As Hurricane Irene zeroed in on the region, battering Hatboro with high winds, torrential downpours, and flooding, Joann Gefter was fighting for her life.
It was a battle she thought she would lose.
“I had one arm left on the wire. I thought, ‘if I let go I’m going to die,’ ” Gefter recalled, adding that the raging was a force too strong. “The current just took me. I started screaming, ‘save my baby. Save my baby.’ ”
The new mother, who’s lived in the Woodwinds development for four years, tried to flee her flooding condominium with husband Gary and their 6-week-old daughter Tatum during the peak of the storm.
“I didn’t even think in a state of panic to go upstairs and wait it out,” Gary Gefter said, noting that minnows were swimming through their beautifully tiled living room, which had about two feet of water pouring in from the sandbagged and barricaded front door and approximately two and a half feet of water flowing in through the back door. “We were bombarded.”
With water filling their first floor, the Gefters saw leaving as their only option.
So, Mrs. Gefter, still recovering from her C-section delivery, lugged a carseat, a diaper bag and two purses from the back of the couple’s home, which abuts the temperamental creek. Her husband was carrying their infant daughter. The plan was to drive to Mrs. Gefter’s parent’s house in Philadelphia.
That plan was of course interrupted by forceful flood waters which carried away the couple’s shoes, and, at some point, uprooted the development’s footbridge, ravaged its parking lot, uplifted and relocated a neighbor’s deck and flooded 38 of the 79 condos with an average of 12 to 15 inches of water, according to Woodwinds property manager, Bob Felte.
Help from a stranger
A neighbor, Gary Campbell, who had been outside filming footage of the raging creek, stopped short when he saw the Gefters struggling to make their way to their car, carseat in hand. Without thinking, Campbell, a father of three, said he handed his wife the video camera and ran to help. He was able to pull Mr. Gefter onto safer ground, but struggled with Mrs. Gefter.
“I saw her holding onto this pole. She said, ‘help me I can’t hold on anymore,’ ” Campbell said. “I tried to stand. The pole came out of the ground. I remember hitting the wall of the building. I remember scratching. I remember getting to the fence at the end … She was still with me.”
Then, what Campbell said he hoped wouldn’t happen, happened.
“We ended up in the creek,” he said. “I remember going up and down, up and down. I ended up across the creek on the other side. The building was coming toward me. I hit the building with my face.”
At some point Mrs. Gefter let go, or was pulled from him. Feeling like he was unable to save her, the 6-foot 5-inch Campbell, who weighs 250 pounds and was thrown around like “a doll,” fought his way out of the creek. Cut, bleeding and bruised down his right side from the five to 10-minute ordeal, Campbell made his way to his neighbors’ house.
“As they were letting me in, I heard Joann say ‘help me, help me. Please help me.’ I just stood there and I lost it,” Campbell recalled. “I said ‘I can’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t do it again.’ I knew I was bleeding. I knew I was hurt.”
And, Joann Gefter, who felt as if she was drowning in the rushing water, said she saw the flashes that people often speak of in near-death experiences.
“I saw the silhouette of (my husband) and Tatum. I saw my mom and my dad’s face,” she said, while feeding Tatum Tuesday afternoon. “I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to die like this.’ ”
Then, in what Hatboro Borough Manager Steven Plaugher described as a Mrs. Gefter, with help from EMTs, was able to get out of the water and to safety.
“I don’t remember how I got out of the water,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘I have to find my husband and my daughter.’ ”
Together, the family went to the hospital. And, despite her struggle to stay alive during the wee hours Sunday, Mrs. Gefter said her only injuries were a laceration on the side of her foot and a few scrapes. Tatum, the couple’s brunette beauty, was not harmed at all from the ordeal.
When it was all over, the couple said they were grateful for their “hero.” Mr. Gefter said he had and still has, an “overwhelming relief that I still have my family.”
“Just seeing him brought so much emotion,” he said, adding that the family saw Campbell en route from their Hatboro home to the couple’s original destination in Philadelphia on Sunday. “That whole ride home I cried.”
Before Hurricane Irene, Campbell said he and his wife had never met the Gefters. Still, it didn’t stop him from at least trying to help someone in need.
“That’s what people should do for each other,” Campbell said. “They’re going to be friends of ours.”
Picking up the pieces
Aside from the Gefter’s amazing water rescue, the residents of Woodwinds share the same story. Their furniture, flooring and appliances are ruined. Many of the furnishings having only been replaced following the last major storm, in 2009.
Ray Monteleone, who has lived in the Woodwinds community for 15 years with his wife Susan, was going through a process similar to his neighbors of cleaning up mud-soaked hardwood flooring, muddy appliances, cabinets and more Tuesday.
“We’ve been flooded before, but it wasn’t this muddy,” Mrs. Monteleone said. When asked where the water went, she said it eventually receded on its own. “It leaves damage behind.”
For the Monteleones, some of that damage was their relocated deck, which Mr. Monteleone said would take 10 people to lift ordinarily. During the storm, the deck somehow managed to move from its normal resting place on their back patio, to the side of their house.
“Everybody asks the same question: How’d it get there?” He said. “I think it was the first thing everybody saw.”
While the couple has a homeowners insurance policy on the structure itself, it does not cover the home’s contents.
“I lost my job last year,” Mrs. Monteleone said, adding that they could no longer afford to carry the additional policy.
And the Gefters, trying to make due on one salary as Mrs. Gefter finishes maternity leave from her paralegal job, are facing the loss of recent replacement items, including their couch, entertainment center and more.
“We just replaced everything,” Mr. Gefter said of the assistance the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided in 2009 following a major flood. “We have hurricane insurance, but a flood is not covered.”
Felte said FEMA flood policies are in effect on the entire development, but each homeowner can opt for additional insurance on contents.
The Woodwinds development, in particular, is central to an . Data collection began in February and is ongoing, Felte said. Officials have said that if the benefit of flood protection items, such as a berm, pipes, or improvements to the stream channel are less costly than the anticipated property repairs, then DEP would apply for grants. DEP funding would cover design and construction and would not require matching municipal funds.
Should that move forward it would be of help to the Woodwinds development, Felte said, adding that the community has had to replace a parking lot and two footbridges - not including the one destroyed in last weekend’s storm.
“There’s no funding for parking lots and bridges,” Felte said. Each of the 79 homeowners would have to be assessed for infrastructure improvements “if there’s not sufficient monies.”