ELIZABETHTOWN — Bladen County absorbed a pounding from Florence on Friday afternoon, a storm that blew into Wrightsville Beach as a Category 1 and began dumping rain on southeastern North Carolina.
Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm in the National Weather Service’s 5 p.m. update. Its top winds were down to 70 mph.
Riegelwood was forecast for 30 inches of rain, Elizabethtown for 26. The Cape Fear River was expected to hit flood stage Sunday morning and continue rising to totals rivaling Hurricane Matthew two years ago.
Bradley Kinlaw, the county’s director of Emergency Management, issued a stern warning.
“Everybody stay off the roads,” he said.
Many were beginning to be impassable because of fallen trees. Before noon, N.C. 87 East and U.S. 701 North were blocked, Kinlaw said. Elwell Ferry was closed by high water.
There were many more, said Sheriff Jim McVicker. He said fire departments tried to at least cut trees in half so that a lane was passable.
“We’ve been out all day,” McVicker said. “We have two deputies stationed in Parkton, two in Tar Heel, two in Kelly, and we’ve been answering calls, answering alarm calls, and calls about trees and power lines down.”
McVicker said assistance was requested and provided from sheriff’s offices in Person and Alamance counties.
“And they are really helping out,” he said.
EMS service was paused pending approval from Kinlaw due to the worsening conditions. Fire departments throughout the county were cautious in becoming mobile due to safety concerns and blocked roadways.
“Everything has gone very well under the circumtances,” McVicker said.
McVicker hailed the work of agencies and staff to include Bladen County, the state and others who came from other states to help. Among those was an incident team from Oklahoma; swift water rescue teams from Vermont were staged in flood-prone Bladenboro and Kelly.
“I had one of them tell me they had never seen a group as tight-knit as ours,” McVicker said. “Citizens have listened to us, done what we asked them to do.
“People in Bladen County should be proud of their leaders. They’ve done good and they’re keeping things together. We’ve got Bradley, the Highway Patrol — they’ve all done well.”
The storm was expected to peak about 2 p.m. At that time, it had weakened to sustained winds of 75 mph — down from 90 mph when it made landfall about 7:15 a.m. near Wrightsville Beach — and was centered about 35 miles west-southwest of Wilmington, and 35 miles east-northeast of Myrtle Beach. It crawled at about 5 mph.
By 5 p.m., Florence was centered about 50 miles west-southwest of Wilmington and about 25 miles northeast of Myrtle Beach, barely moving at 3 mph.
“I think Bradley hit the nail on the head on that,” McVicker said of Kinlaw’s projection for the storm’s peak in Bladen County. “At 2, you could tell a difference. What will be aggravating is it is moving so slow. You’ll see that the rest of the night and into tomorrow.”
McVicker had heard reports from Craven, Pamlico and Carteret counties, where the storm was causing even worse damage. More than 150 were rescued overnight near New Bern, where city streets in places had 10 feet of water. Another 200 were awaiting rescue on roof tops, in attics and on second floors. Oriental took on 18 inches of rain in a matter of hours. Emerald Isle had more than 6 feet of inundation shortly after dawn.
In Wilmington, the Cape Fear River topped all-time highs from hurricanes Hazel in 1954 and Matthew in 2016.
By mid-afternoon, four deaths in North Carolina were attributed to the storm. A mother and infant were killed in Wilmington when a tree fell on their house. The father was taken to a hospital with injuries. Another death was in Pender County, and a fourth was in Lenoir County.
“As bad as it is for us, it could be worse,” McVicker said.
The county opened five shelters, up one from its original plan, and all lost power Friday.
“We’re working operations to ensure our food supply is up,” Kinlaw said.
The shelters took in more than 1,000 people.
“Everybody was nervous, but everybody has kept a cool head,” McVicker said. “I will talk the rest of my life about the cooperation between the different agencies, and from the different states. People don’t understand how valuable that is to us.
“And I tell you, soon as we get our breath where we get where we can, we’ll go to New Hanover and Brunswick counties and help them out.”
This is the updated prediction, from Friday afternoon about 5 p.m., of rainfall totals from Tropical Storm Florence.
This is the updated path projected for Tropical Storm Florence, as released at 5 p.m. by the National Weather Service.
This is the projected forecast, in terms of rain, at 8:30 Friday night. Tropical Storm Florence was moving at just 3 mph about 5 p.m. Friday afternoon.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached at 910-862-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or email@example.com.