Florence evacuees return as others brace for more flooding
WILMINGTON, N.C. — The trillions of gallons of water dumped by Hurricane Florence continue to slowly meander their way to the sea, leaving billions of dollars of damage in their wake.
The crisis is slowly moving to South Carolina, where there was enough warning and certainty about where the water was going that hundreds of people loaded furniture from their homes into trucks and flatbeds to take to higher ground.
Officials downstream sounded dire alarms, pointing out the property destruction and environmental disasters left in Florence’s wake.
“We’re at the end of the line of all waters to come down,” said Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway, as he warned the area may see a flood like it has never seen before.
In North Carolina, a familiar story was unfolding as many places that flooded in Hurricane Matthew in 2016 were once again inundated.
Two years ago, flooding ruined the baseboards and carpet of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Spring Lake. The congregation rebuilt, This year, water from the Little River water broke the windows, leaving the pews a jumbled mess and soaked Bibles and hymn books on the floor.
“I’m so sad just thinking about all the work we put in. My gut is turning up,” church member Dennis DeLong said. “We put a lot of heart and soul into putting it back up.”
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster estimated damage from the flood in his state at $1.2 billion in a letter that says the flooding will be the worst disaster in the state’s modern history. McMaster asked Congressional leaders to hurry federal aid.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said he knows the damage in his state will add up to billions of dollars, but said with the effects on the storm ongoing, there was no way to make a more accurate estimate.
Florence is blamed for at least 41 deaths in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Well over half of those killed were in vehicles.
Potential environmental problems remained. Duke Energy issued a high-level emergency alert after floodwaters from the Cape Fear River overtopped an earthen dike and inundated a large lake at a closed power plant near Wilmington, North Carolina. The utility said it did not think any coal ash was at risk.
State-owned utility Santee Cooper in South Carolina is placing an inflatable dam around a coal ash pond near Conway, saying the extra 2.5 feet (76 centimeters) should be enough to keep floodwaters out. Officials warned human, hog and other animal waste were mixing in with floodwaters in the Carolinas.
In Wilmington, things kept creeping back closer to normal in the state’s largest coastal city. Officials announced the end of a curfew and the resumption of regular trash pickup.
But they said access to the city of 120,000 was still limited and asked people who evacuated to wait a few more days. They also warned people to not get caught off guard as rivers that briefly receded were periodically rising back.
The storm continues to severely hamper travel. Parts of the main north-south route on the East coast, Interstate 95, and the main road to Wilmington, Interstate 40, remain flooded and will likely be closed at least until nearly the end of September, North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said.
More than a thousand other roads from major highways to neighborhood lanes are closed in the Carolinas, officials said. Some of them have been washed out entirely.
The flood has been giving so much warning to Horry County, South Carolina, that officials published a detailed map of places that flooded in 2016 and warned those same places were going underwater again. One man had time to build a 6-foot-high (1.8-meter) dirt berm around his house.
The Waccamaw River has started its slow rise in the city of 23,000, and forecasters expect it to swell more than 3 feet (0.90 meters) above the previous record crest by Tuesday while still rising. Some areas could stay underwater for weeks, forecasters warned.