NC storm brings 'historic rains'

Early responders compare flooding to Hurricane Floyd 11 years ago.

BY JOHN PAPE | WILMINGTON, NC | September 29, 2010

"I expect to see old Noah come floating by any time."

—Rita Joseph

The National Weather Service downgraded Tropical Storm Nicole to a subtropical weather system Wednesday afternoon, but that did not stop the storm system from pushing drenching rains into North Carolina, triggering a state of emergency declaration in two counties.

As a tropical storm, Nicole had a lifespan of only six hours; however, moisture produced by the storm is expected to bring heavy rain and flooding to much of the east coast for several days.

Brunswick and New Hanover counties, both of which are located in the Wilmington metropolitan area, declared states of emergency after receiving more than 15 inches of rain.

The rains were initially triggered by a front that moved across much of the eastern seaboard on Sunday, but was quickly followed by moisture pushed across the region by the remnants of Nicole.

The week’s rainfall totals ranked second only to rains dropped on the Wilmington area by Hurricane Floyd in September of 1999, according to the National Weather Service. Local officials called the downpour a “rainfall of historic proportions.”

The entire Cape Fear region erased a three-month rain deficit in just one day, swamping numerous roads and highways and stranding motorists. Highway 17, a major route through Brunswick County, was closed in several locations, bringing traffic to a halt and all but closing businesses because of a lack of customers.

Brunswick County schools were dismissed at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday to allow students to get home before flooding worsened. School officials were scheduled to meet Wednesday evening to decide on school closures or delays for the remainder of the week.

In New Hanover County, schools were closed through Thursday.

Additional emergency dispatchers and sheriff’s deputies were called in to assist with roadblocks, rescues and other storm-related emergency calls.

As the torrential rains continued, the Cape Fear Chapter of the American Red Cross opened emergency shelters in both counties. In Brunswick County, a shelter was opened at the North Brunswick High School in the community of Leland, as well as at the West Brunswick High School in Shallotte.

In New Hanover County, a shelter was opened at Eaton Elementary School in Wilmington.

Red Cross spokesperson Autum Mihm said those coming to shelters should be as self-sufficient as possible.

“We’re encouraging anyone coming to the shelters to bring personal items, including any medicines needed by members of the family, feeding formulas and diapers for infants, a pillow and blanket for each member of the family, a change of clothing, snacks, books and simple toys for children,” Mihm said.

Shelter volunteer Rita Joseph said few people showed up immediately after her location opened, but expected more to arrive as the flooding worsened.

“With more heavy rain expected tonight, I expect we’ll have more people needing shelter. We’ve had almost 16 inches of rain in four days with more on the way, so serious flooding is definitely a threat,” Joseph said. “So far it’s mostly been roads, but there are still people stranded that can’t get home. I just pray to God things don’t get much worse.”

Joseph said the rains were “as bad as during Hurricane Floyd” 11 years ago.

“I was here for Floyd and, yes, we had a lot of rain. I can’t remember any that bad until now,” she said. “I expect to see old Noah come floating by any time.”

Carey Edwards, who was driving from South Carolina to Virginia to visit his brother, was one of the first to arrive at the shelter. He said the trip normally takes about 10 hours; today he only made it as far as Wilmington in about the same amount of time.

“The roads are horrible; either they’re closed or traffic is crawling along like a snail. I’m tired and I’m stressed, so when I heard on the radio about the shelters opening, I decided to take a break,” Edwards said. “To be honest with you, I’d rather check into a motel, but the ones I stopped at were already booked up. One desk clerk told me most of the people he checked in today were people like me that just want to wait for the roads to get better.”

A number of faith-based relief organizations were also prepared to step in with help. Representatives from Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Services, Lutheran Disaster Response and The United Methodist Committee on Relief all said they were monitoring the situation and ready to send relief teams into the area as soon as safely possible.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, no evacuations had been ordered, but in Pender County several subdivisions had reportedly been cut off by rising floodwaters. Water was said to be rising, but no homes had yet been flooded.

The heavy rains did cause a sewer overflow in Wilmington that sent more than 2,000 gallons of untreated waste into a nearby wetlands area, according to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority.

“The overflow was caused by the abnormally high rain event in the area 10-plus inches in less than 24 hours and the increased volume of water introduced into the collection system. (Utility) crews responded very promptly and contained and vacuumed overflowing wastewater, therefore significantly reducing the quantity of the spill until the rain event and residual flooding subsided,” utility spokesman Carey Ricks said

Ricks added the utility’s environment and safety management personnel would continue to perform water quality monitoring to determine the full impact of the spill.

With numerous streets and highways flooded, the North Carolina Department of Transportation warned drivers to stay off roads unless absolutely necessary.

North Carolina DOT Division Engineer David Thomas said the depth of water over the roadway is not the only danger. The road pavement may also have been compromised.

“It could be gone,” Thomas said.

He also said vehicles could begin to float in as little as one foot of water, and even heavy vehicles like trucks and SUVs can be swept away by two feet of floodwaters.

Like many others, Thomas compared the current rainfall to Hurricane Floyd.

“This event has a strong feeling of Floyd back in ’99,” he said.

Meteorologist Glen Forbes said things were likely to get worse before getting better in hard-hit North Carolina.

“This is one of the richest tropical flows we’ve seen,” Forbes said. “In the Wilmington area, another 6-10 inches are still possible.”

He added that, as the storm system continues to move up the Atlantic seaboard, heavy rainfall, flooding and a chance of tornadoes are possible for Virginia, Maryland and points north.

While not as severe as in North Carolina, South Carolina also experienced locally heavy rainfall as a result of the tropical flow pushed north by Nicole. South Carolina emergency management officials warned residents that anywhere from 6 10 inches of rain could fall along coastal areas. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch through Friday morning for South Carolina counties of Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Georgetown, Horry, Marion, Marlboro and Williamsburg.

In Maryland, slick roads caused by the same weather system were being blamed for a fatal bus crash on the Washington Beltway near North Bethesda. Montgomery Fire Department spokesman Oscar Garcia said one person died and several others had to be cut from the wreckage after the bus plummeted from an elevated ramp onto IH-270.

“Our crews had to cut four people out of the wreckage; two had what were called life-threatening injuries,” Garcia said. “In all, there were 10-15 people who were treated by medics at the scene.”

The bus was believed to be a tour bus.

In Delaware, a coastal flood advisory was issued by the National Weather Service through 5 p.m. Thursday as heavy rains moved through that state. Gusty southeast winds were expected to funnel water into the bay and combine with choppy seas to produce flooding during high tide. Portions of Hwy. 1 just north of the Delaware-Maryland border were expected to become impassable at times.

In addition, a funnel cloud was reported near the New Castle Airport. While a number of trees snapped and some roof damage was reported in the area, National Weather Service meteorologist Valerie Meola said the tornado report had not been confirmed.

“We did receive a report of a funnel cloud, but there has been no confirmation of a tornado,” Meola said.

Meola added the report came in just as a strong storm was moving through northern New Castle County headed toward Pennsylvania. The storm front damaged the New Castle County Government Center, knocked out power for a portion of the county, downed several trees and damaged automobiles.

“The storm did appear to have some rotation,” Meola said.

Along with most of the upper Atlantic seaboard, Delaware is under a flood watch through Friday afternoon as the moisture from Nicole continues to train to the north.

Areas within the flood watch include most of Delaware, northeast Maryland, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.

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