Florence on deadly slog west

Power out, rivers rising in beset N.C.

Posted: September 16, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

A sailboat sits between a house and a collapsed garage Saturday in New Bern, N.C.

CONWAY, S.C. -- Florence, the powerful storm that has already left at least 11 people dead and nearly 1 million without power on the East Coast, moved inland at an ominously sluggish pace Saturday.

A day after blowing ashore near Wilmington, N.C., with 90 mph winds, Florence crawled west at 2 mph and poured on the rain. With rivers rising toward record levels, thousands of people were ordered to evacuate for fear 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 were saying there could be an additional 1½ feet by the end of the weekend.

"We face walls of water at our coast, along our rivers, across farmland, in our cities, and in our towns," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said in a briefing Saturday, adding, "I cannot overstate it: Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren't watching for them, you are risking your life."

The storm is expected to head northwest across South Carolina, which has a northern border that reaches about 60 miles north of Wilmington. Storm conditions also could spawn tornadoes and landslides, officials said.

Rainfall in North Carolina has broken a state record, according to preliminary reports from the National Weather Service. More than 30 inches was recorded in Swansboro, N.C. The previous record of 24 inches was set in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd pounded the region.

More than 1 million power failures have been reported, according to the Department of Energy. More than 840,000 were in North Carolina -- almost one-fifth of the state.

The storm-related deaths include a mother and child killed when a tree fell on their home in Wilmington; 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 an 81-year-old man who died after falling and hitting his head while packing to evacuate.

Much of eastern North Carolina on Saturday was still reeling from Florence's first punch. In coastal Wilmington, driving rain continued to drench the city, wind gusts blew debris through nearly deserted streets, and power lines snaked across highways and suburban streets. Police Chief Ralph Evangelous urged residents to stay home. A curfew was in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

But after nearly three days of punishing rains and winds, people in Wilmington were desperate for food, water and gasoline. When the first grocery store reopened in south Wilmington on Saturday, "everybody rushed the doors -- it got crazy," said detective Bill Ostrosky of the Wilmington Police Department.

Power also was restored to a nearby Exxon station, attracting a line of cars that stretched for half a mile. Roughly 50 other people arrived on foot in a driving rainstorm, toting red 5-gallon gasoline containers.

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Floodwaters from Florence wash over the town of Engelhard, N.C., on Saturday.

In Myrtle Beach, where fears of widespread destruction ran high a couple of days ago, most of the oceanfront appeared to have weathered the hit, though officials were still assessing the damage throughout Horry County.

President Donald Trump's major-disaster declaration, approved Friday, paves the way for millions of dollars in aid for storm victims. Florence, the first major hurricane of the Atlantic season, is expected to cause an estimated $18 billion in damage -- $15 billion in North Carolina, $2 billion in South Carolina and $1 billion elsewhere.

In a tweet Saturday evening, Trump said: "Deepest sympathies and warmth go out to the families and friends of the victims. May God be with them!"

Trump said before the storm that the government is "as ready as anybody's ever been." The president plans this week to visit areas hit by Florence once officials determine the trip won't disrupt rescue and recovery efforts, spokesman Lindsay Walters said.

RESCUES AND RETURNS

Local, state and federal officials were rushing to rescue people stranded in half-submerged homes across the region. Volunteers joined the effort, including Tray Tillman, 26, a construction foreman who was part of a makeshift rescue flotilla that has plucked hundreds of stranded people from attics, second-floor bedrooms, church vestibules and crumbling decks.

"There is a lot of rain to come," said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He spoke during a news conference Saturday in which the Coast Guard said 43 aircraft had been deployed and five people had been rescued.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it was engaging in a $6.1 million response, monitoring federal dams, helping with rescues, and deploying pumps and portable barriers.

In New Bern, N.C., along the coast, homes were surrounded by water, and rescuers used helicopters and inflatable boats to reach hundreds of 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 fence post 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 spokesman 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 were damaged; Roberts called the destruction "heart-wrenching."

Retired Marine Garland King and his wife, Katherine, evacuated their home in New Bern on Friday and returned Saturday to a soggy, stinking mess.

"The carpets. The floors. Everything is soaking wet," Katherine King said.

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.

Marines rescued about 20 civilians from floodwaters near Camp Lejeune, using Humvees and amphibious assault vehicles, the base reported.

Beatrice Soliman of Houston said it had been more than 36 hours since she heard from her daughter, who lives with her husband, two children and two dogs, in Hubert, an hour east of New Bern.

"I'm nervous, I'm shaky and I haven't eaten for two days," Soliman said, adding that she had to turn off the television news coverage as the death toll rose. "I just want a text."

WASTEWATER SPILL

Damage in the Carolinas included an estimated 5.25 million gallons of wastewater that spilled into the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, N.C.

Two generators at a treatment plant failed Friday, leading to the spill, according to Bridget Munger, a spokesman for the state's Department of Environmental Quality.

Just outside Wilmington, a slope collapsed at a coal-ash landfill at a closed power station.

Duke Energy spokesman Paige Sheehan said Saturday night that about 2,000 cubic yards of ash -- more than 13 tractor-trailers' worth -- has been displaced at the retired coal-fired Sutton Plant. The company has been excavating coal ash, which contains lead and arsenic, to take it to safer, lined landfills.

Sheehan said the contaminated stormwater likely flowed into Sutton Lake, the plant's cooling pond. The company hadn't determined Saturday night whether any of the ash had flowed into the Cape Fear River.

North Carolina officials have warned of record flooding on the river this week, saying it could swell more than a mile past its banks and crest at 62 feet in Fayetteville, N.C. -- about 4 feet higher than it did during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

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A member of the U.S. Coast Guard wades through high water Saturday in Newport, N.C., to check houses for trapped people.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile of a stretch of that river and the Little River, about 100 miles from the coast. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.

North Carolina is also the nation's second-largest hog producer, and farms process feces in ponds laced with bacteria that break down the mess. Though farmers hurried to pump out their lagoons, record flooding risks spreading contamination widely.

More than 60 swine operations house more than 235,000 hogs that generate almost 202 million gallons of waste per year within the flood plain of North Carolina's coast, according to Waterkeepers, an activist group.

North Carolina is also the nation's top producer of tobacco, and it's forecast to harvest 158,800 acres this year. Half the eastern North Carolina crop "will be basically destroyed, blown away," Larry Wooten, president of the state's Farm Bureau, said Saturday.

Portions of the region not yet inundated made ready. Behind West Lumberton Baptist Church in Robeson County, N.C., a pair of John Deere front-end loaders raced to build a levee of sand and gravel over CSX railroad tracks.

Officials in Harnett County, N.C., urged residents of about 1,100 homes to clear out. One potential road out was blocked as flooding forced the shutdown of a 16-mile stretch of Interstate 95, a highway that stretches from Maine to Florida.

In South Carolina, more than 40 flamingos at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden were carried, one by one, from their outdoor enclosure, their necks craning over the shoulders of staff members, according to a video posted by ABC News. The birds wandered around a secured room equipped with a blue plastic paddling pool for comfort.

In Charlotte, N.C., the largest city in the storm's path and the banking capital of the South, officials expected a record 12 inches of rain, and Mayor Vi Alexander Lyles said her biggest concern is 2,400 properties in the flood plain.

More than 40,000 utility workers from at least 19 states are ready to restore power, according to a news release from the federal Energy Department. Besides Duke Energy, utilities in the Carolinas include South Carolina-owned Santee Cooper, Brunswick Electric Membership Corp., Jones Onslow Electric Membership and Lumbee River Electric Membership.

But for now, the struggle belongs to those in the storm's path.

"New Bern would qualify as apocalyptic," Will Hargett, a livestock broker based in Greenville, N.C., said in a text message Saturday after leaving his home last week. "We're just playing Noah up here."

Information for this article was contributed by Campbell Robertson, Richard Fausset and David Zucchino of The New York Times; by Mark Niquette, Olivia Carville, Brian K. Sullivan, Natasha Rausch, Justin Sink, Ryan Collins, Anna Edney, David Wethe, Olivia Carville, Justina Vasquez and Christopher Flavelle of Bloomberg News; and by Allen G. Breed, Jonathan Drew, Jeffrey Collins, Emery P. Dalesio, Denise Lavoie, Sarah Rankin, Gary Robertson, Meg Kinnard, Seth Borenstein, Michael Biesecker, Martha Waggoner, Jennifer Kay, Russ Bynum, Pete Iacobelli and Jay Reeves of The Associated Press.

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An uprooted tree lies next to a flooded home Saturday in New Bern, N.C.

A Section on 09/16/2018