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In the photograph that delivered his face onto phone screens and into living rooms across the nation, Robert Simmons Jr. wears a look of anguish.
He is riding in a jon boat out of his neighborhood in New Bern, the neighborhood where generations of his family have lived in the same house off of Garden Street. His great-grandfather built that house.
Floodwater from Hurricane Florence surrounds the boat. Simmons is hunched over. He looks weighed down: by the hurricane; by the sight of his flooded neighborhood. Most of all, by concern for his father, Robert Sr. They are close, and in the photograph, they are now separated. That, most of all, is the root of Simmons’ anguish.
A kitten is perched on Simmons’ right shoulder, looking into the camera. The kitten is wet, his fur sticking together. Zoom in on the image, and it becomes clear that the cat is wearing a kind of defiant expression. He seems unfazed by the chaos, undaunted by the storm. The tiny animal almost looks tough. In the moment, Simmons says the kitten’s name is Survivor.
Shortly after the picture was taken, the boat ride ends. Simmons starts walking away, toward a stretch of road on higher ground. It goes unnoticed that he is dragging his left leg and walking slowly. The hurricane shelter he is seeking is more than a half-mile away.
Travis Long, the visual journalist who has been covering Hurricane Florence with me, tells Simmons he should ride with us. Travis and I have been in New Bern for several hours, shadowing rescuers with small boats. That’s how we met Simmons. He takes a seat in the back of our rented Ford F-150, and we drop him off at the shelter a few minutes later. I double check his name to make sure I have it right for the story I’ll write.
“Robert Simmons?” I ask.
“Robert Simmons Jr.,” he says, emphasizing the junior, with Survivor seeking refuge in his jacket.
He walks away, into the shelter. A woman helping outside says there are 400 people staying there. I wonder if we’ll ever see Simmons again. He disappears into the building, and I take out my iPhone, wipe it against my damp shirt to try to dry it, and look back at the photos I’ve just taken. I’m looking for something I can post to Twitter to promote the story I’m already organizing in my head.
For whatever reason – maybe Simmons’ forlorn expression, maybe the kitten sitting on the shoulder, maybe the foreboding floodwater surrounding them, maybe all of those things – the image immediately resonated. It went viral, and to some, Simmons became the face of Hurricane Florence’s wrath.
Narratives emerged, too. To some, Simmons was a hero who’d saved a small animal from a hurricane. To others, he was a man of questionable character because he’d left his father behind. Some wondered whether he experienced a happy ending. Others wondered how his father fared through the storm. Still others asked about the kitten, and whether it was safe.
I wondered about Simmons, too, and about the moments that led to his seeking refuge. I wondered how his night went after we said goodbye. I wondered about the man behind the weary expression.
And so now, on Tuesday, four days later, Travis and I find ourselves back in New Bern, seeking answers. The flood has receded. The sun shines over a blue sky, and a long rebuilding process, for some, is under way.
Back home in Duffyfield
We turn down a street that, just days earlier, had been underwater. All around, people have piled their soggy couches and chairs and other water-logged belongings on the curb, waiting for trash pick-up. We make our way to Garden Street, turn right and, soon enough, there’s Robert Simmons Jr., 39, rising from his chair on his front porch, smiling, waving. He greets us by name.
Soon his fiancee, Lisa Kinsey, is walking toward the house. Simmons hopes to get married soon. She’s carrying their 3-month-old daughter, Ava, in her arms. Simmons is a father, and in some ways he looks at Ava as another chance at fatherhood.
“I started over,” he says with a laugh. “My oldest is 21.”
Simmons stands outside with Ava in his arms. A neighbor named Steve comes by. He’s in a wheelchair.
“He was the first to go,” Simmons says, referencing Steve’s evacuation. He asks Steve how he’s faring.
“I’m fine, fine, fine, fine,” says Steve, who doesn’t necessarily look fine. He is on dialysis, parts of his body swollen. “I ain’t got no air, but other than that, I’ll be all right.”
The first thing that becomes clear about Simmons’ life is that he lives in a neighborhood where everyone knows one another and seems to care for one another. Simmons says several cousins live nearby. His great-grandfather built a few houses on this street and the small neighborhood store that’s next to Simmons’ house.
The store, Editha’s Grocery, was flooded, and now they’re airing it out. This part of New Bern is called Duffyfield. It is predominantly African-American. It was built on low ground, so when a hurricane comes through, or even a bad storm, water begins to pool.
“We’ve got swamps and ditches all around,” Simmons says. “That’s why nobody can’t get in here. That’s why it’s hard to get out of Duffyfield. But I’m happy to be from Duffyfield. I’m not going nowhere. ”
Simmons wants to share his life. He invites us to the front porch. Power has been restored to other parts of New Bern, but not here. It is hot and damp inside. Outside, we meet his father, known as Big Rob, a large man with a white beard and swollen feet and legs. For a while now, his health hasn’t been so good.
We meet Simmons’ brother, Bryson Majette. He’s 15, and a student at New Bern High. Simmons says he tells him all the time to take school seriously and to learn from the mistakes Simmons made when he was that young. Simmons’ fiance sits in a corner, taking in the scene.
Her neighborhood was among the hardest hit in New Bern. She evacuated to a shelter before the storm arrived. She says it left three to four feet of water in her house. She lost most everything.
“Except her,” she says, nodding toward Ava, who is resting in Simmons’ arms. “That’s the only person we were worried about, was Ava.”
It was Kinsey, the fiancee, who first told Simmons that a photograph of him was spreading. She’d heard it had been on TV. Simmons doesn’t have a cell phone, is not on any kind of social media and doesn’t spend much time on the internet. Now, sitting on the porch, he says, “I didn’t know the magnitude” of the photograph.
Simmons tells his brother to go out back and bring Survivor to the front porch. Soon the kitten is here, playing on the front steps.
A painful stay
When we last saw Simmons, he was walking into the shelter. He sighs and picks up his story.
“Man,” he says. “The shelter.”
What was it like?
“Sad,” he says. “Very sad. No cots, no blankets, no pillows. Had to sleep on the floor. Old people on the floor. No pad, no carpet, no nothing. I stayed there until that morning — 8 o’clock. I did get a breakfast plate.”
Simmons didn’t realize until it was too late that this particular shelter didn’t allow animals, and so he says he tried to keep Survivor hidden. It worked until the morning, he says, when the kitten escaped while Simmons made a run to the bathroom. Survivor ran around the place until someone grabbed him and turned him in. Simmons retrieved him from one of the people running the shelter.
“I thought they was fixin’ to kick me and the cat out,” he says, laughing. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ So after I ate breakfast, I left and went to my brother’s house.”
Though he only spent one night in the shelter, Simmons describes it as “a bad experience” because he was in physical pain.
“Because I’ve got MS,” Simmons says, “I can’t sit on no hard concrete floor for a long period of time.”
He says he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2015. He went to the hospital because of tingling in his arm and high blood pressure, and the next thing he knew a doctor was showing him the white lesions on his brain. Simmons says his left side is weak. To prove it, he places Ava in his right arm and extends his left to shake my hand. It’s a light handshake. With his right hand, the grip is firm.
“It’s hard for me sometimes, but she’s so light I can hold this,” Simmons says, looking down at Ava. “But anything over five to 10 pounds, it’s hard for me to handle.”
He dropped out of high school in 11th grade. Simmons’ mother, Sylvia Manley, lives in Wisconsin now. She and Big Rob have been divorced a few years. During a phone conversation, she says her only son was a handful when he was younger. This is an assessment with which Simmons finds little disagreement. He says he often found himself in trouble “for joking and playing – being a clown.”
He went back to school, though, and earned automotive and electronics degrees from Craven Community College. Like his father, Simmons likes to work on cars. He is the neighborhood mechanic. He has not held a steady job as an employed mechanic, though, since 2010. His MS makes it hard for him to find work, and that bothers him.
“My brain ain’t dead,” he says. “I can tell you what’s wrong with your truck if it’s clicking.”
‘I seen you on the news’
While Simmons sits on the porch, a man and a woman walk by, two neighbors.
“I seen you on the news,” the man says, shouting.
“For saving one cat!” the woman says, playfully giving Simmons a hard time.
“I can’t save them all,” Simmons says, shouting back. “They feral. I tried to catch them. I tried. And when you try to catch a cat …”
“For one cat,” the woman says, shouting back. “It’s a thousand of them over there.”
“Well, I tried,” Simmons says. “I can’t save everybody. I’m trying to save myself, too.”
When the effects of the storm were at their worst, Simmons says, the floodwater rose to the second step outside the front porch. He looked outside and saw a man riding a jet ski down his street. The sight “just threw me,” he says. For hours, he’d been trying to convince Big Rob that they should leave the house. Big Rob didn’t budge.
Big Rob tries to explain, his speech slow and halting from a stroke he suffered a while back. But his words are clear.
“I was born and raised here,” he says, as tears well in his eyes. “I’ve been through several storms in my lifetime. And my granddaddy and grandma (would) never leave the house, even though the house was low to the ground.”
Big Rob, who is 63 but looks a little older, becomes emotional. He gathers himself and continues.
“My grandparents were very religious,” he says. “And before the storm came, they always prayed. … I wasn’t worried about no water. And now, I’m sick. I don’t like to be out around a lot of people. And I just decided, even though (it was) before the water came up, I was staying here.
“I put faith in God. That took care of me.”
Big Rob says he has been in and out of the hospital for about 10 years now. Until his stroke, he was a truck driver. He drove the big rigs, 18-wheelers. After the stroke, he suffered a heart attack. Now he has congestive heart failure. The last time he was in the hospital, Big Rob says, “they gave up on me.”
But, he says now, “I’m still alive. Because I’ve got faith.”
A leaking roof
Years ago, before a federal grant allowed some of the more at-risk homes in this neighborhood to be raised off of the ground, the Simmons’ home was more prone to flooding. Now, the water simply leaks in from holes in the roof. It has been that way for 15 years, Big Rob and his son say, because when that same federal grant allowed their roof to be replaced between hurricane seasons, contractors “cut corners,” Simmons says.
The night Hurricane Florence was at its fiercest, water again leaked into the house, making parts of the carpet damp, filling the 10-gallon trash can that Simmons had placed in the bathroom to catch one of the worst leaks. Big Rob says he looked outside and stared at a pecan tree that was dancing in the wind, bending but not breaking.
“The storm, the wind was blowing so hard that night, that pecan tree was bent on its side,” Big Rob says. “And I was watching the tree, how it was so resilient, with not falling down.”
The tree is still standing, though the pecans are scattered across the yard. In some ways, it’s a metaphor for Duffyfield. This is a neighborhood, Simmons says, that is used to rebuilding – that is accustomed to storms both in the literal and figurative sense. When he’s asked what people around here are going to do in the midst of another storm, Simmons’ answer comes quickly.
“They’re going to rebuild,” he says. “They’re going to still stay. They’re going to try to clean up. Do the best that they can do. Hope the government helps. And then what if the government helps, and they do them just like they did us, with our roof? Cut corners?”
Simmons and his father are mostly jovial, friendly men, quick to joke and bring laughter to those around them. If anything makes them upset and feel like life has handed them a raw deal, though, it’s their roof. They used to have a tin roof. A federal grant in 2003, Simmons says, allowed for it to be replaced and modernized.
Instead of improving the situation, the new roof made things much worse, Simmons says. He speaks in tones of exasperation about the shoddy job he says contractors did, about the holes they left in the wood, about how another shingle or two blows off every time another bad storm comes through.
He leads us inside and shows us the water stains all over the ceiling. The air is a bit musty, the carpet worn-looking and still damp in places.
“My whole life, it never leaked,” Simmons says, walking us through the house and opening the entrance to the attic. “They come through, they took the tin off, never put sheathing back on it, plywood. You’re supposed to put plywood, tar paper, sheathings. When they took that tin off, they never put it back up there.
“So I’ve got a leak here, a leak here. A leak in here. Right above your head. There. … There. In here. All of that. They put all of this junk up.”
Simmons guides us through his bedroom, where there are more stains on the ceiling, and into the bathroom, where he empties the 10-gallon trash can, full of water again, into the toilet. He shakes his head while he explains how during the hurricane there was water all over the bathroom.
“It’s just messed up, man,” he says.
To put himself in a better mood, he walks outside on the back porch and begins telling the story of how he rescued the kitten. Survivor is part of a group of feral cats that have always lived in this part of the neighborhood. His grandmother, he says, would care for and feed them. Survivor descended from that line.
When the floodwaters began to rise, Simmons says, he heard Survivor crying in the backyard. He went outside and saw the kitten’s mother across the yard, but she wouldn’t budge. The kitten, meanwhile, had crawled underneath the porch.
“I reached under there,” Simmons says, crouching down, “and he came close, and I grabbed his little ass.”
Now he’s holding Survivor in his arms again.
“See, I’m all right,” Simmons says in a soft, high-pitched voice, as if he’s speaking for the kitten.
“I couldn’t let him drown,” he says. “I tried to catch his mama, man. She wouldn’t let me catch her for nothing.”
Survivor has brothers, but Simmons doesn’t know where they are. He hasn’t seen them since the storm, and he’s worried that maybe they didn’t make it. For a supposedly feral kitten, Survivor is especially calm. He seems comfortable in Simmons’ grasp, as if he knows they went through an experience together
Even now, several days later, Simmons still can’t quite believe how things transpired – that he rescued a kitten, climbed into a boat and that the next thing he knew the image of his worn face was traveling around the world. He says a relative who knows someone in Japan said that Simmons’ picture was circulating over there, too.
While he sits on the steps on the back porch, I hand my phone to him, with the photograph on the screen. Simmons studies it.
“I was tired, man,” he says. “And I had to walk through that water. And with MS and my bad leg, I don’t do too much walking. And I walked a long time. I walked from there to on the other side of Washington St. That’s three – that’s four, five blocks. That’s five blocks. I do a block, and I stop. But this day …”
He asks to see the video that Travis made of his rescue. Simmons watches it closely.
“The boys were from Jacksonville, them guys,” he says of the three young men with the boat. “They wouldn’t give up their names.”
Mostly, he says, one thought replays over and over: “Just thinking about, I left my daddy,” he says.
He’s standing in his backyard now, surveying damage. Several large tree limbs landed in the middle of the yard, and debris is spread all over. Simmons points to a spot beyond his backyard, to a nearby street where power has been restored. He wonders when his street will have power.
“We’re last to get anything,” he says. “Duffyfield’s always last.”
He’s thankful for the help that has come through. He says Harris Teeter has been giving away ice and water. He says a local chef has been cooking meals for the neighborhood, and that the neighborhood has come together for cookouts of its own. People are trying to use meat before it goes bad, and Simmons says he makes some of the best chicken barbecue around.
In times like these, it could be easy for Simmons to lament. In this moment, he says he has maybe $20 to his name. He receives $750 a month in disability, and that money goes quickly. He says the $100 worth of food stamps he receives goes even quicker. A new roof, he says, might cost $3,000, and that’s a sum he can’t come close to affording. And yet, Simmons says, things could be worse.
“Some people just ain’t got no house. Their whole house got flooded out. Some people don’t got nowhere to go. Some people just ain’t got nothing.”
Walking through his backyard, Simmons says, “I know it looks bad. It feels bad. But the Lord gonna bless us.”
He takes a lap around the block, and checks in on his family’s old store, where his great-grandfather refused to sell cigarettes, and where he kept a ledger for people who needed a loan.
The store is used to drying out. This street is used to storms.
“We’re a resilient people,” says Editha Farrell, who runs the place.
Simmons makes the short walk back to his house. He joins his fiance, their daughter and Big Rob on the front porch. Happy endings are a relative thing in Duffyfield. Simmons left the shelter to return home to a house with a leaky roof and to a life with the same familiar challenges.
He doesn’t know if, or when, his MS will become worse. He doesn’t know how much longer his father has, with his heart condition. But now the sun is shining and they’re together, and safe. Somewhere out back, Survivor is at home. The pecans are spread over the yard, but the pecan tree is still standing.