Cape Fear River rises as Florence death toll grows

Flash flood watches in effect

By HOLLY YAN AND KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN
2018 Getty Images

People look on at the the Cape Fear River on Sept. 18, 2018, as it crests from the rains caused by Hurricane Florence as it passed through Fayetteville, North Carolina

WILMINGTON, North Carolina (CNN) - Few places in North Carolina got rain on Tuesday, but that didn't stop some bloated rivers from rising.

Fourteen river gauges recorded levels above major flood stage, the North Carolina Emergency Management agency tweeted.

Many of those waterways were rising or cresting, though a few were receding.

The Cape Fear River near Fayetteville was rising and has quadrupled in depth, and it's only going to get worse -- likely bringing more misery.

But there are glimmers of hope in the wake of Florence. Some North Carolina residents were being told they can return home to the beachside community of Wrightsville.

'This isn't a river ... this is Interstate 40'

Four days ago, the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville was 15 feet deep. By Tuesday afternoon, it had topped 60 feet -- and it still hasn't crested.

Overflow from the river downstream has already created a new waterway on what used to be Interstate 40 in Pender County.

"This isn't a river ... this is Interstate 40," the state's transportation department tweeted, along with drone footage of the scene. "This illustrates our message that travel in this area is impassable and unsafe."

The good news was that the Lumber River, which has spilled into the town of Lumberton, was slowly receding -- though it was expected to still be at major flood stage on Sunday.

When it comes to flooding, no one cares that Florence has left the Carolinas. Rivers gushing downstream toward already flooded cities mean more homes are at risk.

"The next 48 hours are extremely critical," said Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Fayetteville City Manager Doug Hewett said 12,000 residents are "in harm's way" as the Cape Fear River keeps growing. He said the river is expected to crest at 61 to 62 feet around noon Wednesday.

New death in North Carolina

On Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper reported a 26th death in the state from Florence -- and warned the danger will continue.

"I can't stress enough: Never drive through floodwaters. Don't drive around barricades," Cooper said. "Roads remain dangerous, and new road closings are still happening."

More than 1,000 roads are closed across the state Tuesday, officials said, and about 343,000 people are still without power.

Residents get glimpses of damage after Florence

For the first time since Florence ravaged North Carolina, residents in the island town of Wrightsville Beach were allowed to return home Tuesday.

But it will be a while before life gets back to normal. A curfew will be in place from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and access to the nearest big city on the mainland -- Wilmington -- is still greatly hampered.

"While the island itself did not sustain severe damage, at this time most roads leading to the Wilmington area are impassable due to flooding," the town's website says.

Flooding so bad, the river gauge broke

In North Carolina, cities such as Wilmington and Lumberton are bracing for more flooding.

Wilmington was the epicenter of Florence's destruction. Rainfall totals of 26.58 inches have submerged much of the city, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the state.

But by Tuesday morning, a bit of good news: Two roadways previously blocked are now passable, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said. Eastbound I-40 at Exit 373 and westbound US 421 at Exit 385 are now open.

In Lumberton, where residents scrambled to plug the levee system, parts of Interstate 95 will remain closed until the Lumber River drops below 21 feet. That might not happen until next week, said Corey Walters, the city's deputy director of public works.

But it's impossible to say how deep the Lumber River is now, because the official river gauge stopped working a few days ago. Walters estimated the current depth is about 25 feet.

High waters have kept even FEMA crews and Duke Energy trucks away.

Wilmington will have its wettest year in the city's 140 years of record-keeping. More than 86 inches of rain have fallen so far. On average, Wilmington gets about 43 inches by this time of the year.

More than a dozen tornadoes strike Virginia

Before Florence sputters out for good, it also struck Virginia with a litany of tornadoes. An estimated 15 to 20 tornadoes touched down in at least six counties Monday, the state's Department of Emergency Management Joint Information Center said.

One tornado caused the first Florence-related death in Virginia when a building collapsed in Chesterfield County south of Richmond.

Chesterfield Fire and EMS spokesman Lt. Jason Elmore tweeted drone footage of the tornado's destruction, including buildings that were annihilated.

Learning 'how vulnerable we all are'

In South Carolina, John Cassidy's 27-year-old printing business in Conway was on the brink of flooding Monday. Water was inches away from the door at Duplicates INK, but that didn't stop Cassidy or his employees.

They were trying to get one last big order out before the water moved in, and they put sandbags around the biggest, most expensive pieces of equipment hoping to safeguard them.

"It just makes you realize how vulnerable we all are," Cassidy said.

"I've accepted it, my building is gonna be flooded. We're just going to deal with what we have to deal with and be as tough as we can be and move through it. It sucks."

Cassidy said he continued working because he made commitments to his customers, and because 10 families rely on paychecks from the business.

"We can't just shut the door down," he said.

Cassidy plans to relocate his staff to a building in downtown Conway, CNN affiliate WBTW reported. He said several competitors and friends will help fill the company's orders for them.

33 deaths now linked to Florence

Of the 33 storm-related deaths, at least 26 were in North Carolina, six were in South Carolina and one was in Virginia. They include:

• A 3-month-old who died when a tree fell on a mobile home in Dallas, North Carolina.

• One-year-old Kaiden Lee-Welch, who was swept away by rushing waters Sunday and later found dead in Union County, North Carolina.

• An elderly Union County man whose body was found in his submerged car.

• Three people who died in flash flooding or "swift water on roads" in Duplin County, North Carolina.

• A woman who went into cardiac arrest in Pender County, North Carolina. When emergency responders tried to reach her, their path was blocked by fallen trees.

• An 81-year-old man who fell and struck his head while packing to evacuate in Wayne County, North Carolina.

Florence's finale: Heavy rainfall in the Northeast

On Tuesday, Florence was about 45 miles west-northwest of Boston, the National Weather Service said. It was moving northeast at 25 mph.

The storm is expected to produce "heavy to excessive rainfall" throughout Tuesday in parts of the northern Mid-Atlantic states and southern New England.

By Tuesday night, after its five-day assault on the East Coast, Florence was expected to finally move offshore into the Atlantic, where it will dissipate.

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