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20 dead as floodwaters keep rising in North Carolina

Updated September 17, 2018 - 3:11 pm

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Throwing a lifeline to a city surrounded by floodwaters, emergency crews delivered food and water to Wilmington on Monday as rescuers picked up more people stranded by Hurricane Florence and the storm’s remnants took aim at the densely populated Northeast.

The death toll from Florence rose to at least 20, and crews elsewhere used helicopters and boats to rescue people trapped by still-rising rivers.

“Thank you,” a frazzled, shirtless Willie Schubert mouthed to members of a Coast Guard helicopter crew who plucked him and his dog Lucky from atop a house encircled by water in Pollocksville. It was not clear how long he had been stranded.

A day earlier, Wilmington’s entire population of 120,000 people was cut off by flooding. By midday Monday, authorities reopened a single unidentified road into the town, which stands on a peninsula. But it wasn’t clear if that the route would remain open as the Cape Fear River kept swelling. And officials did not say when other roads might be clear.

In some places, the rain finally stopped, and the sun peeked through, but North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned that dangerously high water would persist for days. He urged residents who were evacuated from the hardest-hit areas to stay away because of closed roads and catastrophic flooding that submerged entire communities.

“There’s too much going on,” he told a news conference.

About two dozen truckloads of military MREs and bottled water were delivered overnight to Wilmington, the state’s eighth-largest city, officials said.

The chairman of New Hanover County’s commissioners, Woody White, said three centers would open by Tuesday morning to begin distributing essentials to residents.

“Things are getting better slowly, and we thank God for that,” White said.

 

Mayor Bill Saffo said he was working with the governor’s office to get more fuel into Wilmington.

“At this time, things are moving as well as can be in the city,” he said.

Crews have conducted about 700 rescues in New Hanover County, where more than 60 percent of homes and businesses were without power, authorities said.

Compounding problems, downed power lines and broken trees crisscrossed many roads in Wilmington three days after Florence made landfall. The smell of broken pine trees wafted through hard-hit neighborhoods.

Desperate for gas to run a generator at home, Nick Monroe waited in a half-mile-long (.8 kilometer-long) line at a Speedway station even though the pumps were wrapped in plastic. His power went off Thursday before Florence hit the coast, but he couldn’t recall exactly when.

“It’s all kind of a blur,” Monroe said.

Long lines for fuel

At another gas station, a long line of vehicles followed a tanker truck that pulled in with 8,800 gallons of fuel.

The deadly storm still had abundant rain and top winds around 30 mph (50 kph), and forecasters said it was expected to turn toward the Northeast, which is in for as much as 4 inches (15 centimeters) of rain, before the system moves offshore again.

Flooding worries increased in West Virginia and Virginia, where roads were closed and power outages were on the rise. About 500,000 homes and businesses were in the dark.

The death toll climbed by two as authorities found the body of a 1-year-old boy who was swept away after his mother drove into floodwaters and lost her grip on him while trying to get back to dry land. Elsewhere in North Carolina, an 88-year-old man died after his car was swept away.

Florence was still massive, despite being downgraded to a tropical depression from a once-fearsome Category 4 hurricane. Radar showed parts of the sprawling storm over six states, with North and South Carolina in the bull’s-eye.

Fears of what could be the worst flooding in the state’s history led officials to order tens of thousands to evacuate, though it wasn’t clear how many had fled or even could.

Victor Merlos was overjoyed to find a store open for business in Wilmington since he had about 20 relatives staying at his apartment, which still had power. He spent more than $500 on cereal, eggs, soft drinks and other necessities, plus beer.

“I have everything I need for my whole family,” Merlos said.

Nearby, a Waffle House restaurant limited breakfast customers to one biscuit and one drink, all takeout, with the price of $2 per item.

Pollution threat

As rivers rose, state regulators and environmental groups monitored the threat from gigantic hog and poultry farms in low-lying, flood-prone areas.

The industrial-scale farms contain vast pits of animal waste that can pose a significant pollution threat if they are breached or inundated by floodwaters. In past hurricanes, flooding at dozens of farms also left hundreds of thousands of dead hogs, chickens and other decomposing livestock bobbing in floodwaters.

Near the flooded-out town of New Bern , where about 455 people had to be rescued from the swirling floodwaters, water completely surrounded churches, businesses and homes. In the neighboring town of Trenton, downtown streets were turned to creeks full of brown water.

The rain was unrelenting in Cheraw, a town of about 6,000 people in northeastern South Carolina. Streets were flooded, and Police Chief Keith Thomas warned people not to drive, but the local food and gas store had customers.

“As you can tell, they’re not listening to me,” he said.

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