As some in North Carolina returned to a sense of normalcy Wednesday in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, residents near the rain-swollen Neuse and Tar rivers waited anxiously as waters continued to rise through the day and evening.
Their worst days could be ahead, with the waterways projected to crest later in the week and then linger at abnormally high levels for days.
The state’s death toll rose to 20 on Wednesday, Gov. Pat McCrory said while in Robeson County surveying the damage around Lumberton, where some 1,200 residents were forced to flee quickly from the town of 22,000 after the flooded Lumber River submerged homes, businesses and the town’s water system. Some were rescued by boats. Others were airlifted from rooftops.
On Thursday morning, however, the governor said no more deaths had been reported for the first time in nine days and called that “incredibly positive news.”
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A short time later, Cumberland County sheriff’s officials put out a bulletin for a missing 53-year-old man who hasn’t been seen since Saturday night. Tarry Faircloth of Maxwell Road had been watching football at a friend’s home in East Fayetteville that night and told him he would use Interstate 95 because he thought back roads were flooded, a sheriff’s spokesman said.
Information from Faircloth’s cell phone usage and other leads prompted the sheriff’s dive team to search a body of water near the 55 mile marker off I-95, about three miles north of where his car had been found. The search produced no clues to his whereabouts. They’ve asked anyone with information about Faircloth to contact them at 910-323-1500.
McCrory also warned that the state will not reopen all roads as soon as water recedes because they may be too damaged to be safe. He planned to tour Kinston on Thursday afternoon, where more flooding is anticipated as the Neuse River continues to rise.
“We’ve got a lot of structural work to do,” especially on bridges, he said.
“I think Robeson County is the greatest challenge we have at this time,” McCrory said late Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve still got rescue issues at this time.”
McCrory said at a Thursday morning briefing that now, “We’ve got to get these people out of shelters” and into hotel rooms or rental properties and then into housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
McCrory said 60 National Guard troops had been assigned to Fairmont, where a neighborhood is awash in sewage-laced water, but people are afraid their homes will be looted if they leave. The Guard will help with both evacuation and security afterward, he said.
After visiting shelters, McCrory said, “I have never met more resilient and thankful people” who are bearing up even though “it’s their whole lives they feel like they’ve lost.”
The most recent death, McCrory said, was reported in Lenoir County, but details of the circumstances were not immediately available. Earlier on Wednesday, McCrory said a death had been reported in Wayne County and added that the body of a 51-year-old man swept away by floodwaters Sunday in Johnston County had been recovered.
On Wednesday evening, the N.C. Highway Patrol identified the man who was fatally shot by a trooper during rescue operations on Monday as Dennis Hunt, 56, of Lumberton. A Highway Patrol spokesman said Hunt was shot after he became hostile toward officers and displayed a handgun.
The trooper was identified as Sgt. J.F. Hinson, a 13-year veteran who was accompanying two members of the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office at the time of the shooting.
There have been 2,300 rescues performed since flooding in the hurricane’s aftermath forced people out of their homes. Eighty have been air rescues by the N.C. National Guard, State Highway Patrol and U.S. Coast Guard. Forty-six shelters remain open, with reports of 3,800 people using them. Though power outage reports were down to some 76,400 across the state Wednesday evening, emergency officials acknowledged that more outages could occur as water continues to rise in some areas.
Sections of Interstate 95 from Lumberton to Fayetteville remain closed due to flooding. A seven-mile stretch of westbound Interstate 40 near Newton Grove is still closed, too.
All seven North Carolina ferry routes had been returned to service by Wednesday, but Ocracoke Island remained closed to visitors.
By 7 a.m. Thursday, beachgoers can return to Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon and Buxton in Dare County. Though transportation crews had cleared much of N.C. 12, the Outer Banks highway often submerged by flooding, access to Frisco and Hatteras remained restricted.
While some on the coast and other areas where the floodwaters have receded began to return to homes and assess the damage, Kinston, Greenville and nearby towns were still preparing for disaster, with flood models showing that it could be Saturday before the Neuse and Tar rivers crest through their communities.
Then it could be another week, according to some models, before the waters recede to normal levels.
The flooding in Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath has struck a blow in some of the state’s more impoverished regions. Many of those being forced to find temporary housing lack flood insurance and other benefits they will need as the waters recede, and they face new problems from tainted water systems and moldy housing. Many suffered similar losses after Hurricane Floyd.
About 1,000 people gathered at the Greene Street bridge over the Tar River in Greenville for a town prayer on Wednesday, as Mayor Allen Thomas and Mayor Pro-Tem Kandie Smith and about a dozen local preachers called for town unity during the trying times ahead.
In the town of Seven Springs, which sits in a low-lying area on the Neuse River downstream from Goldsboro, residents prepared for the floodwaters to keep rising.
After Floyd inundated Seven Springs in 1999, forcing nearly every home and business in town to rebuild, Seven Springs Baptist Church relocated to a spot outside the village. Pastor Rick Rigney lives in the parsonage, also on dry land near the church, but many of his flock had to evacuate ahead of new flooding from Hurricane Matthew.
By Wednesday, their homes were getting wet as at least three feet of water filled the town.
“We can’t go anywhere,” Rigney said. “The roads are all cut off.”
Routes to Kinston and Goldsboro are blocked by flooding or have sections that have collapsed as a result of rushing water. Wednesday, it was still possible to get to Mount Olive, but even that route was down to one lane. The river is not expected to crest at Seven Springs until mid-day Thursday.
“Then we have to wait for it to recede, and after that there is all the massive cleanup,” Rigney said. “This is not going to be a two- or three-day fix.”
Beyond the immediate and pending emergencies, North Carolina has a long recovery ahead.
McCrory said he requested federal assistance for individuals as well as state and local governments for 66 counties. By Wednesday, homeowners and renters in 14 counties were able to apply for federal assistance to repair or rebuild damaged homes, and 34 counties were approved for public federal assistance.
Staff photographer Chris Seward contributed to this report.
How to apply for FEMA aid
Disaster survivors in the following counties can register for federal assistance: Beaufort, Bertie, Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Edgecombe, Hoke, Johnston, Lenoir, Nash, Pitt, Robeson, Wayne and Wilson.
Homeowners, renters, and business owners who suffered loss or damages due to Hurricane Matthew can register at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, by downloading the FEMA mobile app, or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). For those who use 711 or Video Relay Service (VRS), the number is the same. For people using TTY, the number is 1-800-462-7585. The numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.
Grant assistance provided by FEMA for homeowners and renters can include funds to help with rent, temporary housing and home repairs to their primary residences, as well as personal and necessary items, moving and storage expenses, transportation, medical and dental expenses, or funeral and burial and re-interment costs caused by the disaster. Other relief programs include crisis counseling and legal assistance.
Survivors should also contact their insurance company to file an insurance claim. FEMA won’t duplicate claims, but those without insurance or who may be underinsured may still receive help after their insurance claims have been settled.