Tropical depression Florence continued its march through the Carolinas on Sunday, dumping torrential and historic amounts of rain. Floodwaters are expected to push many rivers to all-time highs and could spur life-threatening landslides as the hurricane’s remnants move into the mountains in the middle of the states and then up into southwestern Virginia.
The storm has been linked to several deaths, according to officials.
–4:27 p.m.: Warily watching the rivers in South Carolina
Renee Matthews has been walking to Lynches River at least once every day, checking how far it has risen. Two days ago, the river that surrounds her family’s property in rural Florence County, South Carolina, was dry and barely rose past her nephew’s knee. By Sunday, the river bank was nowhere to be seen. The boat landing that leads to the bank was buried in debris, and the four-foot concrete barrier next to it was nearly submerged.
“It’s probably come up two to three feet,” she said, aiming her phone to take a picture.
“You could walk right there two days ago. You could walk all around that tree two days ago,” she said, pointing at a submerged tree. And the deluge of rain has barely started.
Flooding happens every few years in this wooded riverfront neighborhood of mobile homes and big houses, some of which were built several feet above the ground.
“The water goes all the way to the top of that house,” Matthews said, pointing at an empty vacation home that stands at least six feet from the wet, grassy land.
There has been no flooding yet in the county that shares a name with the storm. But officials are monitoring the Lynches River and other bodies of water inland as rain continues and rainfall from the north flows downstream, said Dusty Owens, director of the county’s emergency management division.
Here in Florence County, several bodies of water – the Great Pee Dee River to the east, Lynches River to the south, and Black Creek to the north, are all expected to rise. Lynches River, for example, has risen by more than five feet since Friday. The Great Pee Dee could rise to 27 feet by Thursday, surpassing the flood stage by eight feet.
“Next week, it’ll be our problem,” Matthews, 48, said. “This river’s going to keep rising.”
–3:47 p.m.: At least 15 people dead due to the storm
At least 15 people have now died as a result of tropical depression Florence, which slammed into the Carolinas as a hurricane on Friday.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, R, said five people were killed in the storm: Amber Dawn Lee of Union County; Mark Carter King and Deborah Collins Ryan, who lost their lives in a generator-related incident on Saturday; Michael D. Prince, who died this morning when he lost control of his car in Georgetown County; and Jeffrey Youngren, who died Sunday morning in Kershaw County after driving into a support beam.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, D, said 10 people in the state have died due to the storm.
–3:17 p.m.: An aging levee system holds, while a temporary barrier weakens
As the swollen Lumber River in Lumberton, North Carolina, rose ever higher in Sunday’s pouring rain, the aging levee system in Robeson County held strong, said county spokeswoman Emily Jones.
But a temporary sandbag barrier built by volunteers and National Guardsmen amid pouring rain this week had been “compromised” by the rising water levels, Jones said.
Water had broken through that section of the river, which passed by railway tracks on the west side of town, during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, flooding businesses and homes.
Sebastian Milton, a volunteer with the Cajun Navy who came to Lumberton from Covington, Louisiana, to help with rescue operations, said it’s a matter of time before the levee fails as well.
“That’s a man-made structure,” he said, “it can’t keep holding back the river.”
Milton and fellow volunteers were posted on a bridge overlooking the Lumber River and a flooded section of Interstate 95 on Sunday afternoon.
Their boats at the ready, they waited in pouring rain for the next emergency call to come in.
“There’s still people out there,” Milton said, gesturing toward the expanse of dark water and trees that hid flooded homes.
–2:49 p.m.: In Pembroke, North Carolina, ‘We’re having problems already.’
In Pembroke, North Carolina, emergency officials conducted about 120 evacuations and 20 rescues – complicated procedures like pulling people out of submerged cars – since the storm began.
Charles Gregory Cummings, the town’s mayor, said officials had been working all week to make sure that the most vulnerable people in the community were safe from the storm. Police officers gave homeless citizens rides to the local shelters and conducted daily drives through public housing complexes, using a bullhorn to inform people about the coming deluge. Pamphlets were posted at every mobile home park bearing information about the forecast and where to seek shelter. Officers checked in daily at a local senior home to make sure their generators were working and they had enough food.
On a drive through town to examine flooding “trouble spots,” Police Chief Ed Locklear noted that most of the public housing in Pembroke is located in the low-lying north side of town. There, canals and underground systems that drain water into the nearby swamp are easily overwhelmed by downpours. Several officials said that these canals were still clogged with downed trees and debris from Hurricane Matthew – the town hadn’t had the resources to fix the problem earlier, and only just received recovery funding from the federal government.
Now Locklear cruised past a street to one of those housing complexes; it was submerged beneath what looked like a foot of muddy brown water. Sandbags rested against the homes’ front doors.
“These are places that always flood,” Locklear said. “And you can see we’re having problems already.”
–2:34 p.m.: Trump monitoring ‘the preparedness and response efforts’
The White House, in a statement, said President Trump is monitoring the storm and its effects:
“Today, President Trump continues to monitor the preparedness and response efforts for Hurricane Florence. He was briefed again this afternoon by Sec. Nielsen, Admiral Schultz and Administrator Long. Yesterday, he spoke with Mayor Brenda Bethune of Myrtle Beach, SC and Mayor Dana Outlaw of New Bern, N.C. They discussed the rescue and response efforts in those communities and the President offered the full support of Federal government. Mayor Outlaw thanked President Trump for immediately authorizing the emergency declaration.”
2:31 p.m.: Mandatory evacuations in Fayetteville
City officials in Fayetteville, N.C., said at an emergency meeting of the city council on Sunday that the Cape Fear River is expected to crest at 62 feet on Tuesday and recede sometime after 8 p.m. Friday. The river is already above flood stage, and there continues to be flash flooding and critical river flooding in the area, they said.
Officials have been notifying residents that there is a mandatory evacuation order for those living within one mile of the Cape Fear and Little rivers. For other neighborhoods there is a voluntary evacuation order. There is also a curfew in effect until further notice. Thirteen roads in the city are closed so far due to high water or flooding, 50 to 60 traffic lights are out, and the city is closely monitoring the levels of nearby dams. Currently there are fewer than 10,000 people without power.
Officials also said they have been pushing back against rumors that the city’s water supply is going to be shut off later Sunday afternoon; there are no plans for water to be shut off, they said.
One official said that 160 people were transported from a nursing home to shelters last night. The city is working with EMS and others to provide transport to people in wheelchairs and those who need help getting out of bed. Officials are also working to open up more shelters for as many as 7,500 people who may be displaced.
–1:46 p.m.: The storm is spawning an array of safety and environmental hazards
Federal officials described an array of life-safety and environmental hazards spawned by Hurricane Florence in a Sunday afternoon teleconference. Among them: The floodwaters are potentially contaminated and could present a health hazard.
“If you can avoid contact with floodwaters, do so,” said Reggie Cheatham, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Emergency Management.
He said there are an estimated 3,300 “hog ponds” in North Carolina that hold manure. There is concern that heavy rainfall could cause them to overflow and send hog manure into waterways.
Officials so far are “fairly confident” that farmers prepared adequately in advance of the storm to prevent the ponds from overtopping, Cheatham said. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Cheatham said that, at last count, there had been 28 boil-water orders issued by local water systems.
Meanwhile there has been a significant spill of coal ash from a storage pond at a closed Duke Energy plant near Wilmington, North Carolina. Cheatham said 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash spilled into a ditch after floodwaters eroded a portion of the pond wall. That ditch leads to a cooling pond that has an outflow into the Cape Fear River, but he said there’s no evidence so far that the coal ash has reached that cooling pond.
Duke Energy said in a statement Saturday that the company “does not believe this incident poses a risk to public health or the environment.”
Federal officials are urging evacuees to stay where they are and not attempt to return home.
“Don’t feel a need to rush home to file a claim” said National Flood Insurance Program chief executive David Maurstad.
Coast Guard Adm. Meredith Austin said three major ports in the Carolinas remained closed, including the Cape Fear port near Wilmington. That closure is significant because the Cape Fear water utility has put out an urgent plea for fuel.
“Cape Fear is the number one priority of getting a port open,” she said. “We are aware of the need to get fuel into the port.”
FEMA associate administrator Jeff Byard provided the big picture: “This is a long event. We are definitely likely to have isolated communities.”
–1 p.m.: ‘This storm has never been more dangerous than it is right now.’
North Carolina officials said floodwaters continue to rage and residents across nearly the entire state are in danger from torrential rainfall, rising rivers, floodwaters and, in the mountains, mudslides.
“This storm has never been more dangerous than it has right now,” in many areas of the state, Gov. Roy Cooper, D, said at a midday news conference. “Wherever you live in North Carolina, be on alert for sudden flooding.”
Cooper said numerous rivers throughout the state – including the Cape Fear, Lumber, Neuse – are still rising and not expected to crest until later Sunday or Monday. The storm has dumped nearly two feet of rain in many places, and some places are being pummeled with to three inches of rain an hour. Flooding is getting worse in parts of the state, including Pollocksville, Lumberton, Kinston and Goldsboro. The danger is growing in North Carolina’s western mountains, where rains could lead to dangerous mudslides.
Officials urged North Carolinians to stay off the roads. Many are closed; at least 171 primary roads are closed throughout the state, including portions of Interstates 95 and 40. People are urged not to drive east of Interstates 73/74 or U.S. Route 64 South. Many secondary roads are closed because of flooding.
Cooper estimated that between 750,000 and 1 million people have evacuated certain areas, a figure that will rise with expected mandatory evacuations in some places as rivers rise. About 15,000 people are staying in about 150 shelters across the state, he said. Four medical shelters are open in North Carolina, serving at least 170 patients.
More than 700,000 people remain without power and residents should expect to be without for days because so many roads are impassible.
“People need to understand that some areas are likely to be without power for a while,” Cooper said.
The governor said food, water and high-water vehicles are being delivered to hard-hit areas. The Coast Guard has rescued at least 50 people via helicopter.
–11:57 a.m.: Officials say at least 14 dead as a result of Florence
Florence, which made landfall as a hurricane on Friday, is being cited for at least 14 deaths as of Sunday morning as its torrential rains continued to soak North and South Carolina, leading to widespread flooding during a slow march westward. State and local officials in the two states confirmed the deaths as being related to the impacts of the storm, which is expected to continue to flood large swaths of the region and pose considerable additional dangers to inland residents.
On Sunday, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division and office of Gov. Henry McMaster, R, each confirmed four storm-related deaths. In Horry County, a 61-year-old woman and 63-year-old man died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A generator was located inside their home. A 61-year-old woman in Union County died when the vehicle she was driving struck a tree. And a 23-year-old man in Georgetown County died in a car crash.
On Saturday evening, the North Carolina Office of the Medical Examiner issued a news release saying that it had confirmed seven storm-related deaths, including a 41-year-old woman and her seven-month-old son who died in Wilmington on Friday when a tree fell on their home. The state also listed the deaths of a 78-year-old man in Lenoir County, who died when he was electrocuted; a 77-year-old man in Lenoir County who fell and died due to a cardiac problem while outside checking on dogs during the storm; an 81-year-old man in Wayne County who fell and struck his head while packing to evacuate; and a husband and wife who died in a house fire in Cumberland County.
Local officials have confirmed three additional deaths in North Carolina connected to the storm. The Duplin County Sheriff’s Office said two people died when flash flooding overwhelmed roads on Saturday; in Pender County, officials said that a woman died Friday morning when she was having a heart attack and emergency crews were unable to reach her in time due to downed trees and debris in the road.
–11:28 a.m.: Officials expect storm impact to get worse in the coming days
Michael Sprayberry, North Carolina’s director of emergency management, said the impact of tropical depression Florence was “bad right now. And we do expect it to get worse over the coming days.”
Sprayberry said the state had more than 1,000 search and rescue personnel with more than 2,000 boats as well as 36 helicopters available for search and rescue operations.
“We know that’s going to be a major mission going forward, because this is historic and unprecedented flooding,” he said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” “This is one that’s for the record books,” Sprayberry said, adding that the recovery will be long-term.
“As you know, we’re actually still recovering from Hurricane Matthew in October of 2016, so it will be a massive, long term recovery,” Sprayberry said.
Local officials are receiving assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s urban search and rescue incident support team, which has more than 1,000 personnel deployed across Virginia and the Carolinas. That includes 16 water rescue packages – specially trained teams capable of saving people from swift-moving flash floods and the slow surge of rising rivers.
As of 10 p.m. Saturday, the team had conducted 22 rescues – efforts that involve technical skills, like removing people from sinking vehicles – and 451 evacuations. The teams had also evacuated 84 animals, mostly pets.
–Steven Mufson and Sarah Kaplan
–10:25 a.m.: It’s not the wind. It’s the water.
Lola Smith thought she’d be safe after the winds died down.
Smith, 69, and her neighbors at First Baptist Homes, an affordable-housing community for seniors and people with disabilities, had waited out the worst of Florence’s fury in the gymnasium of the high school in Lumberton, North Carolina, about 75 miles inland from the North Carolina coast where Florence made landfall on Friday.
But the shelter was cramped and uncomfortable: There were no showers or even hot water for sponge baths, and the narrow cots bothered her aging hips. “I just want to go home,” she said.
Her friends felt the same.
So on Saturday morning they packed up their belongings – blankets, Bibles, bags of insurance papers – and headed back to their apartments on the south side of town.
But the greater threat from Florence is not the winds, but the water. Torrential downpours soaked Lumberton’s streets and overwhelmed the surrounding marshes and canals. By Saturday evening, the Lumber River had swollen past flood stage and started to flood the city.
The water was creeping up to First Baptists residents’ doors when firefighters came by and told them they would have to leave. There was a mandatory evacuation for the whole southern part of Lumberton.
The fire officials turned off the water and gas, loaded the residents into vans and took them back to the high school.
They would be there until the river stopped rising. No one could say when that would be.
–10:20 a.m.: Wilmington’s water utility needs fuel to keep working
Cape Fear Public Utility Authority said it is in desperate need of fuel for its generators so that it could continue to provide water to Wilmington, North Carolina
“If we do not get the needed fuel within the next 24-hours, we will not be able to continue water service for public health and safety such as fire suppression and other life-sustaining activities at the hospital. Also, this hard-hit community will be without drinking water,” Peg Hall Williams, utility spokeswoman, said in an email.
Severe flooding has closed roads into Wilmington, making it nearly impossible to get resources into the coastal city by land.
9:54 a.m.: Florence’s unrelenting rain could bring “catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding risk”
The National Weather Service on Sunday warned of a “catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding risk” in much of North Carolina, northern South Carolina and southwest Virginia.
Although record-level rains and flooding are expected to ease along the North Carolina coast through the evening and overnight, more serious flooding is predicted to spread farther inland.
The floodwaters are expected to push many rivers to all-time highs and, toward the mountains of western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia, could spur life-threatening landslides.
“[A]reas of the North Carolina Piedmont and the mountainous terrain of western North Carolina will experience devastating flash flooding unlike anything in recent memory,” tweeted Greg Carbin, chief of the operations branch at the National Weather Service. “Roads and bridges will wash away and damage will be severe.”
The Washington Post · Katie Zezima