It had been more than two days since the last drop of rain fell, but the worst of the flood was just being realized in Johnston County on Monday.
Smithfield experienced some of the most damaging flooding in its history as the Neuse River crested Monday morning at 29.09 feet, nearly two feet above the floodwaters of Hurricane Fran. County officials warned that submerged roads still posed a hazard and urged people to limit travel. Johnston County schools will be closed a second day Tuesday.
The apparent death toll in the county stood at three, with one confirmed death and two missing people presumed dead. All three victims were in vehicles that had driven into flooded roadways.
Diamond Shuntelle Bennett, 19, of Selma died when her car was swept away in floodwaters on Interstate 95 near mile marker 85 on Saturday night, according to the State Highway Patrol. Another person died when five people were trapped inside a Nissan Versa that became submerged in floodwaters on Cornwallis Road near N.C. 42 in the Cleveland community but only four were rescued.
Then Sunday evening, a passenger vehicle traveling on N.C. 210 near Galilee Road was swept off the road when it drove across a bridge covered by deep, rushing flood waters. A resident in a small boat tried to help the driver, but the vehicle was swept away, according to the Highway Patrol.
More than 200 people in Johnston County were pulled from their homes or stranded cars by rescue boats and National Guard helicopters, and rescues continued Monday, said Johnston County Emergency Management Coordinator Kevin Madsen. He said bends in the river are particularly susceptible to flooding as the swollen Neuse continues to flush from west to east.
“Life safety efforts are our main focus right now,” Madsen said. “There have been a lot of individuals traveling on flooded roads; we’ve done a lot of water rescues.”
Madsen suggested that the death toll could rise in the next 24 or 48 hours, as receding waters from the hardest hit areas may reveal residents who were unable to make it out of their homes in time.
“The best thing residents can do is stay off the roadways as much as possible,” he said. “Hazardous conditions exist out there. They can protect themselves, their family members and the emergency services personnel.”
Johnston County water customers remained on a boil advisory for a second day, because of water line breaks in the southeastern part of the county. In Clayton, water was restored to the Riverwood neighborhood, but the town kept a boil advisory in place until tests come back, which could take a couple days.
The Johnston County wastewater treatment plant, which lies along the Neuse River, is flooded and leaking waste into the floodwaters. County manager Rick Hester said there is little the county can do until the water recedes and can be pumped out of the facility.
“Once there’s an opportunity to get in there, we’ll have the right personnel start pumping the water out of the plant,” Hester said. “It’s unfortunately not an uncommon thing in situations like this. It’s one of our biggest priorities right now.”
Many of the Johnston towns that provide electrical service to residents have only minimal outages remaining, Madsen said. Duke Energy Progress still has about 22,000 customers without power, down from more than 36,000 on Sunday, but some of those may not have power through the weekend, as the state’s largest electricity provider responds to the hurricane.
In Smithfield, the one exception to restored electricity was Johnston Health Hospital, which is fed by an underground circuit. The equipment for that circuit was still underwater Monday, and town spokesman Tim Kerigan said crews couldn’t make repairs until water recedes.
“Until then, they are fully operating with generator power,” he said.
Johnston County Schools superintendent Ross Renfrow said Monday that two-thirds of the district’s schools are still without power and water. The school system will decide Tuesday whether classes will be held the rest of the week. The hardest hit appeared to be Princeton Middle/High School, which received two inches of water, and North Johnston High School, which saw flooding in its auditorium.
“Our goal is to get back in session as soon as possible, but not putting anyone in harm’s way,” Renfrow said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, ext 104; @jdrewjackson