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Florence Crawls Westward as Flooding Fears Surge in Carolinas; Wilmington Cut Off

The death toll from the hurricane-turned-tropical storm climbed to at least 16, including an infant

What to Know

  • Florence continued to crawl westward, dumping more than 30 inches of rain in spots since Friday, and fears of historic flooding grew
  • The death toll climbed to at least 16 on Sunday
  • Florence buckled buildings, deluged entire communities and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses

Catastrophic flooding from Florence spread across the Carolinas on Sunday, with roads to Wilmington cut off by the epic deluge and muddy river water swamping entire neighborhoods miles inland.

"The risk to life is rising with the angry waters," Gov. Roy Cooper declared as the storm's death toll climbed to 16 and included a mother and her infant.

The storm continued to crawl westward, dumping more than 30 inches of rain in spots since Friday, and fears of historic flooding grew. Tens of thousands were ordered evacuated from communities along the state's steadily rising rivers — with the Cape Fear, Little River, Lumber, Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers all projected to burst their banks.

In Wilmington, with roads leading in and out of the city underwater and streams still swelling upward, residents waited for hours outside stores and restaurants for basic necessities like water. Police guarded the door of one store, and only 10 people were allowed inside at a time.

Woody White, chairman of the board of commissioners of New Hanover County, said officials were planning for food and water to be flown into the coastal city of nearly 120,000 people.

"Our roads are flooded," he said. "There is no access to Wilmington."

About 70 miles away from the coast, residents near the Lumber River stepped from their homes directly into boats floating in their front yards; river forecasts showed the scene could be repeated in towns as far as 250 miles inland as waters rise for days. 

Downgraded to a tropical depression overnight after blowing ashore as a hurricane with 90 mph winds on Friday, Florence was still massive. Radar showed parts of the sprawling storm over six states, with North and South Carolina in the bull's-eye.

"This storm has never been more dangerous than it is right now," Cooper said Sunday.

Tens of thousands were ordered to evacuate from what officials said could be the worst flooding in North Carolina history, but it wasn't clear how many had fled or even could. The head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said officials were focused on finding people and rescuing them.

"We'll get through this. It'll be ugly, but we'll get through it," Long told NBC's "Meet The Press."

President Donald Trump said federal emergency workers, first responders and law enforcement officials are "working really hard" on Florence. He tweeted that as the storm "begins to finally recede, they will kick into an even higher gear. Very Professional!"

Trump is expected to visit the areas affected by the storm next week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Friday.

The storm's death toll climbed to 16. In North Carolina, it included a mother and baby killed when a tree fell on a house in Wilmington, a man in his late 60s who was electrocuted plugging in a generator, a man in his late 70s who was hurt while outside, a woman who couldn't be treated for a medical condition due to blocked roads and an 81-year-old man who died after falling while packing to evacuate. 

Three people died in Duplin County, North Carolina, "due to flash flooding and swift water on roadways," sheriff's officials said Saturday in a Facebook post. A husband and wife also died in a storm-linked house fire, officials said.

In South Carolina, a 61-year-old woman died after driving into a tree in Union County, and a man and woman died from carbon monoxide poisoning in Horry County.

And in Georgetown County, a man died after driving his truck down a road with rushing water. The vehicle overturned into a flooded ditch. A driver also died in Kershaw County after veering off the road and striking an overpass support beam.

Two deaths in Carteret County initially said to be storm-related were not; authorities there later said they were a murder-suicide.

"Our hearts go out to the families of those who died in this storm,” Cooper said. "Hurricane Florence is going to continue its violent grind across our state for days. Be extremely careful and stay alert.”

Power outages in the Carolinas and Virginia were down to about 650,000 homes and businesses after reaching a high of about 910,000 as the hurricane plowed into the coast. Utilities said some outages could last for weeks. 

As rivers swelled toward record levels, state regulators and environmental groups were monitoring the threat from gigantic hog and poultry farms located in low-lying, flood-prone areas.

The industrial-scale farms typically feature vast pits of animal feces and urine that can pose a significant pollution threat if they are breached or inundated by floodwaters. In past hurricanes, flooding at dozens of farms also left hundreds of thousands of dead hogs, chickens and other decomposing livestock bobbing in floodwaters.

Stream gauges across the region showed water levels rising steadily, with forecasts calling for rivers to crest Sunday and Monday at or near record levels. The Defense Department said about 13,500 military personnel had been assigned to help relief efforts.

Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile (1.6 kilometers) of a stretch of the Cape Fear River and the Little River, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the North Carolina coast. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.

John Rose owns a furniture business with stores less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the river. Rain-soaked furniture workers helped him quickly empty more than 1,000 mattresses from a warehouse in a low-lying strip mall.

"It's the first time we've ever had to move anything like this," Rose said. "If the river rises to the level they say it's going to, then this warehouse is going to be under water."

Fayetteville city officials, meanwhile, got help from the Nebraska Task Force One search and rescue team to evacuate 140 residents of an assisted-living facility to a safer location at a church.

One potential road out was blocked as flooding forced the shutdown of a 16-mile stretch of Interstate 95, the main highway along the Eastern Seaboard. It also poses a problem for moving resources to storm-damaged areas and allowing evacuees to return home.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation advised drivers to bypass North Carolina entirely. The agency is directing motorists to detour through Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia.

"This is an extremely long detour, but it is the detour that offers the lowest risk of flooding at this time," NCDOT noted in an advisory on its website

Rainfall totals were stunning.

In Swansboro, North Carolina, nearly 34 inches of rain had fallen by Sunday afternoon and 20 other places in North Carolina had at least 20 inches, according to the National Weather Service. Another 30 sites in North and Carolina had at least 10 inches.

"This is such a slow-moving storm that it will continue to create torrential amounts of catastrophic flooding," NBC Los Angeles meteorologist Shanna Mendiola said, adding that the danger may last for weeks due to hazards in the water like downed power lines or chemicals.

Meanwhile, a tornado was reported by the National Weather Service Wilmington at early Sunday, and the National Hurricane Center said more remain possible across North Carolina and eastern South Carolina.

"Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren't watching for them, you are risking your life," Cooper said.

Officials were warning residents not only to stay off the roads but also to avoid using GPS systems.

"As conditions change, GPS navigation systems are not keeping up with the road closures and are directing people onto roads that are confirmed closed and/or flooded," the state Transportation Department said on Twitter.

Florence weakened to a tropical depression early Sunday and was crawling west at 8 mph. At 5 a.m., the storm was centered about 20 miles southwest of Columbia, South Carolina. Its winds were down to 35 mph.

For some engaged couples, Florence washed away their wedding plans scheduled for the weekend. But family and friends stepped in to help their betrothed loved ones, with two couples marrying instead in Florida and Texas.

In Goldsboro, North Carolina, home of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, roads that frequently flood were already closed Saturday by rushing water. Dozens of electric repair trucks massed to respond to damage expected to hit central North Carolina as rainwater collected into rivers headed to the coast.

On Saturday evening, Duke Energy said heavy rains caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at a closed power station outside Wilmington, North Carolina. Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said about 2,000 cubic yards of ash were displaced at the Sutton Plant and that contaminated storm water likely flowed into the plant's cooling pond.

In New Bern, along the coast, homes were completely surrounded by water, and rescuers used inflatable boats to reach people Saturday.

Kevin Knox and his family were rescued by boat from their flooded brick home with the help of Army Sgt. Johan Mackie, whose team used a phone app to locate people in distress.

"Amazing. They did awesome," said Knox, who was stranded with seven others.

New Bern spokeswoman Colleen Roberts said 455 people were safely rescued in the town of 30,000 residents. Over in Pender County, officials said Sunday afternoon that there had been 300 water rescues in the last 12 hours. The Marines rescued about 20 civilians from floodwaters near Camp Lejeune, using Humvees and amphibious assault vehicles, the base reported.

New Bern's Planet Fitness said Sunday that is had opened ints locker room to the public for "anyone wishing to shower or freshen up." People did not need a membership to use the gym's bathrooms.

Spirits were high at the Trent Park Elementary School in New Bern, where 44-year-old Cathy Yolanda Wright took shelter after being rescued from her flooded home Saturday. Wright, who sings in the choir at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist, led residents at the shelter in an energetic singalong.

People clapped and shouted, "Amen!" and "Thank you, Lord."


AP writers Alex Derosier in Fayetteville, Jonathan Drew in Wilmington; Emery P. Dalesio in New Bern, North Carolina; Denise Lavoie and Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia; Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Seth Borenstein and Michael Biesecker in Washington; Lolita C. Baldor at the Pentagon; Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina; Jennifer Kay in Miami; Russ Bynum in Columbia, South Carolina; Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina, and Jay Reeves in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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