LUMBERTON, N.C. — Flood waters crested at near record levels on one river Thursday while levels continued to rise along other waterways as rescue teams in motorboats and helicopters fanned out seeking anyone still cut off by the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
The Tar River north of Greenville was at 24.8 feet shortly before dawn — nearly four feet above flood stage — but was expected to start falling, the National Weather Service said.
It warned, however, that the shifting flood zones can quickly swallow roadways. “If you encounter deep water while driving, do not attempt to drive through,” said the bulletin. “Turn around, don’t drown.”
To the south, the swollen Neuse River underscored the flood threats facing parts of the state for the coming days even as rescue teams try to move people out of danger and utility crews work to restore power to nearly 200,000 customers.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said Wednesday that storm-related deaths now stand at 19 across the state, and he again called for full-scale evacuation from threatened areas. Among them: the valley below Wood Lake Dam, about 20 miles northwest of Fayetteville, which has been reinforced but remains in danger of failing.
“We’ve had too many deaths,” said McCrory. “Get out. Once the water flows, it’s too late.”
The National Weather Service predicted that the Neuse was moving toward “dangerous flooding levels” of near 27.5 feet by early Saturday near the town of Kinston before starting to fall. The rise — already above the 14-foot flood stage in the area — is forecast to top the spillover from destructive Hurricane Floyd 17 years ago.
Matthew Young’s home in Kinston was inundated with water during a flash flood on Saturday. The rain was falling too hard during Hurricane Matthew for the soil to absorb it. He’s using the evenings after work to clean up the mess, but his renter’s insurance does not cover flood damage. He told The Washington Post he’ll be applying for FEMA assistance.
“It will be weeks before things are even remotely back to normal here,” Young said.
Many of the Kinston homes, buildings and farms that were flooded Saturday are getting hit for the second time in less than a week as the Neuse River climbs to a new record. Mandatory evacuations have been in place since Monday along the river in Lenoir County, where Kinston is located, but some residents aren’t budging.
“Although the water is rising slowly, it IS RISING,” B.J. Murphy, Kinston’s mayor, wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday morning. “We have knocked on every door a minimum of two times and left notices at empty homes. Our Kinston Police Department will continue to knock until we can’t get there any more.”
“If you know someone living in these areas, please plead with them to get out,” Murphy added.
In Princeville — a town that was submerged by flooding after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 — the swollen Tar River is threatening the low-lying town in a close call that residents here are struggling to fathom. After Floyd, the town was fortified in an expensive engineering process that aimed to prevent something similar from ever happening again. Officials in Edgecombe County say they believe Princeville will escape without major damage, but water began entering one section of the town on Wednesday morning.
“It’s ankle-deep in the back of town,” said William Johnson, Edgecombe County’s assistant manager.
For now, the town sits entirely empty, and evacuated residents follow the Tar River levels with updates on their phones. The river stands at 36 feet. A dike, constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Floyd, is built to protect Princeville up to 37 feet. The river is expected to crest early Wednesday afternoon.
Though the dike — a crown-like cap at the north part of town — has held as designed, water is entering through the side, after the dike tapers off. Princeville town manager Daniel Gerald said water was also being pressured into town through a storm drain, “reverse-vacuumed in” under pressure from the river.
“I’ve never seen this, and I’m a water and sewer guy,” Gerald said.
Princeville is thought to be the first town in the U.S. settled by freed slaves. After Floyd, nearly every home was submerged and destroyed, and some residents slept in FEMA trailers for more than a year.
Nearly 25 deaths in the United States have been blamed on Matthew as it churned up the East Coast after killing hundreds in Haiti and battering Cuba and the Bahamas.
Across four states — Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas — nearly 4,500 people stayed in Red Cross shelters on Tuesday night, according to a Red Cross spokesperson. The majority of those displaced residents, around 3,800, were holed up in 57 shelters across eastern North Carolina.
“We’re trying to make sure people have a dry place, a roof over their heads and a warm meal,” said Peter Macias, a Red Cross spokesperson. Nurses and mental health professionals have volunteered their time to ensure shelter residents are mentally and physically healthy, Macias told The Post in a phone call from North Carolina.
The flood dealt a direct blow to the poorest section of North Carolina, a tract of farmland and towns struggling after losing manufacturing jobs. More than 4,000 people have been forced from their homes into shelters at high schools and recreation centers, many lacking flood insurance, health insurance or stable employment. McCrory said the challenges ahead include finding temporary housing for those displaced by the floods.
In some hard-hit communities, like Lumberton, the flooding also cut along socioeconomic lines: A white area of town was preserved, while a lower-lying African American section now stands in several feet of water. But in other parts of the state, emergency officials say, a diverse group of people has been pushed from their homes.
“When a flood like this hits, the pain of it is exacerbated by the poverty,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “What we’re talking about, particularly in eastern Carolina, are some of the poorest communities in the country — black and white, who already had economic challenges before something like this.”
At shelters Tuesday, people said they were uncertain how long they would be sleeping in bleachers and on gym floors.
“It’s a low feeling,” said Mae Campbell, 65, of Lumberton. “Embarrassing. Degrading.”
States of emergency remained in effect in nearly half of the state’s 100 counties, and 52 shelters housed more than 4,300 people, officials said. Another hazard on the horizon: chemicals and dead animals that could contaminate some water supplies.
In Robeson County, where Lumberton is the county seat, rescue workers were scrambling to reach more than 1,000 people, many of them in a neighborhood of small apartment complexes and public housing.
In addition to the drowning deaths, investigators probed a fatal shooting of a man in Lumberton involving a North Carolina Highway Patrol officer and two deputies during “the high-water situation,” McCrory said.
The shooting took place during swift-water search-and-rescue efforts in downtown Lumberton. Three law enforcement officers — two members of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office and a Highway Patrol sergeant — were conducting search-and-rescues when they encountered the man shortly after 8 p.m. Monday.
They were traveling on a flooded part of West Fifth Street when they met the man, who then “became hostile towards the officers and displayed a handgun,” the Highway Patrol said in a statement Tuesday. “The shooting took place in swift water that was approximately three to four feet deep and resulted in a male succumbing to injuries,” according to a statement by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
The North Carolina Highway Patrol on Tuesday afternoon said officer J.F. Hinson, a 13-year veteran assigned to a patrol office in Robeson County, has been placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.
Authorities were still working to identify the next-of-kin of the man fatally shot by Hinson, the highway patrol said Tuesday. Once that is done, authorities will identify him.
“While we are saddened by any loss of life, I am thankful that our member and the Robeson County Sheriffs’ deputies were not injured,” Col. Bill Grey, commander of the Highway Patrol, said in a statement. The Highway Patrol asked the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate the shooting.
The unidentified man in Lumberton was at least the 746th person to be shot and killed by a police officer this year, according to a Washington Post database tracking such shootings.
In areas hit hard by Hurricane Matthew, entire neighborhoods were evacuated as officials also moved hospital patients and prison inmates from areas of possible flooding.
“But this could still get a lot worse,” said John Locklear, a local volunteer firefighter who was driving a military vehicle in Lumberton on Monday. “Each house is going to have to be searched. Just like New Orleans.”
Though the rain had subsided two days earlier, this community — like other inland areas across the state — was reckoning with the hurricane’s delayed blow, coming as rainfall rushed into larger bodies of water and overwhelmed levees and drainage systems.
The Lumber River was at a record 24 feet, half-swallowing the southern part of Lumberton. In that area, garbage cans and tree branches and charcoal grills floated down the road. Basketball backboards poked from the water — but their nets were submerged. Hundreds of people had initially evacuated to an elementary school, but then water started rushing in and the evacuations started anew.
Sonar equipment detected several submerged vehicles.
“I’m scared to give you an estimate” about the death toll, said Erich Hackney, a councilman for the city of Lumberton, “and I’m scared to know what we’ll find.”
Though Hurricane Matthew approached Florida with Category 4 strength, this region was caught off-guard. Last Friday, the Weather Service predicted that the Lumber River would crest at 19.4 feet, below the record of 20.5. But Matthew ultimately tracked closer to the North Carolina coast than predicted, and Lara Pagano, a Weather Service hydrologist, said the forecast changed “truly as [the event] was happening.”
“Hurricanes will wobble back and forth, and that makes all the difference in where we see the heaviest rainfall,” she said.
Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction and erosion specialist with North Carolina State University’s Sea Grant program, said the flooding is driven by the dynamics of the state’s river systems as they run through the coastal plain. “The ocean can receive a lot of water,” he said. “It’s the river areas where the confined river basin backs up the water, and it just can’t flow out fast enough.”
Officials in North Carolina fear a repeat of Hurricane Floyd. The 1999 storm caused 57 deaths — 35 of them in North Carolina, most of them from inland drowning in the days after rain subsided. Floyd also caused an estimated $6 billion in damage, leaving thousands of people without homes and keeping communities underwater for days and weeks.
President Obama declared a major disaster in North Carolina on Monday, which could help speed federal aid to affected residents.
Even before Matthew arrived, North Carolina’s soil was already saturated. Then some parts of the state received more than 17 inches of rain in a day. The subsequent flooding has forced the closure of miles-long sections of interstates 95 and 40. Schools have canceled classes. Grocery stores are shuttered. Some towns, such as Lumberton, have no running water. Statewide, hundreds of thousands of people are without power.
McCrory said the storm will have long-term consequences for much of the state, though improvements have occurred for the communities upstream. The Woodlake Dam in Moore County, which threatened to fail Monday night, has been shored up. Two people who were missing earlier had been found by Tuesday evening, McCrory said.
Greenville and Goldsboro are expected to reach peak flooding Tuesday and Wednesday, and then continue in major flood stage through the end of the week. A “major” flood is the most severe on the Weather Service scale and typically means mass evacuations and extensive property inundation.
Downstream from Rocky Mount, Greenville is likely to be inundated later this week. “Numerous houses adjacent to the [Tar River] will be flooded in Greenville,” said Pagano, who expects the Tar River will crest there sometime Wednesday. “All the roads in and around Greenville will be flooded and impassable.”
Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas issued mandatory evacuation orders for parts of the city as water continue to rise in the river. The evacuation order asked residents who live on both sides of the river to leave home and be prepared to be gone until at least early next week. In addition, Thomas also recommended — but did not mandate — evacuations for people who live in other neighborhoods and areas.
Although there haven’t been any swift-water rescues in Greenville since Saturday, that could change as the water rises.
“We do have teams standing by, and we are anticipating that [rescues] may be an issue,” Rebekah Thurston, a spokeswoman for the city’s fire department, said Tuesday afternoon. “The majority have evacuated, but, of course, we’re always going to have some that say they don’t want to leave their home, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Fritz reported from Washington. Arelis R. Hernández in Charleston, S.C.; Kirk Ross in Carolina Beach, N.C.; and Brian Murphy and Mark Berman in Washington contributed to this report.
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