Floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew may continue to rise in Eastern North Carolina for the rest of the week, officials said Monday, with at least three rivers forecast to reach record levels.
The flood damage drew comparisons to Hurricane Floyd, which left $3 billion in damage, destroyed 7,000 homes and killed 52 people in 1999.
Hurricane Matthew’s confirmed death toll in North Carolina rose to 13, the Department of Public Safety reported.
Gov. Pat McCrory said North Carolina received a federal disaster declaration for 31 counties that will help local and state governments augment the costs of responding to the disaster and pay for storm debris removal. The declaration also approved 10 counties for individual assistance for homeowners and renters.
Thousands of Duke Energy customers in Eastern North Carolina might not have their electric power restored until Sunday while repairs continue. Still-rising floodwaters from the weekend storm will make many repair sites inaccessible to electric line crews.
Flood warnings continued to be in effect in 13 counties Monday night.
Nearly 800 inmates at the minimum-security Neuse Correctional Institute in Goldsboro had to be evacuated Monday to escape rising water from the Neuse and Little rivers.
The 684,000 customers without power at the peak of Duke’s outages in the Carolinas compares to 1.8 million without power in a 2002 ice storm and 1.2 million after Hurricane Fran in 1996. By Monday afternoon, 430,000 of the total 1.2 million Duke customers affected by Matthew still had no power.
“It’s going to take a week to deal with this thing and get back to normal,” Duke’s storm director, Bobby Simpson, told reporters. “The issue is access and trying to get materials and workers out there.”
Duke said it has restored power to 825,000 structures in the Carolinas but that 430,000 outages remain, mostly in North Carolina. Nearly 7,000 crews are at work, and Duke said that number could double in the next two days, with some help coming from as far as Canada.
Thirteen people have died so far in the state due to the hurricane and up to five are missing. More than a million people, or about 10 percent of North Carolina’s population, were without power Monday morning.
“You have got to see it to believe all the devastation that has occurred,” Gov. Pat McCrory said after touring Fayetteville that afternoon. More than 700 swiftwater rescues occurred in Cumberland County alone.
A levee was believed to have broken overnight in the Eastern North Carolina town of Lumberton, forcing the emergency evacuation of nearly 1,500 people stranded by the rising waters.
Lumberton appeared near chaos Monday, its police station shuttered and sporadic gunfire in the air. Its home county, Robeson, had North Carolina’s highest violent crime rate in 2014.
The Rev. Volley Hanson worried that stress from the lack of running water and electricity might push people over the edge in the city of 22,000.
“The cash is going to be running out. We’ve already got street vendors hawking water, Cokes and cigarettes. Cigarettes are at seven bucks a pack,” Hanson said. “It’s nuts here, and it’s going to get worse.”
About 1,500 people were left stranded and awaiting rescue early Monday in Lumberton. Most of them were in knee-deep water, but some fled to rooftops as the brown waters swirled around them. Rescuers still had not made it to all the submerged cars or figured out exactly how many people are missing or dead, said Robeson County emergency management director Stephanie Chavis.
“I’ve been here right at 28 years,” she said. “This seems to be the worst one we’ve had in my career.”
The flooding there had not been predicted by computer models, adding to the growing fears of state officials, who say 500 water-retaining structures in the state are feeling Matthew’s impact.
McCrory advised out-of-state travelers to avoid using Interstate 95, one of the nation’s chief north-south travel corridors. The interstate was submerged in multiple locations from Exit 77 to the South Carolina state line.
State officials say travelers who try using I-95 could face lengthy delays, with priority being given to people escaping floodwaters in places like Lumberton, where boat and helicopter crews are fishing people out of knee-deep water. I-40 West near Newton Grove was also closed.
An N.C. Department of Transportation website has updates on interstate highway closures related to the floodwaters.
McCrory said the state is poised for even more flooding along the Tar, Cape Fear, Neuse and Lumber rivers in Eastern North Carolina. The dangers there go beyond drowning, McCrory said, noting the waters are toxic from sewage, chemicals and dead animals that were caught up in the floods.
“The greatest threat at this point remains inland flooding that will continue this week in both the central and eastern parts of the state,” he said. “People who live near rivers, streams and levees need to be extremely careful.”
18 inches of rain
To date, about 2,600 people in the state have spent nights in 60 emergency shelters, state officials said. Thirty-eight school districts remained closed Monday, due in part to school sites being used as emergency shelters.
The after-effects of Hurricane Matthew will be felt for the rest of the week, state officials warn, as Eastern North Carolina communities brace for downstream flooding.
Some of the worst flooding so far is in Cumberland County, home to Fort Bragg. State officials are warning the public to stay out of Fayetteville’s downtown area because of evacuation and rescue efforts.
The National Weather Service reported 18.38 inches of rain in Elizabethtown in southeastern North Carolina, and 14 to 16 inches were dumped in other areas of the coastal Carolinas. The Sandhills region, which was still recovering from flooding rains a week earlier, was among the hardest hit areas of the state.
The top wind speed recorded in southeastern North Carolina was 86 mph at St. James Plantation in Brunswick County.
About 150 people were rescued by boats from flooding in the riverside village of Nichols on Monday, while across South Carolina the oceanfront hamlet of Edisto Beach began recovering from what officials called the worst hurricane hit in almost 40 years.
Matthew dumped 15 inches of rain in Marion County, sending the Lumber River out of its banks and inundating Nichols, which is about 10 miles from the North Carolina state line. About 150 people crowded into the town hall were rescued by boat by National Guard and Department of Natural Resources officers.
“There was not a dry spot in Nichols,” said resident Kathy Finger, 67. “There’s not a building there without water.”
Just over 400,000 customers remain without power in South Carolina after massive outages this weekend because of Hurricane Matthew. Three deaths from the storm have been reported in the state.
The Associated Press and correspondent Steve Lyttle contributed.