Surging rivers caused more misery across Eastern North Carolina, where the Hurricane Matthew death toll climbed to 19 in what Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday called a “surreal experience” of waters rising under sunny skies.
Major roads were still closed in places, and water rescues continued. There was progress on power restoration, as outages slowly declined by Wednesday afternoon to 110,000 from Sunday’s peak of 800,000.
The scale of the disaster was enormous and shifting, as waters rose in some areas and receded in others. Conditions will worsen along the banks of the Tar and Neuse rivers, which will crest in Eastern North Carolina towns in the next three days – almost a week since the hurricane pounded an already saturated state with more than a foot of rain.
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Most of the 20 deaths occurred from drowning, as motorists were swept away on flooded roads, Gov. Pat McCrory said in a briefing Wednesday morning. One man died in Wake County when a tree fell on his car. In Johnston County, rescue teams recovered the body of a 51-year-old man who had been swept into floodwater on Sunday.
“This is terrible news,” McCrory said late Tuesday, warning drivers not to look for shortcuts around roads blocked off because of flooding. That endangers first responders, he said, suggesting that officials would not send rescuers into situations that seemed too dangerous for them.
“Do not go through water!” the governor said Tuesday. “We’re not messing around.”
In his Wednesday briefing, McCrory singled out residents along Cane Creek downstream of the Woodlake Dam in Moore County.
“We’ve had too many deaths. Get out!” the governor said. Engineers have piled sandbags against the dam to stabilize it, but it is not yet certain that will be enough, he said.
More than 2,200 people had been rescued from swift-water teams in the eastern part of the state, mostly in Robeson and Cumberland counties. More than 400 high-water and rescue vehicles had been deployed, and 90 helicopter rescues had been conducted. About 3,600 people were in 45 emergency shelters Wednesday in central and eastern North Carolina.
During the flooding in Lumberton, a state trooper shot and killed a man Monday night. The shooting happened about 8 p.m. on Fifth Street, where two Robeson sheriff’s deputies were conducting search-and-rescue operations with a patrol sergeant, the State Highway Patrol said in a news release. A man displayed a handgun and became hostile to the officers, the patrol said, and was then fatally shot by the sergeant, who was identified as J.F. Hinson, a 13-year veteran. The man who died was not identified; the shooting is being reviewed by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Elsewhere, Lenoir County and Kinston were under mandatory evacuation orders for residents near the Neuse River. Early Tuesday, officials in Moore County began evacuating people downstream of Lake Surf, because the dam holding back the lake was nearly ready to break, they said. Sandbags were piled at the dam to stabilize it, but the National Weather Service kept a flash-flood warning in effect.
It’s clear 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. On Monday, 10 counties were approved for individual federal assistance and 31 counties were approved for public federal assistance. Late Tuesday, word came that federal aid would be available to individuals in four additional counties – Bertie, Johnston, Wayne and Wilson. Also, people in Beaufort, Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Edgecombe, Hoke, Lenoir, Nash, Pitt and Robeson counties are eligible for federal help.
Water and power returned to most parts of Johnston County on Tuesday, but those on county water service still were under a boil advisory. Johnston County Schools canceled class for students for the rest of the week. Johnston was hard hit, with hundreds of rescues and three fatalities.
The flooding could continue for several days as rivers and creeks swell. The Neuse River crested in Goldsboro on Tuesday night at a record 29 feet, while the Tar River is expected to rise to 35 feet in Tarboro on Wednesday afternoon and 25 feet in Greenville on Wednesday night. The Neuse is forecast to rise to 27 feet on Friday.
At an emergency shelter at Tarboro High School, which housed 140 people Monday night, those who had been evacuated from Princeville and Tarboro along the Tar River worried about their homes. Many had lived there when Hurricane Floyd flooded them out in 1999.
“Not knowing exactly what the next move is going to be, that’s hard,” said Regina Brooks, a 27-year-old Princeville resident who had been staying in the shelter with her 1-year-old and 2-year-old daughters and her mother since Sunday.
Just a few streets away, closer to the river that divides Princeville from Tarboro, emergency vehicles blocked both ends of the bridge that links the two Edgecombe County towns.
But on a warm October day, with clear blue skies and temperatures in the high 60s, many residents walked across the bridge, taking pictures of the swift-moving Tar River and comparing its spillover to Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Rick Page, a former Tarboro mayor who also was a utility director when Floyd spurred massive flooding, said the Tar River was not as high Tuesday as it had been after Floyd. He pointed to a grassy dike on the Princeville side. If the river spilled over the dike, he said, that would mean big trouble for the Princeville residents.
But the people on the bridge watched the water and hoped for the best.
How to help
The North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund has been activated to help the state recover. The fund will be coordinated by the governor’s office and the United Way of North Carolina.
People or organizations that want to donate money to the relief fund can visit NCDisasterRelief.org, text “NCRECOVERS” to 30306 or mail checks to the North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund, Office of the Governor, 20312 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-0312.
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 also 1-800-621-3362. 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 reinternment 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.