2 mental health patients die in South Carolina flooding

Authorities in South Carolina have recovered the bodies of two women who drowned when the van taking them to a mental health facility was swept away by floodwaters.

At least 37 dead as a result of Hurricane Florence, with thousands still out of their homes

Officials say they have recovered the bodies of two people who died after the van they were riding in was swept away by floodwaters in North Carolina. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Authorities in South Carolina have recovered the bodies of two women who drowned when the van taking them to a mental health facility was swept away by floodwaters.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division spokesperson Thom Berry said the bodies of 45-year-old Windy Newton and 43-year-old Nicolette Green were removed from the van Wednesday evening.

The death toll from Hurricane Florence has climbed to at least 37, including those two most recent deaths.

Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson said the women died Tuesday night when two of his deputies taking them to a mental health facility under court order drove into high water. Thompson said the van submerged and the deputies weren't able to save the women from the back.

Responders decided it wasn't safe to try to retrieve the women's bodies from the van Tuesday night because of darkness.

The incident is under investigation and the deputies are on administrative leave.

Justin Bamberg, a state lawmaker and lawyer who has represented the families of several people injured or killed by law enforcement officers, said Wednesday he's perplexed by the decision to transport anyone in such uncertain weather conditions.

"If that road is in an area where it is a flood risk, and waters were rising, why were they driving on that road anyway?" he said. "People need to know exactly how it happened. It makes it seem like someone took a very unnecessary risk in creating the problem in the first place."

In a release on Tuesday night, Thompson said his office would co-operate with the probe.

"Just like you, we have questions we want answered," said Thompson.

'We will be there 100%': Trump

As the flooding continued, North Carolina's governor pleaded with thousands of evacuees to be patient and not return home just yet. Roy Cooper warned that the flooding, set off by as much as one metre of rain, from Hurricane Florence is far from over and will get worse in places.

Cooper's remarks came as U.S. President Donald Trump travelled to the affected zone to thank first responders and survey the damage.

"America grieves with you and our hearts break for you. God bless you," the president said during a briefing at a marine base in Havelock, N.C. "We will never forget your loss. We will never leave your side. We're with you all the way."

The emotional words and comprehensive itinerary stood in contrast with Trump's trip to Puerto Rico last year after Hurricane Maria, when he drew criticism for tossing rolls of paper towels into the crowd. Or his initial visit to Houston after Hurricane Harvey, when he did not meet with any storm victims.

U.S. President Donald Trump, seen here in the hard-hit community of New Bern, N.C., told people affected by Florence that, 'we will never leave your side. We're with you all the way.' (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

There were still flashes of Trump's outsized persona and unconventional style — he asked about the status of Lake Norman, where he owns a golf club, telling officials, "I can't tell you why, but I love that area."

He also joked with a family who had a large yacht wash up against their house. "At least you got a nice boat out of the deal," he told them. "What's the law? Maybe it becomes theirs."

And he was caught on camera telling a person to whom he had just handed food to "have a good time."

The governor asked for help "cutting the red tape" in getting federal assistance, noting that farmers suffered significant losses and scores of people lost their homes. 

Some 10,000 people remain in shelters and more than 200,000 customers are without power across the state. Roads remain treacherous, Cooper said, and some are still being closed for the first time as rivers swelled by torrential rains inland drain toward the Atlantic.

Passersby look at a section of washed-out road damaged by Florence in Currie, N.C. The governor said statewide more than 1,100 roads were closed. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

After arriving at Marine Corps air station in Havelock, N.C., the president praised first responders and pledged his administration's help at a joint briefing of officials.

"We will be there 100 per cent," said Trump. "All of the folks from the federal government that are around the table are confirming it."

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, Cooper said the state will push to make sure that pledge is honoured.

Temporary housing needs 'up in the air'

In Wilmington, meanwhile, workers began handing out supplies using a system resembling a giant fast-food drive-thru: Drivers pulled up to a line of pallets, placed an order and left without having to get out. A woman blew a whistle each time drivers had to pull forward.

Brandon Echavarrieta struggled to stay composed as he described life post-Florence: no power for days, rotted meat in the freezer, no water or food and just one bath in a week.

"It's been pretty bad," said Echavarrieta, 34, his voice breaking.

While thousands have had to make use of shelters in North Carolina, the number doing so in South Carolina is estimated in the hundreds. 

But many could need a place to stay for weeks, even months.

Members of New York Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One work in high waters caused by Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, N.C. The death toll from Florence is at least 37 fatalities, with 27 of those in North Carolina. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Lutrice Garcia left a Bennettsville, S.C., shelter where she had spent several nights on a cot and tried to head home. But floodwaters from overflowing Crooked Creek covered the road, and an emergency responder told her water was seeping into the houses.

With the creek still rising, the 28-year-old nurse mostly wondered if the home she recently finished repairing from Hurricane Matthew's flood damage in 2016 would once again wind up uninhabitable.

Her mother lives nearby, but already has eight other relatives under her roof. If she can't go home, Garcia isn't sure where she'll go.

"It's up in the air. I'm just taking it day by day," Garcia said.

FEMA officials have been in the area for days assessing housing options, said Mike Sprayberry, director of North Carolina's Division of Emergency Management. He said they expect to use FEMA's Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which uses state and federal funds to house displaced residents in hotels.

The demand for hotel rooms for Florence's victims could be much greater than after Hurricane Matthew. While 4,000 evacuees found protection in North Carolina shelters during Matthew, that number during Florence peaked at over 20,000.

Storm-related tornado confirmed

FEMA reduced its reliance on trailers after they became symbols of the troubled federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when more than 144,000 trailers were deployed to Louisiana and Mississippi.

That led to shortages last year amid high demand after Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas and Hurricane Irma struck Florida. FEMA had just 1,700 trailers when Harvey hit in August 2017, and the agency rushed to put out bids for an additional 4,500.

A furniture store in Chestefield, Va., shows damage from a tornado on Monday. One person died as a result of a Florence-related tornado, officials said. (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

FEMA hasn't said how many trailers it has available after Florence.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service confirmed early Wednesday that the remnants of Hurricane Florence spawned a total of six tornadoes in Virginia earlier this week.

The strongest tornado levelled a flooring company in Chesterfield, killing a man who worked there. That storm was categorized as an EF2 tornado, with winds of 193 kilometre per hour.

With files from Reuters and CBC News