Hurricanes

A tedious life in shelters as rivers continue to rise

Posted September 19, 2018 7:03 p.m. EDT
Updated September 19, 2018 9:12 p.m. EDT

River gauge data predicts that the Lumber River will crest a second time in Lumberton over the weekend of Sept. 22-23.

CHAPEL HILL — More than a week in, nerves are frayed in the emergency shelters, and many people have no idea when they can go home.

If they have a home to go to.

The situation across southeastern North Carolina is one in flux. No one can tell these evacuees when they can go home.

"Friday's what the rumor is," said Jeff Wooldridge, who lived at Carolina Beach before the storm. "But how do they know?"

Upstream from the beach, the Northeast Cape Fear River is expected to stay at major flood stage into early next week. It won't fall below its previous record near Burgaw until some time Saturday afternoon, according to National Weather Service data.

The Neuse was still rising Wednesday, fueling concerns that it will eventually close U.S. 70 in Kinston.

The Lumber River was falling, but water upstream means it's expected to crest again this weekend in Lumberton and stay at major flood stage for days. Flat, coastal rivers took the brunt of Florence's deluge, and that's caused a backup upstream, according to John Shelton, associate director for the U.S. Geological Survey's South Atlantic Water Science Center.

Flat rivers drain slow.

Some 7,800 people were living in emergency shelters as of Wednesday, down from a peak of 22,000. That includes the mega-shelters capable of housing hundreds at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill and Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem. No one knows how many more are staying in hotels, or with friends and family.

People at the Friday Center spoke well Wednesday of the Red Cross and others keeping these shelters up and running. People have pulled together, they said. A local Walmart brought a truckload of toys for the children here, one volunteer said. The food is pretty good, according to several evacuees. The laundry service and the hot showers are a life line to sanity. There's a health clinic.

People sleep on cots, often a few dozen to a room.

But those who heeded early government warnings, and had nowhere else to go, have been in shelters more than a week. Some are on their second shelter.

State officials, asked about temporary housing solutions for several days now during routine briefings, have only said they're working with the federal government on the issue, and they're getting good cooperation. Gov. Roy Cooper said he discussed the matter with President Donal Trump Wednesday during the president's visit to the coast.

Hotel rooms are hard to come by because other evacuees have claimed them, limiting temporary housing options, Emergency Management spokesman Keith Acree said. After Hurricane Matthew, shelters here stayed open five weeks, he said.

"People can only take so much," Chris Ross, an evacuee from Fayetteville, said Wednesday. "It's wearing on a lot of people here, trying to keep their sanity together."

Ross left home a week ago, abandoning a place that still had mold and rot from Hurricane Matthew, he said. The National Guard ended up pulling people out of his neighborhood last week.

For those with homes to go to, the roads are a limiting factor. Some 800 routes were closed across the state Wednesday morning, down from a weekend peak of 2,200.

Interstates 95 and 40 remained closed at 15 different points. The N.C. DOT said the water may clear enough by the end of this week that I-40 can be inspected for damage, but that's a best-case scenario. Parts of I-95 will be flooded at least through Monday, the department said.

For most roads the DOT can't predict when they'll re-open, spokesman Steve Abbott said. State officials have pleaded with people not to drive past barricades.

"We have a lot of cases where the road might be there, but you don't know what's underneath it," Abbott said Wednesday.

Others stay because they don't have a ride home. They came to shelters by bus and expect to return home that way, eventually. One man with a minivan said he believed his home was safe, and the route open. But he needed gas money to get his family there.

Connie Lewis celebrated her 63rd birthday in a shelter Monday. Her uncle, Robert Tillman, died the same day, swept away by flood waters.

Lewis leaned on her walker outside the Friday Center.

"I got power, I got everything I need," she said. "I just need a ride home. I am ready to go lay down on my hospital bed."

A lack of electricity keeps others in the shelters. Red Cross volunteers said some evacuees have left the Friday Center, only to come back because they don't have power at home.

The state said close to 200,000 people were without power Wednesday afternoon.

People tend to think that, once a hurricane moves on, the water goes away quickly, Shelton said Wednesday.

"There has been a pretty extreme misconception on how long this is going to take," the hydrologist said. "This one unfortunately sat on top of us for a couple of days."