'Thank God They Came' — Inside the Daring Rescues of Hurricane Florence

"It's not just the people you rescue, it's entire families and communities who value these people," private rescue operator George Ruiz tells PEOPLE

Hurricane Florence Slams Into Coast Of Carolinas
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Rescue operations are underway for people trapped in floodwaters from Hurricane Florence. The devastating storm has claimed four lives, and left countless others stranded since it made landfall Friday in North Carolina.

“I just moved here a few weeks ago, and first thing that happens is this hurricane,” says Chris Herring, who spoke to PEOPLE from atop an air mattress while awaiting rescue in New Bern. “Now everything I have is destroyed.”

Like others who tell PEOPLE they miscalculated the storm, Herring and his roommates believed they would be able to ride out the storm. Friday morning, they realized too late that they misjudged the danger.

“Water came in, and it ran us all the way up to the attic,” Herring says. There, a tree fell on the roof. “Everybody jumped, and we knew what it was.”

Elsewhere in town, Francine Moore also realized too late that she had to leave her house. By then, her car was flooded.

“Water kept coming,” Moore says. “We had to get upstairs, and now water is covering the whole downstairs and coming up.”

Hurricane Florence Slams Into Coast Of Carolinas
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

With all her food and water gone, the terrified Moore realized she would not be able to get to the roof when the time came. A boat came by. Moore watched in horror as the rescuers, who did not see her, turned away.

“I leaned out the window and waved a white shirt out the window,” Moore says. “They saw it, and the boat came back.”

Messages posted via Crowdsource Rescue, a neighbor-to-neighbor resource group that aims to supplement overwhelmed 911 resources, contain dire cries for help.

“Posting on behalf of friend who has not heard from her elderly father since Wednesday afternoon, he did not evacuate and is not answering cell phone,” reads one rescue “ticket” or assignment.

“Veronica is running out of food, water and the flood water is rising fast,” reads another. “She lives in a very small 1 story home and can not move to the roof. Her children are 2, 6, 7 and 9 years old.”

“Docks are breaking up, can’t get to shore,” reads yet another. “Need help getting my friend off a sailboat stranded on a dock. All hands needed!”

The tickets describe people who are elderly, suffer from Alzheimer’s, walk with canes or are perched on upper floors and in attics.

Hurricane Florence Slams Into Coast Of Carolinas
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Private rescue operator George Ruiz has been looking all day for stranded people.

“People think they can ride it out, and then it gets to where it’s too late,” says Ruiz, who spent 20 years in the Coast Guard as a rescue boat driver. Ruiz, who runs Geaux Rescue, goes in to get them.

“We’ve done a few hundred so far, but it’s just starting,” says Ruiz, who drove more than four hours from Alabama, cutting down trees in his path, to reach entrapped people.

George Ruiz FlorenceCredit: Courtesy George Ruiz
Courtesy George Ruiz

One rescue was a man in a wheelchair who lived alone. Another was a family. Yet another incident involved a 90-plus year old woman who didn’t want to leave her home.

“She pretty much slammed the door in our faces,” Ruiz says.

The longtime rescuer flagged down a fire engine, and brought fire crews to convince the woman to leave. They did.

One trapped man describes being too disoriented to make a timely decision.

“I lost half my leg in a trucking accident, so I’m disabled,” says James Green of New Bern. “Last night I took my medication. It knocked me out. I woke up around midnight, and there was three feet of water in my yard.”

Green’s wheelchair access ramp was under water, and he didn’t know how to get out. He called 911. The dispatcher put Green in a queue behind others who faced more imminent danger from higher water.

Waiting in line is part of the drill for being rescued.

Herring handed off his little dog, Taco, to rescuers when a boat arrived to collect the household. The boat filled up, Herring says, and he remained behind.

Thanks to some solar panels, Herring was able to charge batteries to be able to use his phones. He’s okay, for now.

“I have plenty to eat and drink, and nothing to do,” Herring laughs. “I’m just waiting for them to come back for me. Hopefully they get here before dark.”

Hurricane Florence Slams Into Coast Of Carolinas
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

People who have been rescued speak glowingly of the rescuers.

“Thank God they came,” says Moore, who is waiting for family to pick her up. “They are wonderful.”

“They are saviors,” says Green, who has been whisked to safety since he first spoke to PEOPLE.

The work has an impact beyond the individuals who thought they could ride out the storm.

“It’s not just the people you rescue,” Ruiz says. “It’s entire families and communities who value these people. I just want to drive boats and help.”

Ruiz wants to talk more about rescues, he says, but he needs to jump off from the conversation because he has much work to do – preferable, as Herring says, before sundown.

“I gotta go,” he says. “I gotta go get some people.”

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