Citizen Green: Rain from Florence and heartbreak roll downhill

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The heavy rain didn’t really lay into the Triad until Sunday evening, as Tropical Storm Florence trudged across the Carolinas. Much of the rainfall drenching the western end of the two states over the next couple days will be draining back to the coast, engorging rivers and dumping more water into already saturated low-lying communities along a 200-mile band from Greenville, NC down to Cheraw, SC.

While Winston-Salem’s rainfall collects into the Yadkin River, and then into the Pee Dee en route to the South Carolina coast, Greensboro lies at the headwaters of the Haw River. The narrow tributaries of Buffalo Creek and Reedy Fork feed into the Haw north of Burlington. Similarly, High Point drains into the Deep River. The Haw and the Deep meet south of Jordan Lake and form the Cape Fear River, which shoots down to Lillington and Fayetteville. It all empties into the Atlantic at Wilmington.

By 1 p.m. on Saturday, the city of Fayetteville had issued a mandatory evacuation order for residents living within a mile of the Cape Fear River. Downstream, Wilmington became a virtual island over the weekend with flooding blocking roads in and out of the city in every direction. Town like Burgaw (Pop. 4,110) have become almost completely submerged. And all that happened before the heavy rainfall really started at the collection points upstream in High Point and Greensboro.

We’re just beginning to see the faint outlines of an unfolding catastrophe whose most acute agonies no doubt lie in the quiet, personal difficulties of families far removed from the histrionic footage of giant waves lashing the beach houses at Surf City.

Here are some indicators of the fragile and vulnerable state of the vast low-lying region stretching across the coastal plain of the Carolinas:

  • On Saturday night, heavy rains caused a slope to collapse at the coal-ash landfill at Duke Energy’s retired Sutton Plant near Wilmington. Gov. Roy Cooper told reporters during a press conference on Sunday that he simply didn’t know the impact of the breach because no one can reach the power plant.
  • On Sunday, at 10:09 a.m., the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which serves Wilmington and New Hanover County reported a “critical need of fuel to keep our water treatment plants running,” warning that a failure to obtain fuel in the next 48 hours would mean the utility would not be able to provide water for fire suppression or supply drinking water. “It is with a heavy heart that we share this information with our customers, however, we want to give you as much notice as possible,” the agency advised. “Please begin to make contingency plans for you and your family. Now is a good time to begin filling up bathtubs and water jugs as a contingency to a loss of water delivery.” But three hours later, the agency announced it had “identified a source of fuel,” adding, “There is no immediate threat to water service disruption. We believe that this is a reliable supply that should last us through the duration process after Hurricane Florence.”
  • Volunteers and National Guard members piled thousands of sandbags along the south and west sides of Lumberton over the weekend, only to see the temporary levee give away around 3 p.m. on Sunday and water pour in from the Lumber River, according to a report by the Asheville Citizen-Times. On Saturday, the Cajun Navy from Louisiana and volunteers from the region had evacuated residents from the Highland Acres nursing home in Lumberton. “We had to take these poor people out on backboards in the rain, no coverings except a sheet,” Ben Kennedy, a volunteer from South Carolina, wrote on Facebook. “We had to put them in boats and haul them in the rain to an extraction point through flooded streets. All of them were scared to death and soaked to the core.” Robeson County had suspended all emergency services, including medical, sheriff’s office and public transportation at 7 p.m. on Friday due to dangerous weather conditions, according to local news reports.
  • Beginning late Saturday morning, the state Department of Transportation began closing down sections of Interstates 40 and 95. On Saturday, around 5:30 p.m., Renae Perrett found herself stranded on an overpass over Interstate 40 near Burgaw after trying to return to check on her house in Hampstead. “Bottom line me and my dogs are waiting for a water rescue boat because it is flooded on both sides of the overpass too,” she wrote in a Facebook post that went viral. “There is nowhere to go except into the water. I don’t think I have ever really felt like I was near death until today. Big life lesson. Evacuate, far far away and don’t come back until everything is back to normal. Not a second before.”

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