Watch a timelapse of downtown Wilmington flooding at high tide
A week after Hurricane Florence arrived on the North Carolina shore, roads, homes and businesses from Kinston to Wilmington remain submerged — and some waterways are still rising.
Florence “has deeply wounded our state, wounds that will not heal soon. So many people are still hurting,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a news conference Saturday morning. “Many storm victims still need a place to call home for weeks or months.”
While there remain reasons for concern, Cooper said there are also reasons for hope. Utility crews, emergency responders, government agencies and kind-hearted volunteers are stepping up to help.
Look to North Carolina’s largest coastal city for an example of resilience in the face of ruin.
Last week, flood waters left Wilmington mostly isolated from the rest of the state. By Saturday, authorities had cleared three roads to the port city and some downtown stores began the trudge back to normalcy.
The Old Books on Front Street hasn’t done much business since re-opening, said Gwenyfar Rohler, one of the managing partners of the bookstore. But it’s staying open to offer refuge for people who need to charge their phones or cool off from the heat.
There’s just one looming problem: The Cape Fear River. The National Weather Service predicts it will rise to record levels over the next couple of days. The Cape Fear is expected to rise another foot by Monday afternoon and possibly higher under the full moon on Monday night.
During the hurricane, rain leaked a little into the bookstore and onto its plaster walls, but no books were affected. For a glimpse of the potential danger, however, all Rohler has to do is look out her backdoor at the large construction project called River Place on Water Street. The footings of the project have flooded, creating a small lake downtown.
“We are just worried about the water coming up through the pipes into the store,” Rohler said. “The city has told us the worst will be between Saturday and Tuesday.”
That is indeed the case, says Steve Pfaff, a Wilmington-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The flood waters are exiting the flat, inland eastern North Carolina terrain slowly and will bring a wave down the Cape Fear over the next few days, Pfaff said in a phone interview with The News & Observer on Saturday night.
U.S 421 near the battleship U.S.S. North Carolina could become impassible, and downtown’s Water Street could get three more feet of flooding, he said.
“Any impacts we saw with Matthew, we could have a foot or foot-and-a-half more in areas that receive those impacts,” Pfaff said.
Many downtown Wilmington businesses on Saturday kept sandbags stacked several feet high by their doors. Those that were open had one eye in the direction of the river, which was already starting to creep up during high tides.
“It’s more about the tides at this point for us,” said Harvey Hudson, co-owner of the German Cafe at the Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington. “We are going to sandbag and hope it doesn’t come over the curb ... but we don’t think it will.”
Hudson said that during the storm the waters from the river rose higher than any storm he has seen in Wilmington, including hurricanes Floyd and Fran. September and October are usually lucrative months for the cafe because Oktoberfest is happening in Germany.
Since Florence, “we’ve been open three days and basically nothing has been happening,” Hudson said.
Here’s a look at how the rest of state is faring after Florence, as of Saturday.
People affected: 32 North Carolinians have died as a result of Florence and 2,800 are living in shelters — down from a peak of about 20,000 earlier this week, Cooper said Saturday morning. There have been nearly 5,000 water rescues, he said, more than twice the number that occurred during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Roads: Parts of Interstates 40 and 95 remain underwater while more than 500 roads remain closed statewide, Cooper said. People shouldn’t drive on any of the roads east of I-95 or south of U.S. 70.
The N.C. Department of Transportation is still waiting for flood waters to subside in several areas, DOT leader Jim Trogdon said. Barricades remain in place to block drivers from dozens of roads, he added.
And Cooper urged people to heed their warnings.
“The road you plan to drive on may not exist anymore,” Cooper said.
While flooding is decreasing in some areas, the Cape Fear, Lumber, Neuse and Trent rivers continued to overflow and cause major flooding across nine counties in southeastern North Carolina, officials said on Saturday.
The Neuse River rose to a near record-high 17.9 feet at Fort Barnwell on Saturday. The Lumber River hit 23 feet on Saturday and is expected to crest at 24 feet on Sunday, according to an email statement from the Robeson County government.
Recovery: More than 1,800 individual FEMA assistance applications have been approved, according to FEMA’s website, and it has approved $5.7 million in assistance through its individual and households program. By comparison, FEMA approved 29,000 individual applications after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and granted $98.9 million through the same program.
Meanwhile, authorities plan to open 10 mass feeding kitchens, Mike Sprayberry, director of N.C. Emergency Management, said on Saturday.
Power outages: About 29,000 outages remain, Cooper said Saturday. That’s down from about 80,000 Friday and 632,500 last Sunday.
Pollution: Duke Energy and state environmental regulators said Friday that flooding could be causing coal ash to spill out from a pond near Wilmington into the Cape River. Flood waters need to lower before authorities can send inspectors to determine the extent of spills, Michael Regan, leader of the state’s environmental agency, said in Saturday’s press conference.
Agriculture: The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said earlier this week that Florence killed 3.4 million chickens and turkeys and 5,500 hogs, as The N&O reported Tuesday.
Cost: Moody’s Analytics on Friday estimated that Florence would dock between $38 billion and $50 billion from the North and South Carolina economies, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Zachery Eanes reported from Wilmington. Reporting from Aaron Moody, Virginia Bridges, John Murawski and Bruce Henderson contributed to this story.