Thursday and all I can think about is that Dan River rising, and if and when the water will rise over the roadways. The howling wind wakes me up at 6 a.m., and I head downstairs. The wind picks up even more and large tree branches start falling on the roof. I run into the bathroom, shut the door and wonder if a tornado is about to strike. Around 7 a.m. the power goes out, and it’s still dark outside. I’m fumbling around in the dark, trying to find the things I need to get ready for work and packing an overnight bag just in case I can’t return home that night.
On my way to work, I get a call from the news office about a downed tree on a vehicle. I go by there, snap a picture (above), and start calling the power companies and the National Weather Service after I arrive at the news office. I find out from the meteorologist that the flooding might reach the level of Tropical Storm Michael in October 2018, and that is bad news. I know that means the water might rise all the way up to Highway 58 west. I figure out a plan for the night because driving the back roads to get home not knowing if the power is back on is the last thing I want to do. That afternoon, I go out to the intersection of Sheetz after I find out Riverdale has been closed, take pictures and watch the water spilling out onto Highway 501.
The tumultuous weekend goes from bad to worse as I go by to check on my house Saturday and see the water churning just below Highway 58. I know they are going to close the highway soon, and I rush to get ready to cover an event for the newspaper that evening and get the things I need for the night just in case I can’t return home. I take too much time, and Highway 58 past Gene’s Orange Market has been closed. I turn around and start taking the detour through the back roads. It takes me 40 minutes to get to the center of town. I think “This is like Tropical Storm Michael all over again” and wonder how much further the water will rise, and when it will go back down.
I’m thankful that I’m safe for the night and don’t have to make the long drive home. I wake up in the morning, go into the news office to write my stories for the next day’s edition, and learn that the river was at 30.5 feet earlier that morning and still rising. I guess I’m taking the back roads home again in the afternoon. I make it home and start dozing on the couch early in the evening, hoping Highway 58 will be reopened in the morning. I check the VDOT road closure app in the morning and find out Highway 58 has been reopened. I start driving into town feeling optimistic about the week, looking at the blue skies and the birds flying by. It’s like the calm after the storm.
We’ll cross our fingers for a calm week. But if something happens, I’ll be out on the scene, and I’ll be prepared. With Valentine’s Day and tax return season just around the corner, the second half of this month is bound to be sweeter than the first.