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Gov. Cooper: ‘We have days more to go;’ President Trump calls Wilmington mayor
SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The Wilmington region should expect immediate and long-lasting impacts as Hurricane Florence roars through.
“The first bands are upon us,” Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday evening. “We have days more to go.”
The storm’s outer bands began hitting the Wilmington region, particularly coastal areas, Thursday afternoon, with the eye’s landfall expected Friday morning. Cooper said 30,000 people statewide were without power as of 5 p.m. Thursday, “and that number is rising.”
The region will first be battered with winds of 100 mph or more, which experts have said is strong enough to significantly damage homes and tear away roof shingles. The hurricane will also bring a storm surge carrying huge waves of 10 feet or more, which experts have said is more than enough to destroy building walls.
“The worst of the storm is not yet here, but these are warning signs of the days to come,” Cooper said of the initial impacts. “Conditions will continue to deteriorate with strong winds, heavy rainfall and extreme storm surges.”
But it will be the rain and flash flooding that likely will have the most devastating impact, officials said.
The storm’s potential impact prompted President Donald Trump to make a surprise phone call to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo on Thursday afternoon.
Saffo said Trump called to assure him that the federal government is watching the storm, and to open a line of communication if and when the Port City needs aid.
“I told him that we appreciate all the efforts at the federal level,” Saffo said. “I’m sure that we’re going to need some of their assistance when this thing is over. But he was very gracious, very concerned about what was happening here in the area. And I just told him that I appreciated his telephone call and that we’ll be in touch.”
Cooper said Thursday evening that he has asked Trump for an enhanced disaster declaration for the state to expedite more federal resources.
As of Thursday morning, forecast models showed the storm bringing more rain than originally thought — officials now predict 35 inches of rain will fall in a two-day period as Florence, a Category 2 storm with 100 mph sustained winds as of Thursday evening, will stall over Wilmington after making landfall early Friday morning.
And Cooper said the state is expecting significant flooding even after the storm passes.
“Remember, rivers keep rising even after the rain stops,” Cooper said.
To put the rain in perspective, Wilmington’s three-day rainfall record was 19.66 inches set in 2010, said Jordan Baker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Office in Wilmington.
“It doesn’t matter where you are,” he said. “It will probably fall faster than it can leave. Flash flooding is going to be a big issue soon — certainly catastrophic.”
Weakening, but still dangerous
Hurricane Florence weakened somewhat early Thursday, but weather officials cautioned that the storm will still bring life-threatening conditions.
Cooper said state officials are anticipating that tens of thousands of homes will experience flooding. He said Thursday he has activated 2,800 National Guard troops to respond to the storm.
Numerous communities throughout the region have issued either mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders. On Thursday morning, South 17th Street, usually teeming with commuter traffic by 6:30 a.m., was nearly devoid of cars.
Several shelters have opened and officials have said they believed most people took warnings seriously and have left the region or sought shelter.
“To everyone unwilling to take the storm seriously, you need to get yourself to a safe place,” Cooper said. “We have shifted from preparation to determination.”
The region can also expect to be without several services for an extended time. Power, water, sewer, cable and cellular service officials have all warned that service will be disrupted and that restoration could take days or more than a week.
Transportation will also be impacted, as roads will “likely” be scoured or fail in many places with the possibility of sinkholes. Many low-lying bridges and roads will be closed, with many weakened or washed away.
Beaches throughout the region will see storm surges as high as 12 feet, with the surge expected to cause structural damage to buildings in many areas, with homes on barrier islands washed away entirely. Floating debris will cause further harm to homes.
During and after the storm, state officials said, people should not use gas-powered generators inside buildings and should avoid downed power lines. Cooper said power companies are estimating that millions will be without power for days and possibly more than a week.
Cooper and other state officials repeatedly said Thursday motorists should avoid flooded roads at all costs, saying people driving through standing or moving water caused the most deaths during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Highway 12 in the Outer Banks and some roads in Southeastern North Carolina have already seen flooding.
“Do not drive on flooded roads. Doing so will place your life and the lives of first responders in harm’s way,” said Col. Glenn McNeill, commander of the N.C. State Highway Patrol.
Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at 910-343-2217 or Tim.Buckland@StarNewsOnline.com.
>>READ MORE: Click here for complete coverage of Hurricane Florence.