As North Carolina rivers swell, Florence ‘never more dangerous.’ Death toll rises to 15

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Downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical depression, Florence sneered its disdain for labels, dropping millions of gallons of rainwater and swelling rivers in North Carolina to potentially catastrophic levels.

“This storm has never been more dangerous than it is right now,” warned North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper in a televised briefing. “Flood water are still raging across parts of our state and risk to life is rising with the angry waters.”

Officials in cities lying in the storm’s westward path were even more blunt. “We’re going to get hammered,” said Kevin Arata, spokesman for the city of Fayetteville, N.C. “The worst is still yet to come.”

Florence’s death toll already stood at 15 but as the rain continued, the flood threat grew even worse. Some parts of North Carolina have already recorded three feet of rain since the storm rolled ashore Friday, with two to three inches per hour more falling Sunday afternoon even as the system finally began to pull away and move north.

Several major North Carolina rivers were already at record levels. And flooding was so extensive that one coastal city, Wilmington, was complete cut off. City officials said they were arranging for food and water to be flown in, but some of the few grocery stores and restaurants still open were already imposing their own rationing. A Waffle House diner — widely regarded as a bellwether of natural disaster conditions — was limiting its customers to one drink and one biscuit apiece.

Across the state, dams were being carefully monitored, none more closely than the one near Hope Mills, close to Fayetteville. After two failures in seven years, a new dam was completed two years ago. But Saturday night water began spilling over the top, raising fears of another collapse.

Though engineers told her they think the dam will hold this time, Hope Mills Mayor Jackie Warner sounded worried. “We don’t have any control over this amount of water,” she said, warning residents it was time think about heading out: “We suggest that if you have the ability to seek shelter elsewhere, you should do so.”

Dams were a major concern in South Carolina, too, which though in much better shape than its neighbor to the north was nonetheless taking a serious hit from Florence: five dead and 60,000 utility customers in the dark.

In rain-sodden Myrtle Beach, National Guardsmen were frantically working to place sandbags along the Waccamaw River. Guard officers said they hope to get the dam finished Monday — the same day the river is expected to crest.

But conditions in North Carolina were far worse. Gov. Cooper said power was out to 700,000, with new blackouts being reported regularly. Some 15,000 people were huddled in hurricane shelters, while emergency rescues have plucked 900 from the water.

More than 170 principal roads were closed, including both I-95 and I-40, the interstate highways that crisscross the state. North Carolina highway patrolmen reported 48 collisions Saturday night as motorists encountered fallen trees and standing water. And with Florence headed into the mountains on the west side of the state, the governor warned, flashfloods and mudslides will be hard to predict.

Florence, once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of up to 150 mph, by Sunday had dwindled to a tropical depression, its winds no more than 35 mph. It is expected to to curve north and die out by Tuesday, with a long path of destruction behind it.

Meteorolgists said Florence might drop as much as 18 trillion gallons of rain before it’s through, enough to cover Manhattan with 3,800 cubic feet of water, more than twice as high as the World Trade Center. The rain and its traveling companion, high winds, have already led to the death of 15 people, from causes ranging from housefires to carbon monoxide poisoning to drowning.

The storm’s effects have reverberated well outside the terrain of its direct impact. Florence has wreaked havoc on airlines, with more than 2,400 flights canceled, though officials said that was relatively small potatoes for a hurricane; 2012’s Hurricane Sandy wiped 20,000, while Harvey shut down 11,000 last year.

Another, odder and more dangerous aviation problem: Officials begged the public to stop flying drones, which they said threatened rescue flights by the North Carolina National Guard as well as 10 other states that lent military helicopters for emergency service.

This story was compiled from McClatchy papers in North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer; and in South Carolina, The State in Columbia, the Beaufort Gazette,The Island Packet in Hilton Head and The Sun News in Myrtle Beach; and supplemented with wire service reports.