'Worst yet to come': Florence leaves 13 dead as North Carolina braces for massive flooding
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As the death toll from Florence rose and hundreds were pulled from flooded homes on Sunday, North Carolina braced for the next stage of the disaster: widespread, catastrophic flooding.
Before the official death toll rose to 13 with two deaths in South Carolina, Mitch Colvin, mayor of the city of Fayetteville, told reporters: “The worst is yet to come.”
Amid controversy over the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, the director of the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, Michael Sprayberry, told ABC’s This Week the state was getting the support it needed.
Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), told NBC’s Meet the Press staff were working to meet challenges “as they’re coming up to us”. The focus, he said, was on search-and-rescue and helping people in shelters.
The mayor of the city of New Bern, heavily hit by flooding, told the same show he had imposed a curfew. Thirty roads remained impassable, Dana Outlaw said, with 4,200 homes and more than 300 commercial buildings damaged, 6,000 people without power and 1,200 residents in shelters.
On Saturday night, Duke Energy said heavy rains caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at a closed power station outside the historic port city of Wilmington. Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said about 2,000 cubic yards of ash were displaced at the Sutton Plant and contaminated water likely flowed into the cooling pond. Ash left when coal is burned contains toxic heavy metals, including lead and arsenic.
After blowing ashore as a hurricane with 90mph winds, Florence lingered over the Carolinas and storm surges, flash floods and winds scattered destruction widely. Marines, the coast guard and volunteers conducted rescues.
Florence weakened to a tropical depression and was crawling west at 8mph. At 5am, it was about 20 miles south-west of Columbia, South Carolina and winds were down to 35mph. But in North Carolina, rivers were swelling and thousands were ordered to evacuate. Sprayberry told ABC the flooding would be “one for the record books”. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville.
This is not a talking point. We are saying this because we are concerned with you. The worst is yet to come
“This is not a talking point,” said its mayor, Colvin, on Saturday. “This is not a script, but we are saying this because we are concerned with you. The worst is yet to come. If you are refusing to leave during this mandatory evacuation, you need to do things like notify your legal next of kin. The loss of life is very, very possible.”
Governor Roy Cooper underscored the message: “I cannot overstate it: Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren’t watching for them, you are risking your life.”
Forecasts said rivers would crest on Sunday and Monday at record or near-record levels: the Little River, the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse, the Waccamaw and the Pee Dee were all projected to burst their banks.
The Lumber is considered flooded at 13ft. The National Weather Service predicted on Saturday it would crest at 24.9ft on Sunday afternoon. Much of the south of the city was already under water, as emergency crews battled to contain the river.
Turner Park, a trailer park, was under 2ft on Saturday evening with the water rising quickly. At 5pm the Guardian watched as water crept towards Martin Luther King Jr Drive. Residents had been told to evacuate the park, where scores of 40ft x 12ft trailers stand on low-lying land. Across the road Newport Church, a handsome white building with an impressive steeple, was under about a foot of water.
Martin Luther King Drive was almost covered. Further north, many single-storey homes were flooded. Cars struggled over roads covered with a foot of water.
Twenty-five per cent of the population of Lumberton lives below the poverty line. The city was hit hard by Hurricane Matthew just two years ago. Residents face losing property and possessions all over again. On Saturday, shelters in nearby Fayetteville were full by 6pm.
In Wilmington, which took a hit from Florence on Friday, causing thousands to lose power, local media said water supplies could be turned off on Sunday, due to flooding. Families discussed strategies for finding batteries for generators and pouring drinking water into coolers, in case the taps ran dry.
A mother and baby who lived in Wilmington were among the dead. Three more people died in one inland county, Duplin, because of flooding authorities said. A husband and wife died in a storm-linked house fire, officials said, and an 81-year-old man died after falling while packing to evacuate.
In South Carolina, a 61-year-old woman was killed when her car hit a tree on a highway. On Sunday, authorities said a 63-year-old man and a 61-year-old woman were asphyxiated after using a generator inside their home.
The White House declared a major disaster in North Carolina and said Donald Trump would visit storm-affected areas next week.
When the official toll stood lower on Saturday, the president tweeted: “Five deaths have been recorded thus far with regard to hurricane Florence! Deepest sympathies and warmth go out to the families and friends of the victims. May God be with them!”
The president’s tweets about Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria continued to cause controversy. Trump has repeatedly claimed the recognised death toll from the storm, around 3,000, has been artificially inflated by his political opponents.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic New York congressional candidate who has become a leading voice on the progressive left, told CNN’s State of the Union Puerto Ricans, subject to the “worst humanitarian catastrophe in modern American history”, pointed to “government inaction as the cause of death”.
Natural disasters and extreme weather
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