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, Virginia, 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, North Carolina, 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, North Carolina, 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, North Carolina, 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.
"You're probably going to see seven to 10 days at a flat, constant stage, and then it will slowly drain," Ferguson said.
In Lumberton, North Carolina, 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, North Carolina. 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. The Post's 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.
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Video: Tony Alsup, a trucker from Greenback, Tenn., drove to South Carolina in a school bus to evacuate 53 dogs and 11 cats from animal shelters in the path of Hurricane Florence.(Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
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Video: Law enforcement, rescue volunteers and residents made last-minute preparations on Sept. 16 as Cape Fear River continued to rise in the wake of Hurricane Florence in Fayetteville, N.C.(Billy Tucker/The Washington Post)
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WASHINGTON - Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the woman who has accused him of sexually assaulting her decades ago will testify publicly before the Senate next Monday, setting up a potentially dramatic and politically perilous hearing that could determine the fate of his nomination.
Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remained defiant as they scrambled to protect Kavanaugh's nomination in the wake of the allegation by Christine Blasey Ford, who told The Washington Post in an interview published Sunday that Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back, groped her and put his hand over her mouth at a house party in the early 1980s.
But by the end of the day, Senate Republicans had delayed a committee vote planned for Thursday and abandoned tentative plans for the matter to be handled behind closed doors amid growing calls by members of both parties for Kavanaugh and Ford to testify publicly under oath, injecting uncertainty into the nomination.
The White House said in a statement that Kavanaugh "looks forward to a hearing where he can clear his name of this false allegation" and stands poised to testify as soon as the Senate is ready to hear him.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said that his staff had contacted Ford to hear her account and held a follow-up call with Kavanaugh Monday afternoon but that Democrats had declined to participate.
"However, to provide ample transparency, we will hold a public hearing Monday to give these recent allegations a full airing," he said.
Trump on Monday defended Kavanaugh, praising him as "one of the finest people that anybody has known" and signaling that he supports a proposed hearing on the allegations.
"We want to go through a full process," Trump told reporters at an event on workforce development. He added that the Senate will "go through a process and hear everybody out."
He called Kavanaugh "somebody very special" who "never even had a little blemish on his record." And he criticized Democrats, who he said should have "done this a lot sooner because they had this information for many months."
"If it takes a little delay, it'll take a little delay," Trump said of the confirmation process. "It will, I'm sure, work out very well."
Trump's comments marked his first public response after The Post reported Sunday on Ford's accusation against Kavanaugh.
An attorney for Ford said Monday that Ford is willing to testify about the allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In an article published Sunday, Ford told The Washington Post that one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend - both "stumbling drunk," Ford alleges - corralled her in a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County, Maryland.
While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.
Kavanaugh on Monday issued a fresh denial of the allegations, which have roiled his confirmation process. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a member of the committee, said that Kavanaugh told him in a conversation Monday that he was not present at the party in question.
"If I recall it correctly, he wasn't even there," Hatch said. "I believe him. He's a person of immense integrity. I've known him for a long time, he's always been straightforward, honest, truthful, and a very, very decent man."
Ford has never said where and when the party occurred.
Democrats are insisting that the FBI handle the matter by reopening Kavanaugh's background investigation rather having committee staff make calls.
"In view of the enormity and seriousness of these allegations, a staff-only phone call behind closed doors is unacceptable and Democratic staff will not participate. This isn't how things should be done and is in complete violation of how this committee has worked in the past," Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats said in their statement.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also called for the FBI to investigate.
"Republicans and their staff cannot investigate these allegations. They've already said they're not true," he said in remarks on the Senate floor.
"The double standard - the twisting of this body into a cruel, nasty partisanship, unprecedented in a feverish desire to fill the bench with people that the other side agrees with - it's one of the lowest points I have seen in my years here," Schumer said.
His remarks came shortly after McConnell took to the floor to blast Democrats for not raising Ford's accusation earlier in the process.
"But now - now, at the 11th hour, with committee votes on schedule after Democrats have spent weeks and weeks searching for any possible reason that the nomination should be delayed - now, now, they choose to introduce this allegation," McConnell said.
The offer from Ford's attorney prompted a growing number of calls from senators - including moderates in both parties whose votes are key to Kavanaugh's fate - to hold another hearing at which both Ford and Kavanaugh could testify publicly.
Debra Katz, a lawyer for Ford, shared her client's willingness to testify during a round of television interviews on Monday morning.
"She's willing to do whatever it takes to get her story forth," Katz said on NBC's "Today" show when asked whether her client would speak publicly about Trump's Supreme Court nominee.
Kavanaugh said Monday he is willing to talk to the committee in any way it "deems appropriate."
"I have never done anything like what the accuser describes - to her or to anyone," he said in a statement. "Because this never happened, I had no idea who was making this accusation until she identified herself yesterday."
Underscoring the uncertainty Kavanaugh faces, four senators considered swing votes on the nomination issued statements Monday calling for a thorough review of the allegations by Ford, a professor in California.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, tweeted that "Professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh should both testify under oath before the Judiciary Committee."
Three red-state Democrats, Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, also called for hearings.
"Given the nature of these allegations, and the number of outstanding questions, I believe the Judiciary Committee should hold off on Thursday's scheduled vote," Donnelly said.
Heitkamp said it "takes courage for any woman to speak up about sexual assault, and we need to respect Prof. Ford by listening to her and hearing her story."
Manchin, meanwhile, said Ford "deserves to be heard," and Kavanaugh "deserves a chance to clear his name" during a hearing.
"I hope they will be given the opportunity to do that as quickly as possible," Manchin said.
Kavanaugh was at the White House on Monday morning, but according to a senior official, he did not meet with Trump. The official said Kavanaugh has been coming to the White House "often" for meetings during the confirmation process.
Many GOP activists stood firmly by Kavanaugh amid the firestorm and prepared for a drawn-out battle over his nomination.
The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group that has been a major proponent of Republican nominees to the high court, said on Monday that it would launch a $1.5 million advertising blitz to support him, featuring a longtime friend of the federal judge who would speak to his character.
"We are not going to allow a last-minute smear campaign destroy a good and decent man who has an unblemished personal record," an adviser to the Judicial Crisis Network said in a statement.
During the NBC interview, Katz characterized Kavanaugh's actions as "attempted rape," adding that her client feels "that if it were not for the severe intoxication of Brett Kavanaugh, she would have been raped."
Ford is "not taking a position" on whether Kavanaugh should withdraw his nomination, Katz said. "She believes that these allegations obviously bear on his character and his fitness, and the denials of course bear on his character and fitness."
Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Republicans who are retiring at the end of this term, have joined Democrats in urging a delay in the vote until the committee hears from Ford.
Amid the uproar, Republicans continued to express anger Monday that Ford's allegations did not surface until after Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings.
Feinstein received a letter from Ford in July in which Ford asked to remain anonymous. Ford has said she decided to come forward only when her name began leaking out.
In a statement, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that the Judiciary Committee should handle the allegation through its normal process, which begins with follow-up calls.
"That Democrats have so egregiously mishandled this up until now is no excuse for us to do the same," said Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. "If Democrats reject the committee handling this swiftly and in a bipartisan way through regular order, then it's clear that their only intention is to smear Judge Kavanaugh and derail his nomination."
The Washington Post's Robert Costa, Sean Sullivan and Gabriel Pogrung contributed to this report.
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Video: California professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward after a confidential letter was leaked alleging Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were both in high school, and is now willing to testify publicly.(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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