WILMINGTON, N.C. — This city has always embraced the water, with a lively riverfront on one side and the ocean on the other. But in the wake of Hurricane Florence, water has rendered Wilmington an island, shut off from the rest of the world.
It is impossible to get in and out of the city now. Flooding closed interstates and secondary roads, choking it off by land. The airport has been shuttered since Wednesday. It is not accessible by sea, with the Port of Wilmington on Cape Fear River closed.
Wilmington likely will stay marooned for at least another day. It is still raining. It has been raining nearly constantly for days. The rivers are still rising, widespread flooding is expected, and Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said the storm has “never been more dangerous.”
Officials said at least 450 people were rescued from floodwaters in the Wilmington area.
One official issued a blunt warning to anyone looking to travel to Wilmington, including those who evacuated ahead of the storm and are anxiously waiting to return and see the condition of their home.
“Do not come here,” said Woody White, chairman of the board of commissioners of New Hanover County. “There’s no access to Wilmington.”
The vast majority of this waterlogged city of about 117,000 people in the southeastern part of North Carolina remained without power, which meant no television, Internet or social media — in a city that is home to a 50-acre studio lot where television shows such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Eastbound & Down” have been filmed. Cellphone batteries are dying after a weekend without recharging, and even for those who have extra juice, the mobile networks cannot handle the demand that is being placed on them.
Local authorities, looking at the prospect of catastrophic flooding from the Cape Fear River and limited help from outside the city or its county of New Hanover, are visibly nervous about the situation.
“Every single road coming into the city or New Hanover County is impassable. The river has not crested and will not until possibly Tuesday,” said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo (D).
The major thoroughfares include Interstates 40 and 140, which are closed in parts.
State and federal agencies have promised a robust response. Duke Energy, the mega-utility that serves the Southeast, plans to have up to 1,000 trucks in the greater Wilmington area as soon as it is safe for crews to get here.
The local water utility, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, issued a dire warning Sunday: Without an influx of diesel and gasoline, it would run out of fuel for its water-treatment plant, cutting off water for fire suppression, for the major regional hospital and drinking water. The county came through with enough fuel to keep the water-treatment plants and its pumps operating, but it underscores what days without power and outside help can do to a community.
Officials said they are pleased with the state and federal response so far, but are concerned about whether adequate resources will be in place as the Cape Fear River continues to rise and the flooding threat increases.
The demand for shelters remains high. Five are open and New Hanover County is opening a sixth that houses nearly 1,400 people.
Some residents, cooped up for two or more days in their dark, hot homes, took to the roads Sunday despite multiple warnings from police to refrain from driving. But few places were open. Gas lines were two hours long. Few stores were open, and those that were saw people waiting hours in rain and stifling humidity to purchase necessities.
But the arterial streets were busy, as motorists drove past vacant lots covered with water, parking lots covered with water, and yards covered with water. Jagged shreds of trees replaced their graceful predecessors and every mile or so, power lines drooped across streets. Few people were out on foot; those pedestrians were raking up debris or seeking elusive open gas stations or food stores. Branches and power lines littered the streets, and gas station canopies were ripped off.
A curfew that went into effect Friday was expanded Sunday after five people were arrested on suspicion of looting a dollar store. Residents cannot be on the streets between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Many residents who rode out the storm despite evacuation orders seemed nonplused by the fact that Wilmington is cut off from the rest of the world. Many were more concerned that they are spending yet another day without air conditioning or adequate phone battery life.
Justin Wakefield and his 11-year-old cousins, twins Sean Carney and Erin Carney, sat outside the closed Snack Box store in downtown Wilmington checking their phones during a relatively balmy break from the rain Sunday afternoon.
The Carolina Beach residents had evacuated the coast and were staying at an Airbnb above the store with 10 family members. They are done with the rain, the power outage and being away from home.
“This is nerve-racking,” Wakefield, 36, said. “You go stir-crazy and the kids are going nuts. We’re getting low on food and it’s a mess. We’re all pretty hungry and tired of PB&J.”
“And no Internet! I want to watch YouTube,” said Sean. “I want to get back to the island so I can go fishing and cook.”
Tracy Turner stayed in Wilmington to protect her home, which was newly built and sits in an unfinished subdivision. The police officer knew what she was getting into and stocked her home with a generator and plenty of food. She got lucky: The house only lost power for a few minutes and is filled with friends who don’t have power and their dogs.
She has seen many acts of kindness, including someone who cleared the trees from the front of their subdivision, and believes the storm is an opportunity for the community to come together.
“I don’t personally feel isolated and I know the leaders of this community have been doing all they can,” she said.
Jason Mohr, an HVAC worker who was out for some fresh air with his buddies, shrugged off the fact that no one can get in or out of the city.
“Maybe if you’re from out of town, you feel trapped, he said, “but we live here.”
Zezima reported from Washington.