Waters keep rising; McCrory says death toll is now at 20
Rain-fed waters are still rising in parts of North Carolina, and the governor said storm-related deaths now stand at 20.
princeville, n.c. — As North Carolina struggles with the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, forecasters Wednesday warned that rain-fed waters were still on the rise in some areas — with at least one river expected to crest this weekend at nearly double the flood stage.
The swollen Neuse River, cutting through coastal flatlands south of Greenville, underscores the flood threats facing parts of the state for the coming days even as rescue teams try to move people out of danger and utility crews work to restore power to nearly 200,000 customers.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said storm-related deaths now stand at 20 across the state, and he again called for full-scale evacuations from threatened areas. Among them: the valley below Wood Lake Dam, about 20 miles northwest of Fayetteville, which has been reinforced but remains in danger of failing.
“We’ve had too many deaths,” McCrory said. “Get out. Once the water flows, it’s too late.”
The National Weather Service predicted that the Neuse was moving toward “dangerous flooding levels” of nearly 27.5 feet by early Saturday near the town of Kinston before starting to fall. The rise — already above the 14-foot flood stage in the area — is forecast to top the spillover from destructive Hurricane Floyd 17 years ago.
Matthew Young’s home in Kinston was inundated during a flash flood Saturday. The rain was falling too hard during Hurricane Matthew for the soil to absorb it. He’s using the evenings after work to clean up the mess, but his renter’s insurance does not cover flood damage. He told The Washington Post he’ll be applying for FEMA assistance.
“It will be weeks before things are even remotely back to normal here,” Young said.
Many of the Kinston homes, buildings and farms that were flooded Saturday are getting hit for the second time in less than a week as the Neuse River climbs to a record. Mandatory evacuations have been in place since Monday along the river in Lenoir County, where Kinston is located, but some residents aren’t budging.
“Although the water is rising slowly, it IS RISING,” B. J. Murphy, Kinston’s mayor, wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday morning. “We have knocked on every door a minimum of two times and left notices at empty homes. Our Kinston Police Department will continue to knock until we can’t get there any more.”
“If you know someone living in these areas, please plead with them to get out,” Murphy added.
It won’t be until around Oct. 22 — two weeks after Matthew struck — that the water in Kinston will recede below major flood stage, the most severe on the National Weather Service scale. It means mass evacuations are ordered and extensive property damage inflicted. Kinston residents may not be able to return to their homes until Oct. 22.
The outlook does not get better for other cities along the Tar, Black and Lumber rivers. Never mind the record-breaking crests: The flooding’s duration is the most mind-boggling aspect of this disaster. In Lumberton, the water isn’t forecast to recede below Hurricane Floyd’s old record until Sunday.
“You can attribute that to the many tributaries along the river — the creeks and streams that run into and out of these rivers,” said Lara Pagano, a National Weather Service hydrologist. “They are just full. They get backed up, and the river becomes even more elevated. The water has nowhere to go.”
In Princeville — a town that was submerged by flooding after Floyd in 1999 — the swollen Tar River was threatening the low-lying town in a close call that residents there were struggling to fathom. After Floyd, the town was fortified in an expensive engineering process that aimed to prevent something similar from happening again. Officials in Edgecombe County say they believe Princeville will escape without major damage, but water began entering one section of the town on Wednesday morning.
“It’s ankle-deep in the back of town,” said William Johnson, Edgecombe County’s assistant manager.
Though the dike — a crownlike cap at the north part of town — has held as designed, water is entering through the side, after the dike tapers off. Princeville Town Manager Daniel Gerald said water was also being pressured into town through a storm drain, “reverse-vacuumed in” under pressure from the river.
“I’ve never seen this, and I’m a water and sewer guy,” Gerald said.
At least 35 deaths in the United States have been blamed on Matthew as it churned up the East Coast after killing hundreds in Haiti and battering Cuba and the Bahamas.
Across four states — Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas — nearly 4,500 people stayed in Red Cross shelters on Tuesday night, according to a Red Cross spokesman. The majority of those displaced residents, around 3,800, were holed up in 57 shelters across eastern North Carolina.
“We’re trying to make sure people have a dry place, a roof over their heads and a warm meal,” Peter Macias of the Red Cross said. Nurses and mental health professionals have volunteered their time to ensure shelter residents are mentally and physically healthy, Macias told The Post in a phone call from North Carolina.
The flood dealt a direct blow to the poorest section of North Carolina, a tract of farmland and towns struggling after losing manufacturing jobs. More than 4,000 people have been forced from their homes into shelters at high schools and recreation centers, many lacking flood insurance, health insurance or stable employment. McCrory said the challenges ahead include finding temporary housing for those displaced by the floods.
Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and erosion specialist with North Carolina State University’s Sea Grant program, said the flooding is driven by the dynamics of the state’s river systems as they run through the coastal plain. “The ocean can receive a lot of water,” he said. “It’s the river areas where the confined river basin backs up the water, and it just can’t flow out fast enough.”
Officials in North Carolina fear a repeat of Hurricane Floyd. The storm caused 57 deaths — 35 of them in North Carolina, most from inland drowning in the days after rain subsided. Floyd also caused an estimated $6 billion in damage, leaving thousands of people without homes and keeping communities underwater for weeks.
President Obama declared a major disaster in North Carolina on Monday, which could help speed federal aid to affected residents.
Even before Matthew arrived, North Carolina’s soil was saturated. Then some parts of the state received more than 17 inches of rain in a day.
Vehicles at a business are surrounded by floodwater from Hurricane Matthew in Lumberton, N.C. The water isn’t forecast to recede below Hurricane Floyd’s 1999 record until Sunday.