Hurricane Florence updates from the field: A day of flooding and rescues

As Hurricane Florence, now a tropical storm, crawls through the Carolinas, our reporters and photojournalists are on the coast. Their Friday reports from the coast are here.

You can follow them at @_andrewcarter, @joshshaffer08, @MarthaQuillin. @vizjourno, @travisheying, @duncanreporting, @hgsmoot

Robeson County, N.C.: Evacuations

11 a.m.: Robeson County officials announced buses would be evacuating residents Sunday from the towns of Pembroke and Lumberton.

Emergency officials and volunteers were working throughout the morning to hold back the rising Lumber River, which was overflowing its berm and sandbags but had not yet breached the levee.

Residents can catch a bus at two locations: Burger King at West Fifth Street in Lumberton, and Pembroke City Fire in Pembroke.

Lumberton, N.C.: The water was everywhere

7:05 p.m. Around midday Saturday, it was as if the earth in Robeson County was finally quenched and refused to take another drop. From then on, whatever fell from the sky was a unwelcome gift from Hurricane Florence to be repelled.

As the water was shunned by the earth, it was sent running this way and that, filling yards and drainage ditches, parking lots, interstates, highways, soybean fields and residential streets. Suddenly, it was everywhere, and still coming down sideways.

As torrential rain falls Saturday afternoon in Lumberton, NC, police officers help civilians push a stranded motorist out of the flood water near downtown. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

In Lumberton, officials had called Friday for volunteers to come help fill sandbags to stuff into the opening of the city’s berm that allows a CSX rail line to cross under Interstate 95. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when the Lumber River flooded to record levels, water pushed up against the berm and finally went around it when it found the opening for the rail line.

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As torrential rain from Tropical Storm Florence continued to fall Saturday evening in Lumberton, NC, workers continue to reinforce a levee near an overpass and railroad crossing, as river and flood water levels continue to rise. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

By Saturday, the sand bags had been abandoned — dozens of shovels lay in a pile on the ground — and earth-movers and shovel trucks had taken over. Water already was accumulating inside the berm, deep enough to rise halfway over the huge ties of the heavy equipment. Operators worked furiously, piling a gravelly mixture in the hopes of preventing a repeat of the 2016 disaster that damaged thousands of homes and apartments, some of which still have not been repaired.

A few miles away, pick-up trucks with out-of-state tags pulling boats lined up at the Sonic on N.C. 211, where volunteer teams waited to be dispatched to rescue people from rising waters. The driver of a red truck with Virginia plates hauling a jon boat whipped out of line and headed to the south side of town.

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By Saturday evening, residents of Lumberton, NC were bearing the brunt of Tropical Storm Florence as it dumps torrential rainfall in the area. Dozens of utility trucks and rescue boats moved into town as water and river levels continue to climb. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

He drove past a police barrier where water stood a foot deep across the road, and went into a neighborhood of apartments and single-family homes where the water was rising.

It’s expected to rain in Lumberton through Sunday afternoon.


Raleigh: The governor’s interpreter

6:45 p.m. Monica McGee’s sign-language interpretation and the dramatic facial expressions and contortions of her upper body that go with it have made her something of a storm celebrity during Hurricane Florence, a performance as incomprehensible as it is mesmerizing to most but absolutely essential to a deaf and hard-of-hearing community that speaks ASL as a first language and numbers in the hundreds of thousands in North Carolina.

Her television appearances next to Gov. Roy Cooper, and former Gov. Pat McCrory before him, are actually a very small but very important part of her job. McGee works for the state Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, interpreting for state employees. When a hurricane or an ice storm descends, she takes her very visible position next to the governor.

On Saturday, McGee’s fingers whirled as she spelled out roads and cities and counties, trying to keep up with Cooper and the other officials who spoke at the hastily scheduled briefing, called as interstate traffic was being detoured around the entire state because of the worsening flooding.

“This one was draining,” McGee said afterward. “Spelling all of the counties associated with each river, that part of it tired me out early on, more so than normal. I did the best I could.”


Kinston, N.C.: They saved 18 stranded dogs

6 p.m. April Casey tried to take a shortcut to somewhere else on Saturday when instead she arrived at a dead end – a flood that blocked her path on Will Baker Road, a little ways south of Kinston. She’d been on a mission to rescue cats for a friend who’d summoned her help.

Now, her path blocked, she walked out of her car and heard the cries of dogs from a nearby house. They were barking and whimpering, she said, making noise befitting of their situation – some trapped inside, others in a kennel outside, while the floodwaters rose around them.

One of 18 dogs rescued from a flooded neighborhood by volunteers near Kinston, NC following Hurricane Florence. Andrew Carter acarter@newsobserver.com

“We could hear them,” said Casey, who lives in Seven Springs. “There was at least eight in the pen. And they were standing on the doghouse, but we couldn’t leave them, at all.”

And so with the help of her family, a jet ski and some jon boats on loan from others who joined the effort, Casey led an impromptu dog rescue in a region of the state that is now fearing historic flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. For about 90 minutes, people went to the flooded house and returned to safety with groups of dogs, many of whom were soaked and shaking. They saved 18 dogs.


Raleigh: Interstate drivers asked to avoid N.C.

5 p.m. State officials are asking interstate travelers not to drive through North Carolina.

A stretch of Interstate 95 was closed earlier Saturday and state Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said more sections may close before flooding subsides.

The number of primary roads closed Saturday increased from 60 to 100 in a few hours, Trogdon said.

“It has been increasingly difficult to find bypass routes for interstate traffic,” he said.

All drivers should stay off roads south of U.S. 64 and east of interstates 73 and 74, Trogdon said


As torrential rain falls Saturday afternoon, Sept. 15, 2018 police officers help civilians push a stranded motorist out of the flood water near downtown Lumberton, NC. Rich Sugg


Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill: Help is on the way

2:15 p.m. Nearly 30 firefighters with the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill fire departments have orders to help with the rescue operations in the coastal communities impacted by Hurricane Florence. They’re expected to leave sometime Saturday afternoon and are part of the North Carolina Task Force 8/Urban Search and Rescue Team.

There are also 18 Raleigh firefighters who specialize in structural collapse rescues set to leave Saturday night or Sunday morning. And four members of Raleigh Fire’s helicopter rescue team will head out to coastal areas on Monday.

Members of the Greenville Fire Department swift water team help a couple evacuate their home following Hurricane Florence along Cedar Street on Friday morning September 15, 2018 in New Bern, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com


Bolivia, N.C.: ‘You saved my dog’s life’

1:35 p.m. Power went out at Tabitha Floyd’s home in Bolivia on Friday morning, but it didn’t bother her.

“As long as my dogs are all right, I’m fine,” she told her friends who called to check on her.

Then, Saturday morning, her 7-year-old pit bull, Snoop — never sick a day in his life — lay nearly motionless on the floor.

“His tongue and his gums were pure white,” she said.

From caring for an anemic goat on her friend Louie Lewis’ farm, where she works, Floyd knew Snoop needed some vitamin B. She didn’t have any at her house, but she knew there was some at Lewis’ farm.

Trouble was, by mid-day Saturday, the Lockwood Folly River was rippling across N.C. 211 South between her house and Lewis’ farm.

Lewis, who turned 84 Saturday, wasn’t scared of more than two feet of water. He drove a tractor with oversized wheels across the breach and delivered the medicine into Floyd’s hands. She looked like she might cry.

She hugged Lewis’s neck and thanked him.

“You saved my dog’s life,” she told him.’

“Well, we’ll try,” he said.


Oak Island, N.C.: Waiting and watching

12:40 p.m. A 24-hour curfew is in place at Oak Island, where Steve Sanders decided to ride out the storm. Sanders, who manages the Ocean Crest Pier on the island, said he went out on Friday in between squalls and before the curfew went into effect to see what kind of damage the storm had done so far.

“I saw a lot of siding off of houses, and some shingles, that kind of thing,” Sanders said. “There was eight or 10 inches of water across the road where it’s low, but it always flood there. This is about what we always see with a big storm.”

Sanders said when he saw it Friday, the pier looked fine, and on Saturday he periodically checked the web cam at oceancrestpiernc.com, and everything looked ok.

Detail from display at Ocean Crest Pier on Oak Island. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

But the forecast is for continued rain and wind through Sunday.

“Give us another 24 hours of this, and see how it looks,” Sanders said. “That’s what I’m worried about.”

On the mainland, the mercurial storm continued to tease residents mid-day Saturday. Skies would darken and the rain would fall so hard, utility trucks on the road faced near-whiteout conditions. Then it would lighten and the rain would taper, though never quite stop.

Trees continued to drop onto highways; N.C. 211 in Brunswick County was littered with downed pines, which crews were pushing aside as quickly as possible with large front-end loaders.


Wilmington, N.C.: Finally, a grocery store

11:30 a.m. A crowd bordering on a mob scene formed in Wilmington Saturday as the first grocery store opened in four days, drawing 500 storm-soaked residents to push through the doors.

After two days in darkness, the city saw electricity return to a two-block grid on College Avenue. Hurricane Florence victims with Internet access saw the grocery’s notice go up on Facebook. But most saw the line stretching around the side of the store and simply joined it.

As doors opened at 10 a.m., Harris Teeter employees loudly warned shoppers elbowing each other at the door to be civil, and that Wilmington police had nothing better to do than haul unruly people out of the store.


New Bern, N.C..: A kitten, a photo, a flood

10 a.m. Both were wet. Both wore tired expressions.

A photo of Robert Simmons Jr. and his kitten has gone viral — a moment that seemed to capture how thousands like Simmons are feeling as the storm slogs through the area, waters continue to rise, threatening houses and livelihoods.

Simmons recounted his story on Friday while a kitten peered through the top of his rain jacket. Simmons had taken the animal with him on the boat. The kitten clung to Simmons, as if a newborn clinging to his mother, and while Simmons spoke, the kitten mewed.

“We done been through Bertha, Fran, Irene, Matthew,” he said on Friday afternoon, sitting in the small boat and ticking off the names of hurricanes that had come through his part of eastern North Carolina. “And this is the worst it’s ever been, in this part right here.”

Read more about the flood, Simmons and the kitten.


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