Daring nighttime rescue plucks 100 people, 33 animals from Florence flood waters

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It was pitch dark when the levee broke along the Florence-swollen Cape Fear River, stranding 100 people and 33 animals.

Helicopter crews from the U.S. Coast Guard and North Carolina National Guard flew in wearing night-vision goggles to find the people and animals, NC National Guard Brigadier General Todd Hunt said at a news conference Friday. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office tweeted a video of Hunt’s remarks.

Over six hours Thursday night and early Friday, Hunt said, crews on the eight CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters helped get the people and animals aboard. Some of the helicopters landed, according to Hunt, while others remained in the air, “hoisting” people and animals in baskets.

“You have to remember, this was at night,” Hunt said at the news conference. “They flew (with) night vision goggles. Some of the crews came from Minnesota and Maryland and were not specifically familiar with the area at all,” Hunt said.

The rescue occurred in the Bladen County community of Kelly, population 545, about 27 miles northwest of Wilmington.

The people were flown to Kinston, where they stayed the night in shelters, WRAL reported. Buses were scheduled to return them the 110 miles south to Bladen County on Friday, which also has shelters for Florence evacuees, according to the station.

In his tweet, Cooper called the rescue “a dangerous operation.” He thanked the crews “for your courage and bravery.“

Florence has killed 31 people in the state, according to a news release from the governor’s office. Nearly 5,000 have been rescued by first responders, “and with several rivers at major flood stage, rescue efforts remain ongoing,” the news release said.

At Friday’s news conference, Hunt said the crews who rescued the people and animals of Kelly “are resetting for another mission tonight, if possible.”