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Rising waters still frustrate rescue efforts and residents, FEMA chief says after tour of North Carolina

Rivers continued to rise out of their banks across the Carolinas on Tuesday, frustrating rescue efforts and residents hoping to return home.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, acknowledged the difficulties after a tour of flooded areas in the Tar Heel State.

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“It’s really important for me to get out of D.C. and make sure we’re doing a good job,” Long said, adding that he’s pleased with what he’s seen but that “the next 48 hours are going to be incredibly critical.”

“We realize there’s a lot of displaced folks, and we’re doing what we can to make life better,” Long said. “It’s going to take some time for these waters to recede.”

The FEMA chief said floodwaters have hampered repair crews trying to reopen roads and restore power.

He said officials would examine the impact of the storm on the environment and industry. Environmental groups worried the storm may have washed away toxic ash from power plants and hog waste from open-air storage lagoons. Up to half of the state’s tobacco crop was still in the fields and could be damaged, Cooper said, along with cotton and peanut crops.

“We’re going to be dealing with a lot of hazardous waste, agricultural issues,” he said.

Long said FEMA sent several thousand claims adjusters and disaster assistance teams to community centers and shelters in storm-battered areas to register people for assistance “so we can kick-start recovery.”

He said he has been discussing options for temporary, post-storm housing with Cooper, who acknowledged the state has struggled with affordable housing.

Cooper urged storm victims to register with FEMA by phone or online, to evacuate as directed and not drive around road barricades. He asked evacuees not to return to coastal Hanover, New Brunswick and Pender counties yet, even though many think the storm has become “a nightmare that just won’t end.”

“Sunshine doesn’t necessarily mean safety. Rivers continue to rise, and we will see more flooding,” Cooper said.

He said the state’s death toll from Hurricane Florence and its aftermath increased to 26 on Tuesday. More than 2,200 people and 578 animals had been rescued from floodwaters, Cooper said, and 10,000 remained in shelters. Officials opened four emergency kitchens serving free hot meals in Kinston, Lumberton, New Bern and Washington and planned to open four more this week.

More than 1,100 roads have been closed, including Interstates 95 and 40, and 343,000 people were still without power, Cooper said. An emergency ferry had been created between Morehead City and Wilmington that was expected to start shipping much-needed supplies Wednesday, according to James Trogdon, the state’s transportation secretary.

Cooper said he would take Long on a visit to Wilmington late Tuesday, and he also planned to meet with President Trump when he visits the state this week.

Florence’s peak rainfall — 35.94 inches at Elizabethtown, N.C. — was the fourth-highest for a U.S. hurricane since 1950 and left rivers across the Carolinas swollen.

The storm has killed more than 30 people, including a 1-year-old boy whose body was found Monday after he was swept away by floodwaters near Charlotte.

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On Tuesday night in South Carolina, two female mental health patients detained for medical transport drowned when a sheriff's department van was swept away in floodwaters, according to authorities.

Horry County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Brooke Holden said that the van was carrying the pair along with two deputies bound for Darlington, the Associated Press reported. Officials said the van was overcome near the Little Pee Dee River, one of the bodies of water that state officials are watching after the heavy rains of Florence.

Across North Carolina, 16 rivers had reached major flood stage Tuesday morning, and several more were expected to crest soon, according to Mike Steele, a spokesman for the state emergency management agency. He said high-water rescues were ongoing in several areas.

“The good news is we are starting to see a lot of them peak, but it is going to cause a lot of complications as far as access to roadways for an extended period of time,” said Steele, who came from the Baton Rouge, La., area to help with the disaster.

“This is the same situation we faced in Louisiana and Texas during Hurricane Harvey,” he said. “By the time you put a report out, some of the conditions have changed.” That has led officials to direct residents to stay off the roads or to check state transportation websites for updates.

Matt Stewart, 37, and his family of four were stuck in Raleigh after trying unsuccessfully to return home to Wilmington, blocked by road closures that have cut off that coastal city of 120,000. The family planned to try a new route Tuesday, convoying with a friend in a truck. His father had taken the same route days before, but Stewart was worried about flooding since.

“There isn’t any rivers or any lakes or ponds along that route,” Stewart said before setting off, worried that his house, which had minor damage, might be leaking. “It’s my home; some of that stuff is irreplaceable.”

As it turned out, Stewart’s family made it home to Wilmington before dark, as highways reopened.

“People are going to start pouring back into the area,” he said as he settled in, happy to discover his neighborhood has power, although many still don’t.

“There’s a lot of flooding,” he said. “This is going to take quite some time to subside.”

Wilmington, where the storm made landfall, has seen a Dollar Store looted and gas and food shortages. About 62,000 people there were still without power.

Officials were preparing to distribute food at three centers around the city Tuesday, said Jessica Loper, a spokeswoman for surrounding New Hanover County.

“These supplies are much needed by folks who can’t get to a store or don’t have a store near them,” Loper said.

She said some gas stations also reopened Tuesday, and cars were on the roads, “but we’re still very much in recovery mode.”

“Neighbors are helping neighbors. This is a true community effort to recover from this storm and the damage it’s caused,” she said.

Officials expect to know in coming days when roads into the city will be cleared, she said.

“A lot of it’s going to have to do with the rivers that are cresting,” Loper said.

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Kenan Chance stayed at her Lumberton home in southeastern North Carolina even after Florence raised the nearby Lumber River, flooding her street and leading neighbors to evacuate.

On Tuesday, Chance, 57, said rising water had lapped at her porch, then appeared to recede.

“It didn’t come gushing in,” she said.

But she wasn’t venturing out yet.

“We’re going to wait until the water gets down and we can get out of here” on foot, she said of her family, including her grown son and elderly parents.

That could take weeks, as it did after Hurricane Matthew flooded the area in 2016. But Chance’s son had stocked up before the storm and prepared grills and a generator.

She felt so confident in their self-sufficiency that, when rescue crews passed Tuesday, Chance waved them on, although she did accept some chicken sandwiches from a local church group.

She praised the government response, including rescuers and National Guard high-water vehicles in her area.

“They were really prepared,” she said, unlike during Hurricane Matthew, when, she said, “no one checked on us. That’s what we feared.”

9:45 p.m.: This article was updated to include information about two mental health patients who drowned when a sheriff's department van was swept away in South Carolina floodwaters.

5:40 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from residents in Wilmington and Lumberton.

12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details that include comments from Brock Long, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

This article was originally published at 8:35 a.m.

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