For the first time in 10 days, people can drive the entire length of interstates 95 and 40 through North Carolina.
Gov. Roy Cooper said floodwaters receded over the weekend faster than expected, allowing N.C. Department of Transportation crews to inspect and reopen both highways by Monday afternoon. The opening of I-40 through Duplin and Pender counties restored the main route in and out of Wilmington, a city that had been made inaccessible over land for several days because of floodwaters.
The closing of I-95 on Sept. 15 disrupted travel up and down the East Coast. At one point, the recommended detour took drivers completely around North and South Carolina, through Knoxville and Atlanta.
As the Lumber and Cape Fear rivers receded, I-95 dried out on Sunday, and NCDOT engineers inspected the road to make sure it was safe to use. They found one area that needed repairs, and those were made before the road was reopened about 5 p.m., said Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon.
The Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers also receded quickly over the weekend, and by mid-morning Monday I-40 was clear between Wallace and Wilmington for the first time since Sept. 14. Trogdon said with miles of I-40 flooded for several days, he was worried that washouts or other damage would require a week or more of repair work.
“To be able to go in there and find the areas that needed repair and get it done within a half a day, we were very fortunate,” he said at a press briefing Monday afternoon. He said the barricades on I-40 were coming down as he spoke.
Despite the progress in some areas, about 400 roads remained closed Monday afternoon, mostly in the southeast corner of the state, Trogdon said. They included parts of 15 U.S. routes and 57 primary state roads.
Trogdon said NCDOT has identified 1,865 places where state roads need repairs and said the department is still working on its strategy for fixing them.
“We are developing schedules and estimates as we speak,” he said.
Other roads that reopened Monday are the U.S. 70 Bypass at Kinston and U.S. 74 between I-95 near Lumberton and Wilmington.
Cooper urged people to heed road closure signs and not to drive around barriers. He said the death toll from the storm had risen to 35 in North Carolina, and that some of those deaths resulted from people driving into floodwaters.
“Please, please stay away from flooded roads,” he said. “We don’t want to lose any more lives.”
Among the roads that could remain closed for an extended period is N.C. 12 on Ocracoke near the Pony Pen. NCDOT estimates that it could take until the end of October to repair erosion of the dune and damage to the pavement that make the road impassable. During that time, the ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands will be suspended.
When it appeared that swollen rivers might keep trucks from getting into Wilmington for an extended period, the state arranged for the transport ship MV Cape Ray to be on hand to possibly ferry supplies from Morehead City. The ship arrived off the coast of North Carolina on Wednesday, heading north from Florida where it had just completed a mission for the U.S. Department of Defense.
By then, trucks were starting to get through to Wilmington, so the Cape Ray moved on to its home port of Norfolk to take on fuel and supplies, said NCDOT spokeswoman Nicole Meister.
“It was close by if we needed it,” Meister said. “And we never needed it.”
For updated information on road conditions, visit DriveNC.gov or dial 511.