(Bloomberg) -- Florence’s plodding pace is causing catastrophic flooding that could produce as much as $20 billion in damage and has already caused at least five deaths, even as it has weakened to a tropical storm.
As much as 2 feet of rain has fallen across portions of southeastern North Carolina, submerging coastal cities, ravaging tobacco crops in the fields and threatening the state’s large and environmentally precarious hog industry. The storm is creeping west at 2 mph (3 kph), with torrents forecast as the storm moves inland, the National Hurricane Center said.
“This is a massive storm that has put a lot of water on our coast and inland,” Jeff Byard, FEMA’s associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery, said Saturday. “There is a lot of rain to come, and there is a lot of rain that has fallen.”
More than 1 million customers were without power in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia as of 7 a.m. local time, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Three North Carolina rivers have hit “major flood stage” and an additional 13 threaten to follow suit, according to state emergency officials. About 19,000 people were in North Carolina’s emergency shelters and hundreds had to be rescued in New Bern alone, according to the office of Governor Roy Cooper. The water closed Interstate 95, a U.S. highway that stretches from Maine to Florida.
Portions of the region not yet inundated made preparations. Light rain fell on Fayetteville early Saturday as power-line repair crews camped out at an Embassy Suites hotel waiting for the go-signal. More than 40,000 utility workers from at least 19 states are ready to restore power, according to a news release from the federal energy department.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said that unlike Hurricane Hugo, which shot through like “a rocket” in 1989, Florence’s leisurely pace means the state will bear the brunt of rain for days. “This is something that we have not seen before, this much rain, a hurricane staying on top of us for this long,’’ McMaster said at a briefing Friday.
The storm was about 35 miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at 8 a.m. local time Saturday, moving west at 2 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Top sustained winds were 50 mph, according to the latest advisory.
Life-threatening and catastrophic flash floods are likely in the Carolinas and Appalachians through early next week, Richard Pasch, a forecaster at the center, wrote in an analysis. Landslides are also possible in higher terrain, he said.
An additional 10 to 15 inches of rain could fall, pushing totals to 40 inches in some places, the hurricane center said. Florence was still bringing a 3 to 5-foot storm surge off the ocean to many areas along the Carolina coast on Saturday.
The wind and water proved deadly. A mother and infant died when a tree fell on a house in Wilmington, North Carolina, and a Lenoir County man died using a generator, authorities said. An elderly man was killed when he was blown over in Lenoir County as he went out to check on his hunting dogs, the News & Observer newspaper reported. Another woman died in Pender County after a tree fell on a house and emergency crews couldn’t get to her quickly, said Chad McEwen, the county’s assistant manager.
South Carolina fared better than its northern neighbor overnight Friday. More than 165,200 homes were without power, mostly in the Pee Dee region. Almost 7,000 residents have flocked to shelters and officials are wary of rising floodwaters.
The total bill for damage may reach $20 billion, said Chuck Watson, a disaster researcher at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.
North Carolina is forecast to harvest 158,800 acres of tobacco this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the state is the nation’s top producer. Half the eastern North Carolina crop was in the field and “will be basically destroyed, blown away,” Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said in a telephone interview Saturday. Many farmers are running tobacco-curing barns on generators because power is out, and leaves will spoil if fans can’t circulate air, Wooten said.
More than 60 industrial swine operations house more than 235,000 hogs that generate almost 202 million gallons of waste per year within the floodplain of North Carolina’s coast, according to Waterkeepers, an environmental watchdog group. Wooten said he hadn’t heard about problems with hog lagoons, where bacteria break down the waste, or the safety of the animals, although some hogs were being moved to higher ground.
Environmental groups are preparing to inspect waterways for toxic spills from coal-ash ponds and hog lagoons once the storm subsides. Waterkeepers said it plans to take airplane and boat trips near flooded industrial sites and gather water samples.
Florence, the first major hurricane of the Atlantic season, will be a test of the Trump administration’s ability to respond to disaster, which has been a sensitive topic. President Donald Trump said before the storm that the federal government is “as ready as anybody’s ever been,” and he praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency and law enforcement on Twitter. But he also continued complaining Friday night that the death toll in Puerto Rico from last year’s Hurricane Maria was inflated in order to hurt him. He said the federal response to that storm, which an academic study found killed almost 3,000 people, was an “unsung success.”
The president plans to visit storm-hit areas early next week once officials determine the trip won’t disrupt rescue and recovery efforts, spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said. But for now, the struggle belongs to those in the storm’s path.
“We are prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best,” said Kim McLeod, a South Carolina Emergency Management Division spokeswoman, who on Saturday morning was nearing the end of a 14-hour graveyard shift.
--With assistance from Brian K. Sullivan, Natasha Rausch, Justin Sink, Ryan Collins, Anna Edney, David Wethe, Olivia Carville and Justina Vasquez.
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