CHARLOTTE, NC — Catastrophic flooding from tropical depression Florence is wreaking havoc across the Carolinas, swamping entire communities many miles inland and leaving death and destruction in its wake. Seventeen people are confirmed dead in the storm, once a terrifying Category 4 storm that has parked itself over the Carolinas for days. Deluges of 20 inches or more are common, cutting off entire communities. Some areas got a record 30 inches or more of rain.
Hundreds of residents remain stranded in what could be the worst flooding in North Carolina’s history, and nearly half a million people in the two states still don’t have power. In some areas, power restoration may not come for weeks, utility officials have said.
Florence is far from over. Swollen rivers as far as 250 miles inland could rise for days, and Florence remains a massive storm system over parts of six Southeastern states.
“Flood waters are still raging and the risk to life is rising with angry waters,” Gov. Roy Cooper said Sunday after the 17th death was confirmed. By Sunday, more than 900 lives had been saved by first responders, he said.
And, with reports of a landslide at an electric plant ash dump, there were also worries about what environmental dangers might lurk as the storm moves on and the water recedes.
Death Toll Climbs To 17
The latest death, confirmed Sunday, was that of a 3-month-old boy who was killed in Gaston, County, North Carolina, when a tree landed on a mobile home, splitting it in the middle. The infant’s parents were not hurt.
Other victims are:
Significant Flooding Still Ahead
Heavy Florence rains caused flash flooding and major river flooding Sunday. Sustained winds fell to about 35 mph Sunday as the storm advanced at about 8 mph. The slow crawl was expected to pour 5-10 inches of rain in western and central North Carolina.
The massive storm has been slow to move across North Carolina. Trillions of gallons of rain have been dumped across areas already ravaged by flooding. Some areas of coastal North Carolina have been hit by more than two feet of rain, which continues to fall.
The storm shaped up as a two-part disaster. The initial onslaught battered buildings, deluged entire communities with storm surge, and knocked out power to more than 900,000 homes and businesses; and the second delayed stage has been triggered by rainwater working its way into rivers and streams. Flash flooding could devastate communities and endanger dams, roads and bridges.
“These rainfall amounts will produce catastrophic flash flooding, prolonged significant river flooding, and an elevated risk for landslides in western North Carolina and far southwest Virginia,” the National Hurricane Center said Sunday.
Much of central North Carolina was under a flash flood watch, which is expected to remain in place until Monday evening. In Fayetteville, the Cape Fear River had swollen to flood stage, with an additional significant rise to come, the National Weather Service Raleigh said. “This will be very dangerous flooding over the next few days,” it said.
Along with the Cape Fear River, the Little River, Lumber River, Waccamaw River and Pee Dee River were all projected to burst their banks.
Power company crews pushed out into the state Saturday, making headway in restoring electricity. By 9:30 p.m. Sunday evening, about 480,360 homes in North Carolina were still without power, mostly in the southeastern region of the state. In South Carolina, nearly 19,000 homes still didn’t have power.
U.S. Department of Defense personnel and assets have been deployed to assist with state and Federal Emergency Management Agency relief efforts, including US Army Corps of Engineers, defense logisticians, and more than 1,100 high water vehicles and 14 swift water boats.
FEMA head Brock Long told NBC’s “Meet The Press” Sunday that officials are focused on finding people and rescuing them.
“We’ll get through this,” Long said. “It’ll be ugly, but we’ll get through it.”
‘Cut Off From The Rest Of The State’
Flood waters left Wilmington virtually cut off Sunday as homes and businesses in the city and other parts of New Hanover County faced the threat of losing access to drinking water because a major utility is critically low on fuel. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority warned residents to prepare for the worst in a statement on its website Sunday when customers were asked to begin making contingency plans, including filling up bathtubs and water jugs.
They could lose drinking water if the agency doesn’t get needed fuel within 48 hours, and was considering options such as trying to get fuel by ship or aircraft.
“We are in critical need of fuel to keep our water treatment plants running,” the utility wrote. “Basically, Wilmington is currently cut off from the rest of the state,” the agency said. “Needed resources cannot get here by roads due to extreme flooding.”
Collapse At Coal-Ash Landfill
Duke Energy said Saturday night that heavy rains from Florence caused a slope to collapse at a coal-ash landfill at a closed power station near the North Carolina coast. Contaminated runoff from about 2,000 cubic yards of ash likely flowed into the plant’s cooling pond, Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said.
The company has not yet determined whether the weir that drains the lake was open or if contamination may have flowed into the Cape Fear River. That’s enough ash to roughly fill 180 dump trucks.
The incident at the Duke coal-fired Sutton plant shuttered in 2013 renewed fears of environmental damage from Florence. The gray ash left behind when coal is burned contains toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead and mercury. Duke has been under intense scrutiny for the handling of its coal ash since a drainage pipe collapsed under a waste pit at an old plant in Eden in 2014, triggering a massive spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.
Spokeswoman Megan S. Thorpe at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality said state regulators will conduct a thorough inspection of the site as soon as safely possible.
“DEQ has been closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable in this record breaking rain event,” Thorpe said. She added that the department, after assessing the damage, will “hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment.”
There are at least two other coal-fired Duke plants in North Carolina that are likely to affected by the storm. the H.F. Lee Power Station near Goldsboro, which has three inactive ash basins that flooded during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and are likely to be inundated again by the swollen Neuse River.
At the W. H. Weatherspoon Power Station near Lumberton, Sheehan said it had already rained more than 30 inches by Saturday evening, causing a nearby swamp to overflow into the plants cooling pond. The Lumber River is expected to crest at more than 11 feet above flood stage Sunday, which would put the floodwaters near the top of the earthen dike containing the plant’s coal ash dump.
Environmentalists have been warning for decades that Duke’s coal ash ponds were vulnerable to severe storms and pose a threat to drinking water supplies and public safety.
“Unfortunately, Duke Energy has spent years lobbying and litigating and still has not removed the coal ash from its dangerous riverfront pits in the coastal area, some of which are in the floodplain,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has battled the company in court. “When a hurricane like Florence hits, we have to hope and pray that our communities do not suffer the consequences of years of irresponsible coal ash practices by the coal ash utilities.”
State regulators and environmental groups were also monitoring the threat from the large factory hog and chicken farms in low-lying, flood-prone areas. The animal confinement systems have enormous manure pits that can cause significant pollution if they are breeched or inundated with floodwaters.
A Soggy, Stinking Mess
In pockets where the rains and winds subsided enough, many residents returned to homes ravaged by the flooodwaters and wind. Many fields remained submerged under feet of water with their owners’ farmhouses still looking as if they were dropped in a lake.
The courtyard at Queen’s Point condos in New Bern filled with residents’ belongings after a 4-foot-high storm surge tore open the lower floors. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Retired Marine 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.
“It was tough. Wobbling. I was looking for water moccasins to hit me at any time,” he said.
They finally made it, and 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.”
Storm Headed To Ohio Valley
By Monday the storm is forecast to turn northward through the Ohio Valley. Maximum sustained winds are near 45 mph with higher gusts. Gradual weakening is forecast while Florence moves farther inland in the next couple of days.
“Life-threatening, catastrophic flash floods and prolonged significant river flooding are likely over portions of the Carolinas and the southern to central Appalachians from western North Carolina into southwest Virginia through early next week, as Florence moves slowly inland,” the National Hurricane Center repeated Saturday in a bulletin. “In addition to the flash flood and flooding threat, landslides are also possible in the higher terrain of the southern and central Appalachians across western North Carolina into southwest Virginia.”
On Saturday, President Donald Trump issued a disaster declaration for these counties in the state: Beaufort, Brunswick, Carteret, Craven, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico and Pender, the White House said.
More than 200 people were pulled from floodwaters in the small city of New Bern, North Carolina, on Friday. Rescue workers had to leave another 150 people behind as the storm conditions worsened and retuned to get them Saturday.
Some of the rescues Saturday were particularly dramatic. Coast Guard helicopters flew overhead and hoisted 13 people trapped in a Jacksonville home 40 feet into the sky to safety. Among the 13 adults were an older woman who waded through the waist-deep water on crutches to the chopper’s rescue basket. She is expected to be OK, as are the other dozen people plucked from the murky water.
State officials announced that all lanes of Interstate 95, south of US 64 around the Fayetteville area, are closed. North Carolina Highway Patrol Commander Glenn McNeill urged out-of-state motorists to avoid driving through the state. McNeill said that as the storm continues to move west, floodwaters are affecting primary and secondary roads. He said residents should stay off the roads.
If residents have evacuated and have found a safe location, stay there, he added.
North Carolina emergency officials urge all residents to:
Patch editor Paul Scicchitano and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Lead image: Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence surround a house and flow along the street on Sept. 16, 2018, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Rain continues to inundate the region causing concern for large scale flooding after Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina and South Carolina area. The storm has been downgraded to a tropical depression. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)