LUMBERTON — When Jewell Wilkey’s West Lumberton neighborhood was flooded by Hurricane Matthew, the best and the worst of her community came out.
“And it was an even divide,” she said.
But, even though her house was nearly destroyed, Wilkey’s positivity — and sense of humor — rose above the flood. Three weeks after the hurricane forced waist deep water into her neighborhood, she prefers to focus on the good: The unknown “angel,” Woody Norris, who plucked her and her family from the floodwater, and a group of Lumberton High School JROTC members who have been with them every step of their rescue and recovery.
Norris has been credited with saving at least seven people from his neighborhood that day by transporting them in a small boat to an ever-diminishing dry spot on West Fifth Street
“He’s an angel no one knows about,” said Wilkey.
A plumber by trade, Norris insists he was no hero that day, that he only did what anyone else would have. Instead he’d rather give the credit to others, like two local teens, Flemming, 16, and Omarion, 14, who responded with him to the cries for help as a neighborhood known as “The Hill” was swallowed up by water.
“He was getting everybody help before anyone else was here,” said Gloria Norris Nunnery, Norris’ older sister. Nunnery said her brother never left his neighborhood during the flooding, staying with his dogs in a van on high ground so he could check on his neighbors and protect their homes from looters.
Nunnery said the siblings’ father would have done exactly the same thing.
The family has deep roots in the neighborhood. Three generations of Norrises lived there. There’s a Norris Street and a now empty business, Norris’ Place. The home Woody Norris lives in was his mother’s. Now its driveway is covered in sand, the yard piled high with the home’s contents and its water-logged floor torn out.
Wilkey said she had never met Norris before he came to her aid as she tried to wade out in water that was rushing so quickly she heard it from her bedroom.
“I didn’t know if I’d see my family again,” she said of taking that first step into the water. Norris picked up Wilkey in his boat, as well as her husband, Randall, and her wheelchair-bound mother. When the boat tipped and Wilkey’s mother-in-law went overboard, Norris thought he’d nearly killed her.
“No,” Wilkey told him, “you saved her.”
Originally from Coral Springs, Fla., Wilkey and her husband moved into their National Avenue fixer-upper 10 years ago. Her mother lives around the corner, where the current of the floodwater was so strong, walls are splitting from each other at their corners and floorboards have bowed to meet in 90-degree angels. The Wilkey’s have to redo just about everything in their home, including the walls they just painted pale blue. She and her husband are already working to restore their home, but she expects many of her neighbors will leave instead.
“There’s a little bit of PSTD going on,” she said, standing on her front porch Tuesday under a welcome blue sky. “Helicopters freak me out now.”
The Wilkey’s also credit their escape to five JROTC members, including their 16-year-old granddaughter, also named Jewell, who called in the reinforcements as floodwaters swelled.
Octavio and Oscar Martinez, David Molina and Darren Carlile walked to West Lumberton to help their friends in need.
“They’re really close to us so it’s something we just had to do,” Octavio Martinez said.
“We’re young and strong and capable so we wanted to help the community,” Carlile said, sending laughter around the Wilkey’s backyard, where he, the Martinez brothers, Anthony Locklear and Spencer Oxendine were collecting debris and mending a fence on Tuesday.
Jewell, Randall, their mothers, their granddaughter and their five dogs are now staying with the Martinez’s family. In the wake of the storm, their mother, Delis Nunez, and stepfather Jose Diaz, have brought in food to feed their whole neighborhood.
“None of them thought they were putting themselves in harm’s way,” Wilkey said. ” … Their courage made them 10 feet tall.”
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.