WILMINGTON, N.C. — The death toll from Hurricane Florence rose Monday to 32, and the misery in the Carolinas might be many days from cresting. The historic storm has disrupted life for millions of people, and the surging floodwaters have spawned an environmental calamity across a vast region pocked with manure ponds and coal ash pits.
Florence is gone, devolving into a wet atmospheric blob drifting toward the Northeast, and the sun has finally come out here. But life has not returned to normal. The Carolinas are rattled and anxious amid rising waters. Going anywhere in a vehicle is still perilous. Hundreds of thousands of people have no electricity, and many schools remain shuttered.
The number of closed and impassable roads climbed to 1,500 in North Carolina, the U.S. Transportation Department said. Interstates 40 and 95, two of the state’s main transportation arteries, are only partially open. Many communities are isolated, including this storm-battered city wedged between the coast and the Cape Fear River.
Thousands of people remain in emergency shelters across the state. First responders have rescued 2,600 people and 300 animals, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said at a news conference.
“Catastrophic flooding and tornadoes are still claiming lives and property. For most parts of North Carolina, the danger is still immediate,” Cooper said. Authorities in North Carolina said late Monday that 25 people in the state had died from storm-related causes, while officials in South Carolina said they had confirmed six deaths linked to the storm. Officials in Chesterfield County, Va., linked one fatality to the remnants of Florence after a building partially collapsed during an apparent tornado that spun off from the storm Monday afternoon.
Among the dead was 1-year-old Kaiden Lee-Welch, whose body was found Monday in Union County, N.C., the sheriff’s office said. Officials said the child’s mother drove past barricades Sunday night and hit rushing water. She managed to get the baby out of a car seat, but the violent flood carried the boy away.
“I know people are eager to get back to work and get back to school,” the governor said. “I urge you, if you don’t have to drive, stay off the road.”
As the region’s waters rise, numerous environmental hazards are materializing in the Carolinas. The North Carolina Pork Council reported a manure lagoon breach on a small farm in Duplin County but said the solids remained contained.
“While there are more than 3,000 active lagoons in the state that have been unaffected by the storm, we remain concerned about the potential impact of these record-shattering floods,” the council said on its website.
Many hog ponds in eastern North Carolina were damaged during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and the bacteria-laden liquid and solid waste flowed downstream to estuaries, inciting algae blooms and fish kills.
Duke Energy’s two Brunswick nuclear reactors remain stable, but the isolation of the facilities by floodwaters, and the difficulty workers faced going to and from the site, led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the weekend to declare a “hazardous event.” Duke Energy said no employees are stranded and there is no flooding at the site.
In a number of locations in eastern North Carolina, the sewer- and drinking-water systems have been damaged or overwhelmed.
“We do have observed releases of wastewater from manholes, from overtopped sewer areas in the impacted zone,” Reggie Cheatham, the Environmental Protection Agency’s director of emergency management, said in a teleconference with reporters.
Cheatham said the wastewater treatment system in Jacksonville, N.C., which experienced storm surge during Florence’s landfall on Friday morning, suffered a “catastrophic” failure.
“They basically had to deal with the storm surge, loss of power, and obviously shut down pumps, and the system completely depressurized, and they haven’t been able to bring that back up,” he said.
He said the wastewater system in Wilmington had released partially treated water into the Cape Fear River. Other sites experiencing releases of wastewater include the eastern North Carolina communities of Princeton and Kenansville, Cheatham said.
Also in Wilmington, a second breach has occurred in a coal ash landfill at a Duke Energy facility. Flooding had damaged a containment wall this weekend and led to an estimated 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash flowing into a ditch not far from the Cape Fear River. Duke Energy employees and contractors worked with heavy machinery to create a new berm to contain the material. The company said the coal ash, which the EPA considers toxic, poses no hazard to the public or the environment. The details of the second breach remain unclear, Cheatham said.
A CSX train hauling chemicals derailed late Sunday in Anson County, N.C., south of Charlotte and near the South Carolina border. Cheatham said eight cars derailed due to washed-out tracks. An unknown volume of diesel fuel spilled, but the fuel did not reach the nearby Pee Dee River, he said.
Many people flooded out of their homes will not be able to return quickly. Some rivers in the Piedmont have hit their high-water mark and will begin to drop. But the story is different in the flat marshlands to the east, where the rivers will crest and then stay at elevated levels for many days, said Trent Ferguson, the South Atlantic Division water manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In Lumberton, N.C., a temporary berm hastily constructed to prevent the Lumber River from surging into the west side of town collapsed Sunday night, sending a blast of sand and mud across the road and unleashing torrents of water into neighborhoods. The sandbag barrier was built by volunteers late last week in hopes of preventing Florence’s floodwaters from pouring through a spot where Hurricane Matthew caused damage just two years ago.
Lee Hester, deputy commander of Lumberton Rescue and EMS, estimated there were as many as 800 homes in the flooded neighborhood. “Some people left after Matthew,” he said. “But there are still a lot of people there.”
By Monday afternoon, the sky had cleared and Lumberton residents had their first glimpse of sunshine in almost a week. But Florence was not finished wreaking destruction. The surging Lumber River engulfed streets and homes and made many roads in the city impassable.
Here in Wilmington, people wait nervously for the Cape Fear River to crest. The water level hit 17 feet on Monday and is expected to rise to 24 feet by next weekend, said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo. The river flooding feels like a second natural disaster, coming in the wake of the hurricane strike.
“Evacuees, do not return until you are notified to do so,” said Woody White, chairman of the board of commissioners of New Hanover County, where Wilmington is located. “It is not now.”
Food is becoming an issue. It ran low at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center, according to Wayne Strauss, the hospital’s food service director. With the usual supply routes cut off, the Army came to the rescue, sending a cargo plane from Fort Bragg, outside Fayetteville, N.C. It touched down on a Harris Teeter parking lot Monday afternoon. An assembly line of soldiers and hospital employees passed boxes of food, plates and plastic cups out of the back of the plane and into a waiting truck.
“The supplies will help us survive,” Strauss said.
New Hanover County officials said they also have received 20 truckloads of food and water from Fort Bragg, enough to sustain up to 60,000 people for the next three days. The trucks arrived Monday along back roads, led by savvy state troopers who knew how to get through the flooded lowlands.
That route was for professional drivers only: No “safe, stable and reliable route currently exists for the public to get to and from Wilmington,” the state Department of Transportation said late Monday.
About 800 people are staying in the county’s newly consolidated shelter at Hoggard High School, and they are being fed by the county. One person died there Monday morning of natural causes, officials said.
As a few more stores open, District Attorney Ben David warned that prosecutors will target any companies engaging in price-gouging. He also urged residents to get several estimates before hiring contractors to clean up and repair their homes.
The storm could cost the region up to $22 billion, most of it in property losses, according to an analysis released Monday by Moody’s Analytics. The company warned that “there is a high probability that Florence’s costs will be revised significantly higher with added information or inland flooding.”
Berman and Achenbach reported from Washington. Kirk Ross in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sarah Kaplan in Lumberton, N.C., Kristine Phillips in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.