TROPICAL STORM FLORENCE: Storm surge threat over; 'extreme' flood threats remain

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Gov. Cooper: stay off the roads as Florence keeps rains coming; residents at shelters should stay there

Threats from storm surge from Tropical Storm Florence have subsided, but the Wilmington region remains under the threat of life-threatening rain and flooding, the National Weather Service office in Wilmington said Saturday night.

“Life threatening, catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding are expected to continue. The slow motion of the storm will make this a very prolonged flood event,” Reid Hawkins, science officer for the NWS office in Wilmington, wrote in a briefing.

The storm surges of Friday and Saturday as Florence made landfall in Wrightsville Beach as a Category 1 hurricane saw coastal flooding and the Cape Fear River reverse course and flow inland instead of to the Atlantic Ocean.

While the surges have subsided as Florence crawled inland at a snail’s pace of 2 mph during most of Saturday, the region was socked with a deluge of rain that has already flooded numerous rivers and dozens of roads.

And more is coming, Hawkins wrote.

“Catastrophic flooding, long term major river flooding are occurring or imminent,” the briefing said. “Flash flooding and river flooding impacts will continue over a long period of time due to the historic amount of water falling across the region. Major to record river flooding is likely through the upcoming week.”

The Wilmington region, inundated already with up to 15 inches of rain in places, will see additional rainfall of 15 inches or more, the briefing said.

During a press conference Saturday afternoon, Gov. Roy Cooper pleaded with residents to avoid driving, as roads will continue to flood and deteriorate. He further asked residents who left coastal areas for shelter to stay there and not return until the middle of next week, as Florence is expected to hit central and western North Carolina in the coming days with more rain, adding more water to rivers and streams heading toward the coast.

“Don’t go back now,” Cooper said. “Even when evacuation orders are lifted, it won’t be safe for you to return. Plus, you’ll be in the way of recovery and rescue efforts going on there.”

>>READ MORE: Click here for complete coverage of Hurricane Florence.

5 p.m. update: Wilmington region remains under tropical storm warning

The Wilmington region remained under a tropical storm warning as Florence continued to barely crawl while producing catastrophic rain and flooding to the area.

Areas north of Surf City were removed from the warning, the National Hurricane Center said in a 5 p.m. briefing. But with Florence now moving west at just 2 mph, areas between Surf City and South Santee River in South Carolina remained under the tropical storm warning.

The bulletin said the region, already battered with up to 15 inches in some parts, will see “an additional 15 to 20 inches, with storm totals between 30 and 40 inches along the North Carolina coastal areas south of Cape Hatteras. This rainfall will continue to produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding.”

The hurricane center said the storm may weaken more later Saturday.

“Gradual weakening is forecast while Florence moves farther inland during the next couple of days, and it is expected to weaken to a tropical depression later tonight,” the advisory said.

The storm has already produced record-breaking rain north of the Wilmington region, the hurricane center said.

“A preliminary report from a cooperative observer near Swansboro, North Carolina, indicates that more than 30 inches of rain has fallen so far. That rainfall total breaks the tropical cyclone rainfall record of 24.06 inches for North Carolina set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999,” the bulletin said.

Wilmington’s record three-day rainfall is 19.66 inches set in 2010. Florence’s total rain is expected to be about 30 inches for Wilmington, weather officials have said.

3:45 p.m. update: Gov. Cooper: stay off the roads as Florence keeps rains coming

Stay off the roads, Gov. Roy Cooper said at a press conference Saturday afternoon.

“Don’t make yourself someone who needs to be rescued,” Cooper said.

Tropical Storm Florence has already seen more than 100 roads experience storm surge or flash flooding, including at least a five-mile stretch of Interstate 40 near Warsaw, which has been closed to traffic along with stretches of Interstates 95 and 70, said Col. Glenn McNeill, commander of the N.C. State Highway Patrol.

The news prompted Cooper to ask that motorists avoid driving at all.

“When a storm is bad enough to shut down Interstate highways, know that other roads may be in worse shape,” Cooper said.

And he said anyone who left the region for shelter elsewhere should stay there.

N.C. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said roads are only getting worse as the storm continues and asked that interstate travelers “avoid North Carolina.” He said he worked in transportation during Hurricane Fran in 1996, Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew of 2016.

“I have never seen flash flooding like this occur in this state,” Trogdon said.

Trogdon said the storm’s impacts will be felt soon in western parts of the state, including Charlotte, creating conditions there on Monday and Tuesday that may likely result in requests of limited travel to and from those areas as well.

And the flooding, already severe, has just begun, as Florence is expected to dump up to 40 inches of rain on the Wilmington region and will also soak the rest of the state with torrential rain.

“Let me assure you that this flooding is only going to get worse,” said N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry.

2 P.M. Update: Rain worsening; more rivers and roads to flood

Tropical Storm Florence continued its slow march Saturday afternoon, moving at just 3 mph as it continues bringing heavy bands of rain that state officials said will continue flooding rivers and roads.

“Center of Florence moving slowly westward across eastern South Carolina,” the National Hurricane Center said in a 2 p.m. bulletin. “Heavy rains and catastrophic flooding continue across portions of North Carolina and South Carolina.”

While Florence’s strength has decreased slightly to sustained winds of 45 mph, Gov. Roy Cooper on Saturday afternoon warned that the storm’s dangers had just begun as rivers in central and eastern North Carolina continue to rise and roads continued to close.

“The flood danger from this storm is more immediate today than when it made landfall just over 24 hours ago,” Cooper said in a statement. “More people now face imminent threat than when the storm was offshore. I cannot overstate it: Flood waters are rising. If you aren’t watching for them, you are risking your life.”

Earlier Saturday, President Donald Trump announced he had declared North Carolina a major disaster, paving the way for more federal resources to be used for the storm’s response.

Cooper asked that residents at shelters stay there. Trying to return too soon, or using drones to survey damage, “can interfere with and delay the work of emergency responders.”

Mayor Bill Saffo said earlier Saturday that crews need “at least 48 hours” more to clear debris before residents who left the region should consider returning.

“Five deaths have been confirmed as related to the devastating storm and more are under investigation,” Cooper said.

Two deaths happened in Wilmington when a tree crashed into a home, killing a woman and her infant child. A woman in Hampstead died of a heart attack, with officials saying no emergency responders could get to her because of the storm.

Cooper’s office asked that motorists avoid flooded roads and check for road conditions.

“Most storm-related deaths occur from drowning in floodwaters,” a press release stated. “Closed highways are not expected to reopen before waters recede and the roadways can be inspected.”

12 p.m. update: Mayor unsure when residents can return; hospital remains open

“We would like to be given at least 48 hours,” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said. “There’s just so much debris. There’s no power. It’s a tough situation here.”

Trees and limbs and other debris have blocked several roads throughout the region, including on major thoroughfares in Wilmington like Oleander Drive, South 17th Street and Independence Boulevard.

“We’ve got a massive amount of cleanup to do,” Saffo said. “This is not going to be fixed in a week or two weeks. It’s going to be months.”

Officials have said it appeared that most residents heeded warnings to leave the region as Florence, at one time a major, Category 4 hurricane, approached North Carolina.

Florence weakened somewhat after making landfall and on Saturday was a tropical storm that had sustained winds of 50 mph as it churned about 40 miles west of Myrtle Beach, S.C., the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory at 11 a.m. Saturday. But its progress had slowed to a crawl of 2 mph. That, and the storm’s vast circumference of hundreds of miles, means Wilmington will be inundated with rain, the advisory said.

Saffo said crews, already out Saturday trying to clear debris even as the storm continued howling and dropping rain, need time to get roads clear.

“We can’t just snap our fingers on this one,” he said. “We know people want to get back to their homes. But every neighborhood seems to have been affected.”

New Hanover Regional Medical Center has remained open, with generators keeping the power on despite some leaks in its roof and some structural damage, hospital spokeswoman Carolyn Fisher said.

Fisher said the hospital has about 1,800 employees, including medical and support staff, stationed at the hospital during the storm. She said medical staff is working 12-hour shifts, “which is their typical shift,” and are being kept at the hospital until conditions are safe.

“It’s an emergency situation. We are the region’s primary health care provider,” she said. “They need to (stay at the hospital).”

Fisher said support staff includes food service employees providing “four hot meals each day” and child care services for about 100 children staying at the hospital while their parents work.

9 a.m. update: President Trump declares major disaster for North Carolina

President Donald Trump announced Saturday morning that he has declared North Carolina a major disaster as Florence, now downgraded to a tropical storm, continues to dump record-setting rain on the Wilmington region.

“The President’s action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in Beaufort, Brunswick, Carteret, Craven, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, and Pender counties. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said in a press release.

The declaration also provides assistance to local governments for cleanup efforts following the storm, including building repairs. It further provides assistance to individuals for rent payments for emergency lodging, home repairs, payments to cover unemployment caused by the storm and other assistance, the release said.

The storm is expected to bring historic and “catastrophic” rain and flooding, the National Hurricane Center said in an 8 a.m. briefing. A flash flood warning for all of Southeastern North Carolina, including New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, was in effect until at least 4 p.m. Saturday, the National Weather Service said in a bulletin.

“Doppler radar was showing a band of heavy rain developing off the North and South Carolina Coasts. Today, this band of intense, prolonged rainfall will move over areas that have already received between 5 and 15 inches of rain. This band could bring an additional 5 to 10 inches of rain to these areas, exacerbating ongoing flooding and likely leading to additional flooding,” the bulletin said.

Widespread flooding has seen numerous roads close, including five miles of Interstate 40 in both directions near Warsaw.

The storm had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph as of 5 a.m., the briefing said. But its progress had slowed to a crawl of 2 mph. That, and the storm’s vast circumference of hundreds of miles, means Wilmington will be inundated with rain, the advisory said.

The Wilmington region could see “storm totals between 30 and 40 inches along the North Carolina coastal areas south of Cape Hatteras. This rainfall will continue to produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding,” the advisory said.

5:30 a.m. update: Florence to bring ‘prolonged’ rain and flooding

Florence has been downgraded to a tropical storm with diminished winds, but it has stalled over the Wilmington region as predicted and will continue drenching the area with historic and catastrophic rain, the National Hurricane Center said in a 5 a.m. briefing.

Florence’s eye made landfall over the Wrightsville Beach water tower about 7:15 a.m. Friday, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Wilmington. It hit the coast as a Category 1 storm with 90 mph maximum sustained winds, the NWS said. As of 5 a.m. Saturday, the storm’s center was about 35 miles west of Myrtle Beach, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The storm’s arrival brought a 105 mph wind gust at the NWS office about 7 a.m. Friday, said meteorologist Jordan Baker. He said the gust was the strongest recorded in Wilmington since 1958.

By Friday evening, the Cape Fear River in Wilmington saw storm surge flowing north being met with rainwater flowing west, giving the water nowhere to go. It had crested parts of the downtown river walk by the evening hours.

Other areas throughout the region reported flooded and impassable roads, downed trees and power lines and power outages of more than 125,000 customers. So far, at least three people have died because of the storm, including a mother and infant who were in a Mercer Avenue house when it was struck by a felled tree.

And weather officials said more is coming, labeling as “extreme” the impacts from storm surge and flash flooding.

“The slow motion of the storm will make this a very prolonged flood event,” Reid Hawkins, science officer for the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, said in a briefing. “Catastrophic flooding, long term major river flooding, life-threatening storm surge, and wind damage are occurring or imminent. Major to record river flooding is likely through the upcoming week, especially for those basins that receive significant rainfall.”

Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at 910-343-2217 or