HURRICANE FLORENCE: I-40 reopens; ILM floodwaters to crest Tuesday

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Port reopens; debris pickup begins in New Hanover; distribution centers wind down operations

WILMINGTON — Most of Interstate 40 reopened Monday afternoon, clearing a major traffic artery to and from Wilmington that had been closed for more than a week.

“I-40 has re-opened from NC 41 (Exit 385) to Wilmington. There are currently 2 eastbound lanes open and one westbound lane open,” the N.C. Department of Transportation said on its website.

The major interstate road, the primary connection between Wilmington and Raleigh, had for stretches in Pender and Duplin counties appeared more like a river, with transportation officials unsure when the road would reopen.

Karen Collette, N.C. DOT division engineer for the region that includes Southeastern North Carolina, said Monday that the road did not suffer major damage.

“You just never know sometimes,” she said. “When the water rises slowly and recedes slowly, you have a better chance of not having major washouts.”

Flooding in Wilmington

Downtown Wilmington will continue to see tidal flooding through at least Tuesday night as rains Hurricane Florence brought to central parts of North Carolina make their way to the ocean, according to the National Weather Service office in Wilmington.

“For the next couple of days, it may not drop below (flood) advisories even at low tide,” said Mark Bacon, a meteorologist at the NWS Wilmington office. “None of us ever remember that being the case.”

The Cape Fear River is expected to rise to at or near its record level of 8.2 feet, which was set in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew two years ago, at high tide Monday evening, Tuesday morning and Tuesday night, a weather service briefing stated

“We have the highest tides occurring this evening, tomorrow morning and Tuesday evening,” Bacon said Monday morning. “That’s probably its peak.”

On Monday morning, flooding on Water Street reached its intersection with Market Street, but the road remained passable for most trucks and sport-utility vehicles, and Water Street’s east sidewalk remained walkable.

While high tides will mean higher levels, parts of downtown and at the Battleship North Carolina will still resemble a tidal pool even at low tide, the weather service said.

“It is possible that roads near the USS North Carolina and that Water Street downtown will remain flooded even at low tide tonight through Tuesday,” the briefing stated.

The storm had significant impacts throughout the region. Much of Pender County remains underwater, with officials estimating that about 3,000 buildings were flooded during the storm. Officials have had difficulty reaching many people because so many roads, including Route 53 near the Northeast Cape Fear River, were still flooded early this week.

If there is a bright spot, it’s that the Northeast Cape Fear River crested late last week, Bacon said, and is gradually getting shallower. It was still in major flood stage Monday and was expected to be at moderate flood stage through Friday while still lowering, he said.

“It’s gradual,” Bacon said of rivers moving water. “You can’t put a time or date on it.”

Bacon said rain forecast for the region this week should not exacerbate flooding because small amounts are forecast to fall.

“These slow rates and (rain) totals should have minimal impacts to river flooding,” he said.

Other Road conditions

Roads throughout Brunswick County also remained impassable Monday as flooding, including from the Waccamaw River, continued Monday.

The Waccamaw River “is a flat, marshy kind of river, which is why it moves slowly,” Bacon said.

Collette said that, even as the good I-40 news came Monday, U.S. 421 at the Pender County line remained closed.

“As far as I’m concerned, it still looks like a river,” she said Monday afternoon. “It’s receding, but still has some velocity going over it.”

Slow recovery

Some parts of the region are in recovery mode.

The Port of Wilmington resumed full operations Monday after closing Sept. 13 as Hurricane Florence approached the coast.

While employees and vessels returned late last week — the Yang Ming Uniformity called at the port Thursday — Monday marked the reopening of the port to commercial truck traffic, the port stated in a release.

“North Carolina Ports’ facilities in Wilmington and Morehead City suffered some damage during Hurricane Florence. Our employees along with local, state and federal agencies worked around the clock to get our waterside terminals up and running as quickly and safely as possible,” Paul Cozza, executive director of the N.C. State Ports Authority, said in a statement.

Debris cleanup was scheduled to begin Monday to start clearing trees, limbs and leaves from nearly every curbside in the Wilmington area.

New Hanover County’s food and water distribution centers at Castle Hayne and Veterans Park closed at noon Monday, while its downtown center at Cape Fear Community College will close Tuesday, according to county officials.

Brunswick County

The county is continuing to assess just how much damage Florence caused, said Scott Garner, deputy director of emergency management for the county.

“We still don’t have an accurate” picture of the damage, he said Monday. “It’s spread out over a huge area.”

“Some areas were virtually unscathed, while others were completely under water,” he said.

He said damage assessment crews planned to target areas along the Waccamaw River in the coming days as its waters continue to recede.

Garner said contractors will begin removing debris “in the next several days” and that residents should begin placing vegetative debris — including tree limbs, sticks and leaves — on curb sides on Monday.

Brunswick County also announced it would spray for mosquitoes — a concern given the high water levels that can be a breeding ground for the pests — starting Monday.

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