WILMINGTON, N.C. — The water is everywhere — flooding interstates, swamping homes and swelling rivers that keep climbing. The rain stopped falling, but the water remains, endless water clogging up the highway, overwhelming gauges meant to measure rivers, stretching out in every direction.
“Even though there’s no substantial rain now in the forecast and the sun may be shining, rivers continue to rise, and we will see more flooding,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said at a briefing Tuesday.
The storm has pummeled North Carolina, leaving people here stranded at home, blocked from traveling, sweltering as they wait for the power to come on and the water to recede.
Florence, the storm that brought the misery, has gone from a hurricane to a tropical depression to a meandering system that dropped rain over the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. It left behind deaths in at least three states and carved an arc of destruction that had not fully become clear, though one preliminary analysis said could cost up to $20 billion in property losses.
Cooper said North Carolina had confirmed a 26th death from the storm, pushing the toll to 33 lives lost so far in the Carolinas and Virginia, including at least three children between the ages of three months and one year old.
Florence and its deluge have washed out the normal contours of life across the Tar Heel State. Cooper said more than 1,100 roads remained closed on Tuesday, including Interstates 95 and 40 and other major routes. Images of Interstate 95 released by the North Carolina Department of Transportation showed the roadway flooded near Lumberton, N.C., and the department said there was still “no safe/reliable route” to or from Wilmington on Tuesday.
More than 340,000 people still lacked electrical power, Cooper said. About 10,000 people had filled the state’s shelters, while many others sought sanctuary with family, friends or hotels. Cooper pleaded for patience, warning North Carolinians that heading onto the roads could pose intense dangers.
“I know it was hard to leave home, and it’s even harder to wait and wonder whether you even have a home to go back to,” he said. “But please, for your safety and the effectiveness of our emergency operations, do not try to return home yet.”
William “Brock” Long, the embattled FEMA administrator facing mounting questions about an investigation into his use of government vehicles, traveled to North Carolina this week and met with state officials, who praised him and his agency for their assistance.
“I’m very pleased with where we are but I know we’ve got a long way to go, because this event’s not over,” Long said at the news briefing with Cooper, where he was asked no questions about the investigation dogging him in Washington.
Long said the next two days would be critical, adding: “We realize this is going to be a big recovery mission.” He described North Carolina’s response to the storm so far as a model for other states and said it was important for him to be on the ground to help them “overcome this hit.”
Cooper said he believed there were plans for President Trump to visit on Wednesday, though he noted such plans can be fluid; the governor also said he would meet with the president during the visit.
The National Weather Service said Tuesday that even with Florence gone, a stretch of the eastern United States spanning hundreds of miles from South Carolina to Virginia was still vulnerable to moderate or major flooding.
“Hurricane Florence will go down as one of the most significant rainfall events on record in the Carolinas, producing widespread, catastrophic flooding,” according to the Weather Service. The highest observed rainfall total was in Elizabethtown, N.C., where just shy of 36 inches — three feet of rain — was reported. Swansboro and Gurganus both topped 30 inches, the service said.
In Fayetteville, city officials reported the Cape Fear River had reached 59 feet — “above Hurricane Matthew levels,” referencing the 2016 storm that flooded North Carolina — by Tuesday morning and was expected to crest early Wednesday morning at more than 61 feet. The National Weather Service said a reading of the Rocky River’s reach east of Charlotte was unavailable because equipment had been damaged by flooding and other gauges were also damaged by debris or were plunged underwater.
Florence’s slow-motion onslaught has spurred environmental concerns, while public health officials have warned the flooding could wreak havoc on septic systems.
The storm left people uncertain about what would come next. Delores Turner has been waiting for days at the Eastbrook Apartments in Wilmington to find out when her lights would come back on, when she would be able to refill her insulin or how she would be able to keep her medication cool.
Turner, 76, was on her fifth day without power and had run out of insulin Tuesday morning. It was sweltering inside, flies buzzing around a refrigerator containing rotten food.
Turner’s daughter was at CVS trying to refill the insulin. Even if she was able to replenish her supply, Turner did not know how she would keep the medication cold. She ran out of ice two days ago. She has not heard any information from her regular pharmacy about when she will be able to replenish her other medications.
“It seems to me they would have helped the senior citizens, but it don’t seem to me like they care,” Turner said, holding a thin fabric fan. She kept her door and windows open but sometimes used her walker to get to the porch when the apartment became too unbearable.
“I think I would die in here without any air,” she said. Along the wall behind her couch hung a plaque: “Don’t Quit.”
Then a pickup truck turned into the parking lot with Jay Young at the driver’s seat and Styrofoam containers of hot spaghetti in tow. He had come from Compassion Church in Wilmington after a social worker called about Turner needing help.
When he walked into Turner’s apartment and shook her hands, her eyes lit up.
Others headed out to try to find supplies. Henrietta McKoy said she had no power at her home in the Eastbrook Apartment complex, so she and three friends caravanned Tuesday morning to a food and water distribution site at Cape Fear Community College.
Tracey Tyson, who was in the car, said she had not been able to keep her insulin cold and needed to go to a hospital. Tyson’s daughter is six months pregnant but had only been able to eat one meal a day, usually a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The others in the car were not sure what supplies would be available and hoped for toiletries and cleaning products, because they were worried about breathing in mold.
“You come in my house, it smells just like the sewer,” McKoy said.
McKoy said she had a hard time getting to the distribution center because friends only wanted to bring her along if she had gas money. She was worried she would not be able to take supplies back to those still at the apartment complex because others might think she was hoarding supplies for herself.
“We’re supposed to come together,” she said. “It seems everybody is for themselves and not for other people. I wasn’t raised like that.”
When McKoy’s Nissan pulled up to the front of the distribution line, a worker yelled to ask how many supplies he could hand over between the four households. He was then told the group would only be allowed two of everything. If they needed more, they would have to come back again tomorrow.
Bob Hayes heard about the distribution on the radio and walked up to the line. He was told he could only take one tarp, even though his neighbors’ roofs were leaking. “I’m trying to get a tarp for all of them,” he said. Behind him, a woman dragged a cart carrying her new bounty. “This is a blessing,” she said. “I’m grateful.”
In South Carolina, the rain also stopped, but Jess White’s problems had barely started. He lives near a swamp attached to the rising Waccamaw River just outside of Myrtle Beach, S.C., and his six-acre property has been flooded for days. The thigh-high waters had receded, but he expects they will rise again as the river swells, which White said could push a foot of water into his home.
White said he has about two days to evacuate his neighborhood before flooding gets worse. He expects to lose his home, which has been in the family for three generations; he does not have flood insurance, he said, because he could not afford it.
“It’s going to come back,” said White, 42, who lives in Conway, a bedroom community northwest of the tourist town of Myrtle Beach. “It’s going to displace my families. It’s going to be a mess.”
The flooding also will impact people who prepared this week for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, which begins on Tuesday night and continues on Wednesday.
In New Bern, N.C., which was battered by flooding and saw hundreds of evacuations, Carla Byrnes, president of Temple B’nai Sholem, said the synagogue would be closed for the holiday. Of the roughly 110 congregants from five surrounding counties, two-thirds had evacuated, Byrnes said, while the temple itself had no electricity.
Byrnes said any remaining congregants would have to travel instead to Greenville for services on the holiday, which is known as the day of atonement.
“I’m of the opinion god will forgive us,” Byrnes said.
Phillips reported from Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Berman reported from Washington.