The effects of Hurricane Florence will be with us for quite some time, given that 44 people have been killed; hundreds of roads remain partially underwater or heavily damaged; the storm is expected to be among the 10 costliest natural disasters in U.S. history; and the worst of it lays ahead for thousands of people in South Carolina as rivers are forecast to crest this week and contribute to already-historic flooding.
But questions about one of the storm’s most heart-breaking stories remain unanswered nearly two weeks after Florence came ashore along the North Carolina coast before making its way into South Carolina. That’s why we are no closer to understanding why two women have the unfortunate distinction of being added to an all-too-long list of people who were killed under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. They didn’t die like Sandra Bland, who was assaulted and arrested by an officer on the side of a Texas road for the sin of legally smoking a cigarette in her own damn car then later found dead in a jail cell from a reported suicide. Their deaths didn’t spark days of intense protests and rioting, like that of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, whose spine was nearly severed after being arrested during a suspicious foot chase.
The two women were being transported by Horry County Sheriff’s deputies (Horry County is home to tourist mecca Myrtle Beach) to a neighboring county during the early days of Florence after they had been involuntarily committed by a doctor because of mental health issues. Such transfers are as routine as they are disturbing. The sheriff’s department, which transports people accused of crime, serious and minor, to and from court and jail, also transports roughly 1,200 patients to mental health facilities every year in a state known for cuts to its mental health funding and facilities.
The women drowned when the sheriff’s van was washed off a water-logged road—after the van’s driver apparently went around barriers warning him not to.
“It hasn’t been confirmed to me that they did, but here’s my question: There’s barriers there. It could be assumed that he did,” Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson told The Associated Press.
The two women were trapped in the back of the van even though the two deputies were able to free themselves. The deputies tried to free the women but the water current was too strong, washing the van into a river. The women’s bodies weren’t recovered for several hours.
Thompson’s office put out another statement about the deaths on Monday.
“At this time, we are cooperating fully with the State Law Enforcement Division inquiry into the incident, while at the same time conducting an internal investigation into this matter. Just like you, we have questions we want answered. We hope we will be provided those answers through the ongoing inquiries in the very near future.”
Here is what we know now, that the women’s names are Windy Newton and Nicolette Green. Newton was 45 years old when she became one of the nearly four dozen people killed in the Carolinas due to Hurricane Florence; Green was 43 years old. We know they are not just victims of the second 1,000-year flooding event to hit South Carolina in three years, but something worse. They join other mental health patients who have been killed after police have been called and a still unknown number of people who die in police custody every year. Though Green and Newton were not shot, their deaths are no less tragic than mental health patients killed that way by police.
We know that Green’s 19-year-old daughter, Rose Hershberger, feels betrayed.
“She still put her trust in the deputies that were supposed to take care of her and made sure she got there safely, and the fact that they were able to get out but my mom and [Windy Newton] wasn’t makes me feel really like hurt and betrayed by them,” Hershberger told NBC. “In my head, it’s hard for me to accept the fact that my mom is now dead.”
We know the Waccamaw River, which runs through the heart of Horry County, is forecast to crest sometime Tuesday or Wednesday, topping out at about twice the flood stage, just one of the many rivers forcing thousands of residents along the South Carolina coast to evacuate nearly two weeks after Hurricane Florence came ashore. Hundreds of roads remain completely are partially closed, and students are sitting out a third consecutive week of school, with no firm timetable on their return.
What we don’t know if these women’s families will ever get clear answers—or justice—given our country’s horrific track record dealing with deaths that occur in police custody.
What we know is that we shouldn’t allow the floodwaters of Hurricane Florence to wash their memories away.