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 15.
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, Florence was still massive. Radar showed parts of the sprawling storm over six states, with North and South Carolina in the bull’s-eye.
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!”
The storm’s death toll climbed to 15 when a pickup truck ran off Interstate 20 in South Carolina and struck an overpass support, killing the driver. Earlier, authorities said a man drowned after his pickup truck flipped into a drainage ditch along a flooded South Carolina road and two people died from inhaling carbon monoxide from a generator in their home.
About 740,000 homes and businesses remained without power in the Carolinas, and utilities said some could be out for weeks.
Victor Merlos was overjoyed to find a store open for business in Wilmington since he had about 20 relatives staying at his apartment, which still had power. He spent more than $500 on cereal, eggs, soft drinks and other necessities, plus beer.
“I have everything I need for my whole family,” said Merlos. Nearby, a Waffle House restaurant limited breakfast customers to one biscuit and one drink, all take-out, with the price of $2 per item.
Florence was still spinning slowly atop the Carolinas as it pulled warm water from the ocean and hurled it onshore. Kenneth Campbell had donned waterproof waders intending to check out his home in Lumberton, but he didn’t bother when he saw the Coast Guard and murky waters in his neighborhood.
“I’m not going to waste my time. I already know,” he said.
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 Little River, the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse, the Waccamaw and the Pee Dee were all projected to burst their banks, possibly flooding nearby communities. 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.
Already, more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) of rain had fallen in places, and forecasters were saying there could be an additional 1½ feet (45 centimeters) before Sunday was out. In Swansboro, North Carolina, nearly 34 inches of rain had fallen by Sunday afternoon and 14 other places in North Carolina had at least 20 inches, according to the National Weather Service. Another 16 locations in North and Carolina had at least 10 inches.
“Flood waters are still raging across parts of our state, and the risk to life is rising with the angry waters,” Cooper said. “If you aren’t watching for them, you are risking your life.”
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 (13 kph). At 5 a.m., the storm was centered about 20 miles (35 kilometers) southwest of Columbia, South Carolina. Its winds were down to 35 mph (55 kph).
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.
Duke Energy said heavy rains caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at a closed power station outside Wilmington late Saturday. Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said about 2,000 cubic yards (1,530 cubic meters) of ash were displaced at the Sutton Plant and that contaminated storm water likely flowed into the plant’s cooling pond.
Near the flooded-out town of New Bern, where about 455 people had to be rescued from the swirling flood waters, water completely surrounded churches, businesses and homes. In the neighboring town of Trenton, downtown streets were turned to creeks full of brown water.
Still, 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.”