GREENSBORO — The courtyard at Wafco Mills is empty.

Electrical cords snake across inch-deep muck as fans drone from basement condos and taped yellow signs shout the word everyone associates with Mother Nature’s wrath: condemned.

A huge Dumpster sits in the parking lot, filled with everything from damp insulation to Bud Light cans. It’s at least the 20th Dumpster hauled in to clean out a spot buried underneath nearly 7 feet of water 11 days ago .

Meteorologists call it a 100-year flood. In a span of two hours, a June 3 storm dumped the heaviest rainfall in Guilford County ever recorded in a 24-hour period — 8 inches.

The rush-hour rainstorm was barely a body blow in our city of 255,000 people and 20,000 structures . City officials estimate less than $3 million in damages, with 17 homes and apartments hit the hardest by the storm. And so far, the American Red Cross has doled out $5,000 in financial assistance.

But for a few residents at Wafco Mills, the historic condo spot near UNCG, it was a Katrina moment.

It all started just before 7 p.m.

Matt Dennis stood at the top of his stairs. He saw a sofa floating like a raft as his living room turned into a brown-water aquarium.

He escaped, with the help of a ladder and a Greensboro firefighter, who threw Dennis over his shoulder and carried him to safety.

Ben Theis stood in his living room. He grabbed Tyler , his 55-pound blind Labrador, his wife grabbed hold of him and they waded through waist-deep water rushing like a waterfall through their destroyed front door.

It was the night before their first wedding anniversary.

Chris King stood on the courtyard’s catwalk. He got the call from Dennis, his longtime friend and neighbor, to come home.

He found his patio furniture in his living room beside his refrigerator. His refrigerator was upside down.

Nearby was his neighbor, Jay Lennartson , a UNCG geography professor who teaches courses on meteorology. He had called 911, climbed out his second-floor window and swam to safety.

In 30 minutes, their courtyard had become a muddy lake.

“I teach courses in natural hazards and discuss it, and now, I’ve lived through it,’’ says Lennartson, a former TV meteorologist. “We didn’t suffer the awful devastation as they did in Katrina. But it’s our Katrina moment. We have lost everything.’’

Wafco Mills has stood beside a creek, in the gully of Cedar and McGee, for 116 years . It made flour and corn meal for nearly 80 years until it closed down and became one of Greensboro’s quirkiest spots for condominiums.

It’s been awarded the double crown of preservation in Guilford County. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places .

But it’s never flooded. Ever. Until 11 days ago . The force of the water crashed through doors, surged through toilets and tossed at least seven cars in the parking lot around like discarded shoes.

No one had flood insurance. So, Insurance America won’t come in even to look. An insurance adjuster told Dennis last week, “There’s nothing we can do to help you.’’

Greensboro City Council member Zack Matheny , who represents the area, will ask the state for disaster relief funds and see if Wafco Mills’ residents can go through the city to snag low-interest construction loans.

He’s also asking city staff members to play detective. He wants to know how a place that’s never flooded turned into a hazard in less than 30 minutes, with water rising 5 to 7 feet high.

Right now, no one knows.

“Part of me is really frustrated,’’ said Dennis, 37 , a creative director for a commercial photography business. “I guess I feel violated. I know it was an act of God, and a flood, and we’re getting the raw end of the deal.

“The neighbors did nothing wrong. Water just took over our homes and destroyed everything we owned.’’

That includes appliances, stereos, furniture, flat-screen TVs, and for Ben and Andrea Theis, wedding pictures and at least 1,000 books.

Ben and Andrea will find a new place to rent. Their neighbors, they’ll stay. They’ll rebuild their condos. But how long will it take? Dennis, King and Lennartson don’t know.

So, they’ll pay their monthly mortgage and homeowner dues, see money vanish from their bank accounts and chalk it up as a lesson learned: You always need flood insurance. They’re all staying with family or friends.

But there is the flip side of disaster.

Dennis and King, two friends from East Davidson High, see it in 10-gallon pickle jars. Their friends have set out jars around the city to collect coins and organized a fundraiser Thursday night at Bert’s Seafood Grille .

Their mortgage lender, CFL Mortgage , also is raising money.

Ben Theis, who teaches math at the Middle College at GTCC in High Point, sees it in the classroom. A teacher friend pressed a $100 bill into his palm and told him, “I knew you would never ask for it.’’

Dennis sees it in a cozy spot in Jamestown. He works part-time waiting tables at Southern Roots restaurant, and two nights after losing everything, he got a call from his boss. He had some news.

A couple who dines often at the restaurant saw Dennis on TV and recognized him as their waiter. They left something for Dennis: $150.

Dennis doesn’t know who they are.

Contact Jeri Rowe at 373-7374 or

Wafco Mills

The mill started in 1893 and operated under several names until 1943. Then, it became Wafco Mills. The “Wa’’ stood for the Watson family of Greensboro, co-founders of the mill, the “f’’ stood for feed and flour, and the “co’’ stood for company.

Wafco made Feather Soft Flour and Old Southern Corn Meal as well as Wafco Dog Food.

The mill closed in 1972 and stood empty for about 10 years before being converted into apartments and later to condominiums in 1986.

The buildings are significant because they are “a vital reminder of the industrial growth which took place in many early 20th-century cities in North Carolina,” writes architectural historian Kaye Graybeal of Greensboro.

Also adding luster to the mill’s history is the fact that the founders — W.A. Watson Sr., W.A. Watson Jr. and Englishman Tom North — helped build Cone Mills’ Proximity, White Oak and Revolution plants on the north side of Greensboro.

Source: News & Record

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