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Hurricane Florence from the field Sunday: False alarm at a dam but danger remains

As Hurricane Florence, now a tropical storm, crawls through the Carolinas, our reporters and photojournalists are on the coast. Their Saturday reports from the coast are here.

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False alarm at dam upstream of Cumberland County

12:45 a.m.: An errant Facebook post from the Cotton Volunteer Fire Department late Sunday led to fear that a dam breach in Hoke County was imminent.

The dam has not breached, though “it could overflow,” Maine Johnson, city of Fayetteville spokesman, told the News & Observer. But it is still “a possibility” that the dam will fail, Johnson said.

A voluntary evacuation order was issued for residents near the McLaughlin Lake dam.

Fort Bragg, Coast Guard and other emergency crews were on site to help with evacuations, Hoke County said in a news release Sunday night.

Brian Mims, task force leader for N.C. Task Force 9, said it was “a mess that (the post that the dam had breached) was put out, but he reaffirmed that there was no breach as of midnight.

Officials began monitoring levels at the dam 24 to 36 hours ago, Mims said.

Residents were being notified by phone and emergency responders were going door-to-door advising people to leave “due to the potential” that the dam could breach.

“It’s hard to say if it will or will not,” Mims said.

If the dam does breach, water will flow into Cotton, Hope Mills and Grays Creek, Mims said, affecting thousands of people.

And if it breaches, Mims said people would have 35 to 40 minutes “from release of water to impact.”

The false alarm on the Cotton Volunteer Fire Department’s Facebook page was corrected as of midnight.


SC evacuation shelter flooded

10:15 p.m.: Heavy rains that flooded streets in Cheraw, S.C., and drove some people from their homes also flooded an evacuation shelter Sunday night, forcing authorities to move about 75 people out of the shelter to a high school gymnasium.

Police Chief Keith Thomas said water started creeping into the town’s community center early Sunday evening. Ultimately, a foot of water covered the floor, he said.

“We got the National Guard vehicles, and we evacuated,’’ Thomas said Sunday night. “We had a little over 50 when it started flooding, and another 20 showed up, and we had to take them to the high school as well.’’

Sunday’s evacuation followed a day in which some Cheraw area residents had to leave their homes near creeks and ponds. About 10 to 12 families were evacuated from their homes and another 10 from cars that stalled in flooded intersections and streets, he said.

“There were several more that had to leave their homes tonight,’‘ he said. “We have downtown businesses flooding due to the rainfall. It’s going to have a hard impact on this community. It’s going to take a long time to get over.’‘


Cheraw, SC: Pulled to safety


Kinston, N.C.: ‘It’s going to be just like Matthew’

7 p.m.: In some parts of Kinston on Sunday, the floodwater caused by Hurricane Florence began to recede. In some parts, people whose homes and streets had been flooded returned, and cleaned up.

Most of Kinston and its surrounding areas seemed to be returning to some normalcy on Sunday. Restaurants and businesses close to downtown all had power. Patrons crowded into a Bojangles on West Vernon Ave., until it closed early at 5 p.m.

Looks can be deceiving, though. The water is expected to rise again here, though — perhaps with severe consequences.

The city of Kinston and Lenoir County now find themselves in a dreadful waiting game, with the Neuse River expected to crest late Thursday into Friday. When it does, parts of this area will be submerged.

People here know what to expect, in some ways, because Kinston and its surroundings have been through flooding many times before. The Neuse is projected to crest at 25.1 feet, which would be the third highest on record after Hurricane Matthew at 28.3 feet and Hurricane Floyd at 27.7 feet.

”It’s going to be just like Matthew a couple years ago,” Bryan Hanks, the county public information officer, said Sunday during a phone interview. “We’re going to have two counties. But we’re going to be serving both counties equally.”

Already, county officials on Sunday had established a field hospital at South Lenoir High. The field hospital, Hanks said, includes a triage unit, and it will serve residents in the southern part of Lenoir County who are cut off, due to flooding, from Kinston and other parts north.

That divide has happened in the aftermath of past storms, Hanks said, when punishing rains and the subsequent flooding forced the closure of roads.

Lumberton, N.C.: ‘Please don’t leave me’

4:26 p.m.: Lenora Alford was the last to evacuate from Bakersfield apartments, and when the van came to get her in her wheelchair, she didn’t really want to go.

“I hate to leave Freddie,” she said, lifting the cloth that was draped over her beloved 2-year-old cockatiel. “He’s my baby.”

But Alford gathered some clothes, a sleeping bag and her favorite pillow and got in the van anyway. She left the bird at home in his cage with extra feed and water.

Following a circuitous route to avoid submerged roads, severed power lines and all but one fallen tree, the van eventually delivered her to South Robeson High School.

Alford was among the first handful of evacuees to arrive at the South Robeson shelter, opened to accommodate people being ordered out of areas that are likely to flood if the levee holding back the Lumber River through Lumberton fails. Sunday afternoon, 1,300 people already were in five shelters across the county.

Even if the frenetic work by city crews to fill in a railroad opening in the levee works, large swaths of south and west Lumberton already are flooded.

By ordering people in low-lying areas to evacuate, emergency officials hope to avert the need for hundreds of water rescues, which happened when Lumberton flooded suddenly after Hurricane Matthew.

Dozens of volunteer rescue teams were poised around Lumberton and throughout the county, clustered on the sides of highways or in parking lots, waiting — even hoping — to be dispatched.

Members of the loosely affiliated “Cajun Navy” groups, Louisiana-based volunteers with boats they pull by trailer to areas where people might need to be rescued from rising waters, waited restlessly in the parking lot of a coin laundry off N.C. 211 near Interstate 95.

Allen Lenard brought his air boat from Monroe, Louisiana, arriving Wednesday. He and a group of other volunteers spent Saturday night taking about 40 residents from a nursing home in Lumberton where the water was trying to come in. Staff had been overwhelmed, he said, and some residents had medical issues that had not been handled for hours. A former Army medic who is among the volunteers changed catheters and oxygen tanks for patients, Lenard said.

“Walking through the place, people would call to you and just beg you, please don’t leave me,” Lenard said. “You know, we have all these trucks and boats and all this equipment, but sometimes the best thing you can do is kneel down, hold somebody’s hand and pray with them.”

He did that, Lenard said, and then helped evacuate the residents to local hospitals.


Fayetteville, N.C.: ‘A lot of people are staying’

2 p.m.: Vickie Mariniello has been through her share of hurricanes and other natural disasters after living in Fayetteville off and on for 64 years, she said.

“When I was a baby, my mother passed me through a window during the evacuation of Hurricane Hazel in 1954,” Mariniello said.

On Sunday, she stood on the porch of her apartment in the Tartan Place neighborhood off of Ramsay Street, hand to her face, watching the incessant rain come down, unsure if she should leave.

Vickie Mariniello, who lives in Tartan Place off Ramsey Street in Fayetteville Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018. Tartan Place is part of the evacuation zone. Mariniello says she doesn’t have plans to evacuate. Ethan Hyman

Mariniello lives less than a mile from the Cape Fear River, which on Sunday morning reached its minor flood stage of 35 feet.

As of Sunday afternoon, the river was at nearly 40 feet and expected to continue rising to more than 62 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

Fayetteville Police officers were riding through neighborhoods Saturday and Sunday in cruisers, lights flashing and sirens on, announcing from loud speakers a mandatory evacuation for anyone living within 1 mile of the river.

Police came through Mariniello’s neighborhood on Saturday, she said.

“They scared all of us,” she said. “They came through with their speakers and told everyone that if they don’t leave, no one will come back for you. No one will be able to rescue you.”

Mariniello was at home with her two cats, plus another two she was keeping safe for people who were evacuating — Stormy, Bogey, Peanut and Hope.

As of Sunday afternoon, Mariniello said she had no plans to evacuate, and was waiting to hear if she has to go to work. “A lot of people are staying,” she said.


Robeson and other N.C. counties: Shelter update

1:20 p.m.: Robeson County officials on Sunday said people in low-lying areas or in homes that flooded in past storms should evacuate. The county has five shelters open with more than 1,300 people.

A fifth shelter at South Robeson High School joined those at Lumberton High, Purnell Swett High School, St. Pauls High and Fairmont Middle School.

In other shelter updates, Wake County announced the following shelters would close at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16: Heritage High School in Wake Forest, Middle Creek High School in Apex, Sanderson High School in Raleigh. Those still needing shelter will be taken to Knightdale High School, the county said. Shelters at Knightdale High, Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School and Garner High School will stay open for coastal evacuees and have “limited capacity.”

Johnston County announced First Baptist Ministry Center at 125 South 4th Street in Smithfield is open as a shelter. Dogs or cats can’t stay at the shelter and will be taken to the Johnston County Animal Shelter while their human companions are at the ministry center. The county said shelters have been closed at North Johnston Middle School in Micro and Benson Middle School and West Johnston High School in Benson.


Wake County, N.C.: Fewer power outages

1:13 p.m.: Duke Energy reported Sunday afternoon that there were fewer than 2,500 power outages in Wake County.

In Durham County, there were 884 customers without power; in Orange County, it was 216.


Robeson County, N.C.: Evacuate now

11 a.m.: Robeson County officials were evacuating residents Sunday morning from the towns of Pembroke and Lumberton.

Emergency officials and volunteers had been working throughout the morning to hold back the rising Lumber River, which was overflowing its berm and sandbags but had not yet breached the levee.

A mandatory evacuation was issued for residents in south and west Lumberton. Others in Lumberton and Pembroke were encouraged to catch a bus out of town immediately.

Buses are picking people up now at two locations: Burger King at West Fifth Street in Lumberton, and Pembroke City Fire Department, at 172 Center St. in Pembroke.


Hillary Priddy embraces her neighbor Renee Askew in their mobile home park along Nine Foot Road in Newport, N.C. on Sunday, September 16, 2018. Askew lost her home and all of her possessions after Hurricane Florence flooded her home on Friday night. The water rose so quickly from tributaries of the Newport River that Askew had to escape from a window in her mobile home and swim to safety. Robert Willett

Charlotte, N.C.: Into the storm

10 a.m.: After a full day of drenching through most of the Carolinas, former Hurricane Florence brought a band of heavier rainfall and a flash-flood warning to Mecklenburg County on Sunday.

The new line of storms, running south of Salisbury into South Carolina, was expected to add to worsening conditions and bring down trees across the Charlotte region. Wind gusts of up to 40 mph and 2 inches of rainfall per hour were possible across Charlotte and into Huntersville, Concord and Monroe.

The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning just after 8 a.m. for much of Mecklenburg County. A flash flood watch was expected to continue into Monday morning, with 6 inches or more of additional precipitation possible through Sunday night.

“Road conditions are deteriorating quickly,” the city tweeted Sunday morning. “We highly urge you to stay off the roads unless it’s absolutely necessary.”


Triangle: Turning on the lights

10 a.m.: Duke Energy reported Sunday morning that there were less than 20,000 power outages in Wake County.

In Durham County and Orange County, there were less than 1,000 customers without power.

Most of Wake County’s power outages were reported in the southern half of the county. Power was out in neighborhoods off New Bern Avenue and Gorman Street in Raleigh, off Southwest Maynard Road in Cary and across Garner.


Lumberton, N.C.: At risk again

9:44 a.m.: Shakeia Bethea got the knock on her door around 12:30 a.m., somebody telling her to get out of her mobile home on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in south Lumberton.

“They said the levee broke,” Bethea said. On Twitter, officials were saying the levee, an earthen berm that tries to confine the Lumber River through town, was holding, but the water was topping it.

As a result, many neighborhoods on the city’s south side had from a few inches of water to 3 feet or more standing around them. The roofs of dog houses stood above the water in some places. On N.C. 211 just west of Interstate 95, a pickup truck and a car were fully submerged.

Bethea took the warning, packed a few things and got her car out of harm’s way while she could. She planned to try to find a hotel room, a rare commodity in a city with so little electricity and so many storm refugees already.

RAL_ FlorenceSundayme091618rs007f.JPG
After heavy rains left his home partially flooded in Lumberton, NC, Joseph Singletary returned Sunday morning to gather some items before trying to find shelter from Tropical Storm Florence. Rich Sugg

Bethea was in the same home in October 2016, when Hurricane Matthew sent epic levels of water into Lumberton, damaging thousands of homes and displacing residents.

The owners of many of those homes have made no repairs while waiting to hear whether their property will be bought out. Federal programs aimed at reducing future flooding help buy floodprone homes and remove them, leaving the land undeveloped.

Flooding from now-Tropical Storm Florence had reached many of those rotting, vacant homes Sunday morning, flooding them and the homes that had been repaired and re-occupied.

The rain paused from 6 a.m. until about 9:30 a.m., giving residents who had been stuck in their homes for days a chance to get out. They walked or drove around their neighborhoods and into downtown, until the next bands of the storm sent them back inside.

RAL_ FlorenceSundayme091618rs036f.JPG
Taquana Sanders and George Green, of Fayetteville, NC,watch the rising waters of the Lumber River in Lumberton, NC Sunday morning. Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Florence are causing widespread flooding in the area, and water levels are expected to rise dramatically as the storm continues to dump more rain on much of North Carolina. Rich Sugg


Hope Mills, N.C.: Dam still holding

9 a.m.: Water from Rockfish Creek was raging through the Hope Mills Dam on Sunday morning, dumping into the Cape Fear River.

Hope Mills Mayor Jackie Warner, who was at the dam, told the News & Observer that it was “structurally sound” and “functioning as it should.”

Water was rushing over five “weirs” at the dam — long protrusions that increase surface area of the water and slow it down.

Warner said she’s in contact with engineer for the dam, who also inspected it, and regular updates on its status are going out.

Despite overnight concern that Florence’s floodwaters could compromise the dam, Warner said she’s confident it will hold.

“It’s a tremendous amount of water. So many people think it already failed,” she said.

Water normally flows over only two of the dam’s five weirs. On Sunday, it rushed over all five, bulging over the first two more than over the others. The dam is connected to Hope Mills Lake and is near downtown — just down the road from the police and fire departments.

But there was still room for more water on the weirs.

“People were worried and were calling, texting and Facebooking throughout the night,” Warner said. “It was a rough night, worrying that we might have an issue. But I’m confident.”

But as the Cape Fear rises, Warner said she worries it could potentially back water back up through the dam.

“We’re hoping it keeps flowing and doesn’t push water back up toward us,” she said.


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