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More than 6,000 active-duty military and National Guard members have fanned out across South Carolina to aid state and local authorities as the Pee Dee and Horry County experience historic flooding expected to worsen over the next week.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster warned Tuesday: “The water is not finished.”
Hundreds have evacuated homes over the last few days in the Pee Dee and Horry County, and dozens have been rescued from rising flood waters, according to state officials.
“But we have been very prepared and very active in getting things done to keep the people safe,” said McMaster, who took a ride in a helicopter with the U.S. National Guard Monday to assess the flooding in Marlboro, Dillon, Marion, Chesterfield and Horry counties.
McMaster met Tuesday morning with U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command; U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, Chief National Guard Bureau; and S.C. Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston at the S.C. Emergency Management Division to discuss ongoing efforts to address Hurricane Florence’s impacts on the state.
The National Guard has some 3,000 personnel deployed across the state to aid state and local officials with flood evacuations and search-and-rescue operations. That’s in addition to 3,000 active-duty members deployed in the state from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
And 28 additional states have sent some 250 members of their own National Guard units to assist with life-saving search and rescue, transportation and more.
“We’ve been able to integrate in because of the great coordination team right here in the Emergency Operations Center,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Overall, this has been almost textbook with respect to the national response framework and how the federal force is able to augment and help the local authorities.”
The U.S. Naval Forces North Command also has deployed ships 30 miles off the S.C. coast for recovery and rescue efforts, loaded with heavy-lift helicopters, MV-22 Ospreys and ship-to-shore landing craft to aid in search and rescue, as well as a host of ground vehicles, generators and other equipment, O’Shaughnessy said.
All told, about 2,200 Navy and Marine personnel are embarked aboard both vessels.
“We actively flying from the ships … gaining situational awareness — flying to understand the environment here,” O’Shaughnessy said. “And we are prepared to continue to use those ships.”
Added S.C. Emergency Management Division Director Kim Stenson: “Unfortunately, we’ve had numerous major (federal disaster) declarations in the last few years, but it’s brought us to where we are today — a fully-integrated team to make sure we safeguard the citizens of South Carolina.”
He said officials are still in the process of gathering damage assessments.
“So far, in terms of the actual hurricane itself coming through here and the wind, we’ve had very little damage,” Stenson said. “But we are starting to get reports of infrastructure damage now in terms of water treatment plants, roads, culverts.”
Florence dumped nearly 2 feet of rain in Loris and Cheraw, where the Pee Dee River crested early Tuesday morning more than 16 feet above flood stage, cutting off the town’s water supply.
The river reached 46.6 feet, about 4 feet bellow the record set by Hurricane Matthew, according to the National Weather Service.
River levels at Cheraw were forecast to slowly recede below flood stage come Saturday evening.
President Donald Trump Sunday declared a major disaster in South Carolina, allowing state and local governments to be reimbursed through FEMA for costs associated with emergency and life-saving actions during the storm.
The counties included in the disaster declaration are Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester, Georgetown, Horry, Marion, Orangeburg and Williamsburg. McMaster on Tuesday said he is considering requesting Chestserfield County be added to the list.
The Waccamaw River in Conway is forecast to break the record set by Hurricane Matthew two years ago. The National Weather Service forecasts the river level at U.S. 501 in Conway will hit almost 19 feet by the end of the week, above the record of just under 18 feet set in 2016. Flood stage is 11 feet.
On Tuesday, the city of Conway advised drivers to avoid DOT construction on the U.S. 501 Bypass, where crews are installing a flood control device to keep the Horry County roadway open.
Both lanes of Highway 501 northbound into Conway were closed Tuesday, and southbound traffic on the bypass is restricted to one lane. Northbound traffic is being directed to take S.C. 31 to S.C. 22 to avoid the lane closures.
At midday Tuesday, 118 roads in Horry County were closed due to hurricane-related flooding, according to the Horry County Emergency Management Division.
“We’ve got assets embedded within the counties, in terms of the National Guard rescue assets, DNR rescue assets. And we have assets from out of state as far away as Louisiana swift-water rescue,” Stenson. “We’re out there across the board in the impacted area and ready to react if we need to. … The northern end of the Pee Dee is what we’re concerned with today.”
More than 200 road closures were reported in the northeastern part of the state as of Monday morning.
Reporter Emma Dumain in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report;