Firefighters, community choked up at scene where child drowned in Florence floodwater
This story was updated at 11:40 p.m. Monday.
Rescue workers in Union County on Monday found the body of a 1-year-old boy who was swept away in floodwaters on Sunday, as well as an 88-year-old man near a flooded car at a separate scene, bringing Florence’s death toll to 32.
As of Monday night, those deaths included 25 in North Carolina, six in South Carolina and one in Virginia.
Across the Charlotte region, roads were starting to dry out Monday morning as the sun poked out for the first time in days. Workers were cleaning up after Florence’s soaking, which delivered 11 inches or more to parts of the city and sent creeks and streams overflowing their banks.
As of 1:15 p.m. Monday, 10,634 customers in Charlotte remained without power, Duke Energy reported, along with about 4,000 in surrounding counties. City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County offices remained closed, as did local courts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools canceled classes for the third straight day, leaving 148,000 students and the children who attend daycares linked to the CMS calendar home again.
A rash of sewage spills, mostly in south Charlotte, sent thousands of gallons of untreated water to area waterways, Charlotte Water said, as the system coped with millions of extra gallons dumped by the historic rains.
But the severest effects locally appear to be the three reported deaths from the storm: Two baby boys and one elderly man, killed in Gaston and Union counties.
The Union County Sheriff’s Office said shortly after 10 a.m. that 1-year-old Kaiden Lee-Welch’s body had been recovered a day after the car he was riding in was swept off the road into an open field by fast-moving floodwaters. Investigators said his mother drove around barricades onto a flooded section of N.C. 218.
Water from nearby Richardson Creek took the Hyundai Elantra across a field and pinned it against trees. The boy’s mother Dazia Lee was able to get Kaiden out of his car seat and escape from the vehicle.
“When she was trying to get out of the water, she lost control of the child,” said Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey. “The child was lost in that swift water.”
The fire department was called at around 8 p.m., and a specialized search-and-rescue team from Miami soon joined them. They searched for hours, but eventually called off the rescue mission and resumed looking Monday morning.
Kaiden’s body was found pinned between the car’s front bumper and a tree, in about 10 feet of water, officials said, where he was held by the force of the water. On Monday morning, two rescue workers were seen coming out of a flooded soybean field near the road, carrying what appeared to be a container covered with a white blanket shortly after 10:30 am as a helicopter hovered overhead.
A Union County Sheriff’s deputy guarding the barricade on NC-218 said he’s been here since 1992 and has never seen the water so high.
Elsewhere in Union County, deputies also recovered a man’s body in Marshville on Monday morning, on Landsford Road. Cathey said 88-year-old Clayburn Lee Wright appeared to have run off the road sometime Sunday night. The car was found in a flooded area, with the window down and the man’s body outside.
Cathey said he may have tried to escape the car after hitting floodwaters and drowned.
In Dallas, N.C., an infant boy was the first person reported killed by the storm in the Charlotte area. Kade Gill died Sunday after a large pine tree fell on his mobile home Sunday, Gaston County police confirmed.
He was at home with family members on Moses Court, off Old Willis School Road, around 12:45 p.m. Sunday when the tree fell.
“It basically just cut the trailer in half,” Gaston County Police Capt. Jon Leatherwood said. The boy was pronounced dead at Carolinas Medical Center Sunday afternoon.
Autumn Gill, his older sister, told the Observer that the baby was in his mother’s arms on the couch. Tammy Gill told her daughter she had just settled in on the couch to feed Kade when the tree crashed through the home.
Olen Gill, the boy’s father, was in the kitchen, cut off by the tree and unable to reach Tammy Gill, who was pinned, and Kade.
“The tree had divided us,” Kade’s father, Olen Gill, told WBTV. “So I am in the kitchen. She (Kade’s mother) is in the living room on the couch. I had to come out and rip the air conditioner out of the window, and that’s when we handed him through the window.”
Sunday was the day Kade turned three months old, reported Observer news partner WBTV.
Creeks rose all over the Charlotte area Sunday afternoon. The southern part of Mecklenburg County and its neighbors to the southeast faced particular trouble. Rain gauges there measured massive rainfall over the past three days: 10.9 inches at Matthews Elementary School, 11 inches nearby on U.S. 74, 10.2 inches at McAlpine and Sardis roads.
At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, after much of the metro area had been pelted since early morning with gusting winds and sheets of rain, the National Weather Service issued a rare emergency flood warning for south Charlotte, Pineville, Matthews and Mint Hill. There, the drainage basins of some of Mecklenburg County’s best-known creeks began spilling over into roadways, bridges and neighborhoods.
The emergency warning was quickly extended to Union and York counties.
The weather service told residents in the quickly expanding emergency flash-flood area that they faced an “extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation,” and the agency urged people not to travel unless they were evacuating.
“SEEK HIGHER GROUND NOW!” the weather service said in an unusually urgent Sunday afternoon statement.
At 4:15 p.m., Union County Emergency Management Service announced a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew due to worsening conditions.
Across the region, Duke Energy says water could begin spilling out of several of its lakes above and below Charlotte starting as early as Monday evening, utility spokeswoman Kim Crawford told the Observer on Sunday.
The most immediate flooding threats are to areas along lakes James, Rhodhiss and Lookout Shoals, Crawford said, where the reservoirs are expected to be several feet above full pond by Monday evening, Crawford said.
Duke is also monitoring Mountain Island Lake, a major source of the region’s drinking water. But Crawford said Duke’s fears of flooding there have eased for now due to tapering rainfall in that part of the county.
Elsewhere, as the rainfall and runoff move southward, and are passed dam to dam around Charlotte, the flood threat moves into Duke’s reservoirs in South Carolina. The threat is particularly heightened at Lake Wateree, the last and lowest reservoir on the chain.
Duke began preparing for the arrival of Florence weeks ago by lowering water levels 4 to 5 feet in its four biggest reservoirs — James, Norman, Wylie and Wateree — in anticipation of what Florence was expected to dump across the region. All that will be compounded by a massive runoff from the river’s countless tributaries, stretching hundreds of miles from the mountains to the S.C. Upstate.
The National Weather Service says the South Fork River in Gaston County is expected to crest at 6 1/2 feet above flood stage on Monday, threatening roads, bridges, parks and homes, particularly in and around Cramerton.
Staff Writers Mark Price, Theoden Janes, Joe Marusak, LaVendrick Smith and Adam Bell contributed.