Floodwaters surge in Carolinas as Florence death toll rises

Florence has weakened to a tropical depression but "major river flooding will continue over a significant portion of the Carolinas," the U.S. National Hurricane Service said Sunday.

Rivers overflowing due to 'epic' rainfall completely cut off city of Wilmington, N.C.

Luis Lucio walks through the yard of his flooded home in Kinston, N.C., on Sunday following the aftermath of storm Florence. (Travis Long/The News & Observer/Associated Press)

Florence, now blamed for the deaths of 17 people, weakened to a tropical depression early Sunday, but heavy rains have caused major flooding of rivers over a significant portion of the Carolinas.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said excessive amounts of rain are still being dumped on the region and the effect is expected to be "catastrophic." Flood waters fuelled by Florence's heavy rains have risen enough to submerge instruments used by the federal government to monitor river levels in North Carolina, causing at least two of them to stop working.

On Sunday U.S. National Weather Service warned some bodies of water have risen to record levels and said the flooding's impact may be "unprecedented." 

Officials in southwest Virginia urged residents to evacuate as Florence moves out of the Carolinas and heads north. Flood warnings persisted in the Carolinas and have been declared for parts of Virginia and West Virginia.

Heavy rain from Florence saw street signs in Long Creek, N.C., almost covered on Sunday. (Paul Hunter/CBC News)

Officials reported five more deaths in South Carolina on Sunday. Two men and a woman died in three separate incidents after their trucks went off the road. Earlier, authorities said two people died from inhaling carbon monoxide from a generator in their home.

A three-month-old also died in North Carolina after a tree landed on a mobile home.

The storm weakened on Sunday, but only after knocking out power to nearly a million homes and businesses. About 740,000 homes and businesses remained without power in the two states, and utilities said some could be out for weeks.

Flooding nearly submerged vehicles in parts of North Carolina, including in Long Creek, a town about half an hour from the city of Wilmington, where Florence first made landfall on Friday. (Paul Hunter/CBC News)

"This is still a catastrophic, life-threatening storm," said Zack Taylor, a meteorologist with the weather service's Weather Prediction Center.

"Avoid complacency," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged people on Saturday. "Even though the storm has been downgraded, the rainfall will still be epic."

Florence is forecast to turn northward through the Ohio Valley by Monday. (CBC)

"The strong storm bands are still dumping two to three inches of rain an hour, enough to cause flooding in areas that have never been flooded before, until now," Cooper said on Sunday.

Winds have dropped to about 55 km/h since it roared ashore on Friday as a hurricane and it is crawling west over two states at nine km/h, the Miami-based NHC said early Sunday.

In North Carolina, more than 900 people had been rescued from rising floodwaters and 15,000 remained in shelters, the state's governor said Sunday. More than 6,000 people remained in emergency shelters in South Carolina.

The White House said President Donald Trump approved making federal funding available in some affected counties. Trump, who plans to visit the region this week, tweeted his "deepest sympathies and warmth" to the families and friends of those who had lost their lives.

Worst yet to come

By 5 p.m. Sunday, Florence was moving north at 22 km/h and was centred about 40 kilometres south-southeast of Greenville, S.C., according to the NHC.

Up to a metre of rain is expected along coastal areas of the Carolinas and up to 250 millimetres in southwestern Virginia, it said.

Barbara Zawacki, left, and Greg Morris were rescued from their trailer in Long Creek, N.C., on Sunday after water seeped through their floors. (Waqas Chughtai/CBC News)

In Fayetteville, a North Carolina city of about 210,000 people about 140 kilometres inland, authorities told thousands of residents near the Cape Fear River and Little River to get out of their homes by Sunday afternoon because of the flood risk. The weather service said the Cape Fear River had reached 13 metres by 6 p.m., more than two metres above flood stage.

"If you are refusing to leave during this mandatory evacuation, you need to do things like notify your legal next of kin because the loss of life is very, very possible," Mayor Mitch Colvin said at a news conference.

"The worst is yet to come," he added.

Maggie Belgie of the Cajun Navy, a group of Louisiana volunteer boat owners who assist in search and rescue operations, carries a child as her team helps people in Lumberton, N.C., flee rising floodwaters brought on by storm Florence. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

Barbara Zawacki, a woman rescued from her home in Long Creek, N.C., told CBC News she woke up to what looked like a pond in her front yard.

"I had to actually step outside to see if I was seeing correctly," she said.

By the time she was rescued, she said, water had seeped through the floor of her trailer and was halfway up her shin.

Watch CBC's Paul Hunter explain the unexpected dangers lurking in North Carolina floodwaters:

CBC's Paul Hunter reports from a park in Wilmington, N.C., where people are being warned to watch out for alligators in the floodwater. 1:13

Wilmington completely cut off

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority said on Sunday that it was scrambling to find fuel to power three water treatment plants, including one that distributes water to Wilmington, N.C., a city of 120,000 that is now completely cut off by floodwaters.

Flooding has made supply routes impassable and customers will be left without drinking water if it can't find other ways to get fuel, via ship or air, in the next 48 hours.

On Sunday, residents of the coastal city waited for hours outside stores and restaurants. As demand for food, drinks and other necessities soared, police guarded the door of at least one store, with only 10 people allowed inside at a time. North Carolina's attorney general said Sunday he's looking into accusations that retailers are bilking customers through exorbitant prices as Florence and the storm's remnants have crossed the state.

Near the Sutton Power Plant in Wilmington, coal ash leaked from a Duke Energy landfill. The company said about 1,500 cubic metres of ash — enough to fill 180 dump trucks — had flowed into the plant's cooling pond.

The company said in an earlier statement that it did not believe the incident posed a risk to health or the environment.

Watching hog waste lagoons

Officials had warned before the storm rains could taint waterways with murky coal ash and toxic hog waste.

North Carolina state regulators and environmental groups are monitoring the threat from hog and poultry farms in low-lying, flood-prone areas. 

These industrial-scale farms typically feature vast pits of animal feces and urine that can pose a significant pollution threat if they are breached or inundated by floodwaters.

Watch CBC's Ellen Mauro speak to a man who rode out the storm:

CBC's Ellen Mauro speaks with a resident of Wilmington, N.C., after his community was pummelled by tropical storm Florence. 2:18

South Carolina authorities said law enforcement officers were guarding against looting in evacuated areas, while Wilmington set a curfew on Saturday evening in response to looting in one area.

The remnants of Florence are expected to bring rain to Atlantic Canada by the middle of the week.

With files from CBC's  Ellen Mauro, Paul Hunter and Waqas Chughtai


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