(Bloomberg) -- The still-potent remnants of Hurricane Florence marched through the Carolinas on Sunday and as the winds weakened the flood grew only stronger.
New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington, where the storm breached a Duke Energy Corp. coal-ash landfill, are totally cut off, and officials are planning for a possible airlift of food and water. In flooded communities, emergency responders have rescued more than 900 people, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a briefing Sunday. Hundreds of search-and-rescue boats are cruising inundated streets in the state’s sodden east.
“The risk to life is rising with the angry waters,” Cooper said. “This storm has never been more dangerous than it is right now.”
Officials warned of even more catastrophic flooding after the deluge killed at least 14 people, washed partially treated sewage into waterways and left entire communities under water.
Food, water and provisions might have to be flown into Wilmington, a community of about 119,000 people, and the county has asked the National Guard to help prevent theft, New Hanover County spokeswoman Jessica Loeper said.
“There are few if any routes in and out of the county,” she said.
The colonial-era city sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. On its south side is the damaged Duke Energy landfill. The company said contamination of the river is “highly unlikely” after the landfill spilled about 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash, which can carry arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium.
An environmental group called it “a significant breach,” and North Carolina authorities said they would investigate when the storm eases sufficiently to allow access.
“An absolute waterfall of storm water” is flowing from the landfill, Kemp Burdette of the watchdog group Cape Fear River Watch said in a video posted on its Facebook page.
Duke assumes that the ash made its way into Sutton Lake, which the company built as a cooling pond and wastewater processing system adjacent to the river, spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said. Much appeared to settle at the base of the landfill and in a ditch designed to capture material, Sheehan said. Testing river samples will probably take “a few days, if not more,” she said.
Coal ash in the river “would be hardly measurable” because of all the rainfall, said Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor who specializes in geochemistry and water quality. But even small quantities can accumulate and harm fish and other aquatic life, he said.
“When the storm is over and everything goes back to normal, you still have a source of contamination at the bottom of the river that would slowly steep into the ambient environment,” Vengosh said by phone from Durham.
Early Sunday, Florence was downgraded to a tropical depression as winds diminished to 35 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm was moving north-northwest at 10 mph about 40 miles west of Columbia, South Carolina.
As the storm weakened, North Carolina’s attention turned to how its rivers could accommodate record rainfall that reached 40 inches in some places. Nine rivers have climbed to “major flooding level,” with five still rising, according to the Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network website. The Trent River and the Cape Fear River both hit records Sunday, topping highs set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the National Weather Service said.
Fayetteville, near the Army’s massive Fort Bragg, ordered residents within a mile of the Cape Fear and Little rivers to evacuate by 3 p.m. local time. West of Charlotte in Cramerton, a town of 4,400 nestled in a bend of the Catawba River’s south fork, Fire Captain Travis Williamson said he was getting ready to evacuate the fire station itself. On Sunday morning, it was encircled by a slack yellow inflatable levee, ready to be filled with air when the time comes.
Stretches of Interstate 95 and other roads were closed, and drivers were advised to avoid North Carolina in general. “This is an extremely long detour, but it is the detour that offers the lowest risk,” the state’s Department of Transportation said in an advisory.
Florence, the first major hurricane of the Atlantic season, is expected to cause about $18 billion in damage. More than 755,000 customers were without power in the Carolinas and more than 20,000 people have sought protection in shelters. Search-and-rescue operations were underway in flooded coastal cities and emergency management officials said they are worried about landslides as the storm pours down on already saturated hills and mountains inland.
About 40,000 utility workers from at least 17 states are restoring power, according to the federal energy department. Besides Duke Energy, utilities in the Carolinas include South Carolina-owned Santee Cooper, Brunswick Electric Membership Corp., Jones Onslow Electric Membership and Lumbee River Electric Membership.
North Carolina has more than 1,000 search-and-rescue personnel out with more than 2,000 boats and 36 helicopters, Michael Sprayberry, the state’s director of emergency management, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
“It’s bad right now,” Sprayberry said. “And we do expect it to get worse over the coming days.”
The cost of the damage is expected to reach $15 billion for North Carolina, $2 billion for South Carolina and $1 billion elsewhere, said Chuck Watson, a disaster researcher at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.
Residents wondered whether crucial infrastructure and industrial emplacements would survive. Of particular concern were environmentally precarious facilities for processing waste from North Carolina’s massive hog industry and for containing the byproducts of power generation.
More than 60 swine operations house more than 235,000 hogs that generate almost 202 million gallons of waste per year within the coastal floodplain, according to Waterkeepers, a watchdog group. Environmental organizations are preparing to inspect waterways for toxic spills from lagoons once the storm subsides. Cooper said Sunday that the lagoons had so far held out.
The state has 14 Duke coal-ash ponds and the company was ordered to clean them up after about 39,000 tons spilled in 2014 near Eden. Work was underway at several high-risk sites when Florence hit.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality “has been closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable,” it said in a statement. “Once the damage is assessed, DEQ will determine the best path forward and hold the utility accountable.”
--With assistance from Natasha Rausch, Justin Sink, Anna Edney, David Wethe, Justina Vasquez, Brian K. Sullivan, Rachel Adams-Heard and Christopher Flavelle.
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