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Florence aftermath: Rivers are rising in the Carolinas, cresting at record levels

A view from above shows the catastrophic flooding in Lumberton, N.C., as Florence continues to impact the area. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

The remnants of Hurricane Florence are moving away from the southeast, but the aftermath of more than 30 inches of rain will linger for days in the region’s rivers.

Five dozen river locations were in flood stage Monday morning, 18 of which were in major flooding, which is typically characterized by catastrophic property inundation and evacuations. Several rivers are forecast to break records set during hurricanes Floyd in 1999 and Matthew in 2016.

Photos and videos from the region showed homes and businesses inundated with murky brown water laden with debris and rivers so high they threatened to overtop the bridges that spanned their banks.

After Hurricane Florence made landfall, flash flooding was a significant threat. When excessive rain falls in a short amount of time, it can overwhelm drainage paths such as streams, creeks and roads. But while flash flooding is immediate and fast-moving, river flooding can be a slow-motion disaster, drawn out over several days.

River flooding can be particularly dangerous because of its slow onset. People tend to let their guard down once it stops raining, assuming the worst is over, not realizing there’s more coming downstream.

In the Carolinas, some rivers may not crest for days.

Several locations in the Carolinas had crested at records or were expected to over the next week, according to stream data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The Lumber, Cape Fear, Neuse and Black rivers in North Carolina, which also flooded during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, will set records this week.

In Fayetteville, N.C., the Cape Fear River surpassed flood stage early Sunday after rising 20 feet in 24 hours. It won’t hit major flood stage in Fayetteville until Monday night, according to the National Weather Service, and will peak around 62 feet — three feet higher than its maximum crest in Hurricane Matthew.

Officials in Cumberland County, where Fayetteville is located, issued a mandatory evacuation order Saturday afternoon. “This is for real,” Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin (D) told residents.

The Lumber River in Lumberton, N.C., rose from 12 feet Saturday to 22.2 feet Monday, a record for the location. In South Carolina, the Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers will climb through the end of the week, potentially setting records around Saturday.

Through Sunday afternoon, numerous locations in southeast North Carolina had recorded more than 20 inches of rain, and several have broken the state record for total rainfall in a tropical storm or hurricane, exceeding the 24.09 inches that fell near Wilmington during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. South Carolina also set a record for most rain in a single tropical weather system, previously set by Tropical Storm Jerry in 1995.

The Swansboro total is the most for any tropical storm or hurricane north of Florida along the East Coast and represents a new two-day and three-day rainfall record for North Carolina. In the past year, Florence marks the third tropical system to set a new state rainfall record after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Lane in Hawaii.

The Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow contributed to this report.