Reckoning with Florence's devastating deluge
LUMBERTON, N.C. - North Carolina officials warned residents Saturday not to become "complacent" about Tropical Storm Florence, which, despite weaker-than-expected winds, is poised to cause historic flooding and devastation for many days across much of the region.
"We're trying to make it totally clear that this is deadly," Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin said, shortly after announcing an unprecedented mandatory evacuation order for all people who live within a mile of the Cape Fear River and the Little River. "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."
Video: Denis Railling and her husband of New Bern, N.C. decided to evacuate their home once they heard there may be contamination in the water. (Ashleigh Joplin, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)
The Cape Fear River was about 12 feet high on Friday afternoon and is expected to rise to more than 62 feet in Fayetteville by Tuesday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Colvin noted that four people died in his city during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when the river crested at 52 feet.
Florence already has set rainfall records and left tens of thousands of people in shelters and more than 1 million homes without power. Officials confirmed at least 11 deaths, including one Saturday in South Carolina.
But Gov. Roy Cooper, D, and other officials repeatedly warned Saturday that although people might think the worst of the storm is over, the volume of rainwater it will drop in the coming days will cause flooding not seen in a generation - if ever.
Video: Residents living in or traveling through New Bern, N.C. flocked to Smithfield's Chicken 'N Bar-B-Q on Saturday, one of few restaurants open in the area following Hurricane Florence.(Ashleigh Joplin,Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)
As of Saturday, Florence had dropped 30 inches of rain, shattering the record of 24 inches set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. And the forecast is for the storm, which has essentially stalled over North Carolina, to continue pouring down rain, perhaps 15 more inches.
"We face walls of water - at our coast, along our rivers, across farmland, in our cities and in our towns," Cooper said at a news briefing. "More people now face imminent threat than when the storm was just offshore. I cannot overstate it. Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren't watching for them, you are risking your life."
Officials issued several mandatory evacuation orders, including some 100 miles or more from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where Florence came ashore Friday with powerful winds and driving rains that only hinted at the catastrophic damage it is likely to inflict.
"Know that the water is rising fast - everywhere, even in places that don't typically flood," Cooper said. "This system is unloading epic amounts of rainfall, in some places measured in feet and not inches. Many people who think the storm has missed them have yet to see its threat."
Florence's sheer volume of water, much of it sucked up during its slow journey over warmer-than-usual Atlantic water, has left scientists sputtering for adequate descriptions.
The storm is going to dump about 18 trillion gallons of water, which is about the volume of the Chesapeake Bay, or enough to cover the state of Texas in four inches of water, said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist with weathermodels.com.
Maue said about 6 trillion gallons had fallen by Saturday afternoon. So, he said, "we're only about one-third of the way through this."
That means rain will overflow already full rivers and streams far from the shoreline, and that, in turn, will have cascading effects throughout the watershed.
Video: Residents along Elm Street in Lumberton, N.C. cast a nervous glance outside as rain pounds and water pools. But they say Hurricane Matthew in 2016 prepared them for Florence.(Jorge Ribas,Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
In Lumberton, about 90 miles from the coast, the Lumber River was just below the flood stage of 13 feet at midday Saturday, and NOAA predicted that will nearly double by midday Sunday and remain at that level at least into Thursday.
Even farther inland, NOAA predicted that the Little River will rise from 18 feet on Saturday to a record 35 feet on Sunday in Manchester, North Carolina, and it is predicted to stay above the previous record of 29 feet until at least Wednesday.
Despite the dire predictions and official warnings, some residents were staying put at home, hoping for the best.
As many of his Lumberton neighbors moved out Saturday, Tyson Jerald was busy moving in, hauling a dryer into the kitchen and assembling living room furniture.
Jerald, a 40-year-old truck driver, had one eye on the move. The other, as he put it, was "24/7 on the Weather Channel," as the swirling red-and-green image known as Florence traveled across the screen and toward his new home.
Two years ago, Hurricane Matthew swamped half of this neighborhood, which is divided by a canal that leads to the Lumber River. Jerald lived on the other side of the canal then, and his house was spared. But this storm feels different to him.
"We've never seen anything like this," he said. "But Matthew taught us some things. Now I've got gas in all the cars, a generator, cash and we will get out of Dodge if we have to."
A few houses down from Jerald's - and a few houses closer to the canal - Charlie McCormick was riding out the storm Saturday, his teenage children "happy and on Xbox and Netflix." But he said that decision could change Sunday, depending on Florence.
McCormick was in his home during Matthew, and he watched the canal spill the other way and flood the older section of the neighborhood.
"Our concern now is that the river will rise higher than it did with Matthew, and it looks like it will," he said. "We're watching, but there's not much else to do."
The storm also is predicted to swell rivers to extreme flood levels well into Virginia. The Dan River in Danville, Paces and South Boston is projected to rise from its current level of about seven to 10 feet to about 30 feet on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to NOAA.
In Roanoke, at the foot of Virginia's Shenandoah Mountains and nearly 300 miles from where Florence made landfall on a North Carolina beach, the Roanoke River is expected to rise from less than three feet now to more than 16 feet - major flooding levels - on Monday.
Rescue crews - federal, state, local and private volunteers - have helped hundreds of stranded people. And at least 20,000 people have moved into shelters in North Carolina, officials said.
Conditions are so poor across so much of the state that the head of North Carolina's transportation department asked that travelers avoid the state altogether.
Jim Trogdon suggested that travelers essentially go around the state, detouring through Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia, if necessary. He said he wanted to prevent drivers from getting stranded amid rising floodwater and to keep roads as clear as possible for emergency workers.
He noted that roads were flooding fast; the number of closures nearly doubled during the span of a few hours Saturday. Even major arteries such as Interstates 40 and 95 have been affected.
"Road conditions across nearly all of our state will be rapidly deteriorating in coming days," he said.
Also appearing at the afternoon briefing, Cooper, the governor, added: "Roads you think may be safe can be washed away in a matter of minutes."
In Wilmington, close to where Florence came ashore, county and local officials said at a news conference that they are pleased with the state and federal response, but they also pleaded for agencies to help the Wilmington area as soon as possible, before the flooding worsens.
"We're just now entering the thick of it," said Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Commission. "Overall, we survived this . . . but we're still in the middle of it."
Wrightsville Beach Mayor Bill Blair said that his oceanfront community suffered significant damage, but that "the structural damage is not as severe as it looks" on social media.
"We had some pretty big surges, and at high tide, the five- to six-foot surges very quickly covered a good portion of the island," he said. "We put out 75,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach a few months ago, and it looks like we lost most of it. But we did not have a breach" through the island.
Access to the popular beach community Saturday was still limited to police, fire, government and repair crews. Blair said teams were working to get water and sewer facilities open again.
Fallen trees and power lines blocked many Wilmington roads, and traffic lights were out virtually everywhere. Residents, clearly getting cabin fever after a full day indoors, began venturing out Saturday, but officials warned them to stay off the roads.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said some water-covered roads hide sinkholes that have developed in some locations. Twenty crews are clearing felled trees, but because many hanging or downed power lines hide within and beneath the trees, crews sometimes have to stop mid-work and call for utility crews to respond.
About 112,000 people, out of 127,000 locally, remain without power in Wilmington, and Duke Energy officials warned Friday that it could be weeks before power is fully restored.
At a Waffle House on Market Street, one of the very few businesses open Saturday, more than 20 people lined up outside, seeking hot food and a chance to get out of their homes.
"My kids are tired of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," said April Bellamy, 38, who said her apartment in the Creekwood neighborhood is without power and is likely to remain so for weeks.
"I've been on that side of town all my life, and we're always the last to get power," she said.
The Washington Post's Patricia Sullivan reported from Wilmington. Wax-Thibodeaux and Kevin Sullivan reported from Washington. Mark Berman, Brady Dennis and Abigail Hauslohner in Washington also contributed to this report.