With death toll at 12, floodwaters keep rising
Over a million lack power; up to 30 inches of rain falls
CONWAY, S.C. — With a plodding pace, Tropical Storm Florence pushed deeper into the Carolinas on Saturday, inundating homes, toppling trees and pushing rivers far beyond their banks as rescuers rushed to keep pace.
At least 12 deaths were blamed on the storm.
More than 1 million people, mainly in North Carolina, were without power a day after Florence reached land a few miles east of Wilmington as a Category 1 hurricane. On Saturday, the storm was crawling westward at about 2 mph, unleashing havoc as it went.
Even as the winds abated, the waters rose. And rose.
With rivers swelling toward record levels, thousands of people were ordered to evacuate out of fear that the next few days could bring the most destructive round of flooding in North Carolina history.
More than 2 feet of rain had fallen in places, and forecasters said there could be an addition-
al 18 inches by the end of the weekend.
“I cannot overstate it: Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren’t watching for them, you are risking your life,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence broke a North Carolina rainfall record that had stood for almost 20 years. Swansboro got more than 30 inches, obliterating the mark set in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd dropped just over 24 inches on the state.
As of 11 p.m. Saturday, Florence was centered about 40 miles east-southeast of Columbia, the South Carolina capital, and crawling west at 3 mph — about walking speed. Its winds were down to 40 mph. But with half of the storm still out over the Atlantic, Florence continued to collect warm ocean water and dump it onshore.
In its initial onslaught along the coast, Florence buckled buildings, deluged entire communities and knocked out power to homes and businesses. But the storm was shaping up as a twopart disaster, with the second, delayed stage triggered by rainwater working its way into rivers and streams.
Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile of a stretch of the Cape Fear River and the Little River, about 100 miles from the coast. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, N.C., population 200,000. Record flooding is expected Tuesday on the Cape Fear at a crest of 62 feet there.
“We’re trying to make it totally clear that this is deadly,” Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin said. “We can’t force folks to leave, but we are letting them know if they don’t get out, they are not going to get help for some time.”
In the Fayetteville area, John Rose owns a furniture business with stores less than a mile from the Cape Fear River. He moved quickly as workers helped him empty more than 1,000 mattresses from a warehouse in a low-lying strip mall. “If the river rises to the level they say it’s going to, then this warehouse is going to be under water,” he said.
Saturday evening, Duke Energy reported that heavy rains had caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at a closed power station outside Wilmington. Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said about 2,000 cubic yards of ash were displaced at the Sutton Plant and that contaminated water probably flowed into the plant’s cooling pond.
The company hadn’t yet determined whether any contamination had flowed into the Cape Fear River. Sutton was retired in 2013, and the company has been excavating ash to remove to safer lined landfills. The gray ash left behind when coal is burned contains toxic heavy metals, including lead and arsenic.
Elsewhere, officials in Harnett County, N.C., urged residents of about 1,100 homes to clear out because the Lower Little River was rising toward record levels.
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.
Carp in the backyard
In New Bern, N.C., along the coast, homes were surrounded by water, and rescuers used inflatable boats to reach people.
Kevin Knox and his family were rescued from their flooded brick home with the help of Army Sgt. Johan Mackie, part of a team using a phone app to locate people in distress. Mackie rode in a boat through a flooded neighborhood, navigating through trees and past a fencepost to get to the Knox house.
“Amazing. They did awesome,” said Knox, who was stranded with seven others, including a boy who was carried out in a life vest. “If not, we’d be stuck upstairs for the next … how long? I have no idea.”
New Bern spokeswoman Colleen Roberts said 455 people in all were rescued in the town of 30,000 residents without any serious injuries or deaths. But thousands of buildings sustained damage that Roberts called “heart-wrenching.”
Across the Trent River from New Bern, Jerry and Jan Andrews returned home after evacuating to find carp flopping in their backyard near the porch stairs.
Coast Guard helicopters were taking off across the street to rescue stranded people from rooftops and swamped cars. Coast Guard members said choppers had made about 50 rescues in and around New Bern and Jacksonville as of noon.
Marines rescued about 20 civilians from floodwaters near Camp Lejeune, using Humvees and amphibious assault vehicles, the base reported.
In Lumberton, about 80 miles inland, Jackie and Quinton Washington watched water filling their front and back yards near the Lumber River. Hurricane Matthew had sent more than 5 feet of water into their home in 2016, and the couple feared that Florence would run them out again.
“If it goes up to my front step, I have to get out,” Quinton Washington said.
The 12 storm-related deaths included a mother and child who were killed when a tree fell on their home in Wilmington, N.C.; Amber Dawn Lee, 61, a mother of two who was driving in Union County, S.C., when her vehicle hit a tree in the road; three people in Duplin County, N.C., who died because of flash flooding on the roadways; and a couple who died in a house fire in Cumberland County, N.C.
In Washington, President Donald Trump was briefed Saturday on Florence’s impact. Later, he tweeted his condolences, writing, “Deepest sympathies and warmth go out to the families and friends of the victims. May God be with them!”
Garland King and his wife, Katherine, evacuated their home in New Bern on Friday and returned Saturday, sharing a kiss and joining hands as they drew near their house.
They found a soggy, stinking mess.
“The carpets. The floors. Everything is soaking wet,” Katherine King said. “We’re going to have to redo the whole inside.”
Forecasters said the storm would eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a sharp rightward swing to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of the week.
Boats lie scattered, tipped over and half-sunk at New Bern, N.C. With its winds down to 40 mph, Florence was no longer a hurricane, but the storm continued to collect warm ocean water and dump it inland as it crawled westward.
Rescue team members Brad Johnson (left) and Steve Williams took a breather Saturday after searching for people stranded by high water in New Bern.
Kim Adams waded to her home Saturday in Southport, N.C. As of 11 p.m. Saturday, Florence was centered about 40 miles east-southeast of Columbia, the South Carolina capital, still dumping rain and crawling west at just 3 mph — about walking speed.