FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — On Monday, amid a mandatory evacuation order, residents of this inland city of around 200,000 flocked to a bridge east of town to gaze at the rapidly rising Cape Fear River.
Under the first blue skies in days, they took pictures of large trees and other debris that made its way south down a wide and muddy river toward the Atlantic coast. And they were reminded of the devastating scenes less than two years ago during Hurricane Matthew, when the town was severely flooded and hundreds of residents had to be rescued from inundated buildings.
“I came [here] for Matthew,” said Laura Walters, a lifelong Fayetteville resident, as she looked out over the raging river with her dog. “Just watching it, you know, it’s history.”
Dulles Faircloth, 68, remembers his father telling stories about the Cape Fear Flood of 1945. But the deluge from Florence is unlike anything he’s ever seen. He marveled at the slow-moving hurricane, calling it the “storm of the century,” and at the Cape Fear River’s power.
“This old river here can tell a lot of stories,” he said as he looked down at it Monday.
“There are a lot of tears in that river.”
Numerous homes and buildings in the greater Fayetteville area have already flooded. And responders conducted rescue missions throughout Sunday night, the Fayetteville Observer reported. At least 31 people have been killed by Florence, most of them in North Carolina.
The big difference between Matthew and Hurricane Florence, which slammed into the coast of North Carolina four days ago and has led to devastating inland flooding, is the speed. Meteorologists warned of a Hurricane Harvey-like “one-two punch” ― catastrophic damage along the coast followed by devastating inland flooding. And that’s what Florence delivered.
Where Matthew blew through quick, dumping nearly 20 inches of rain over an already saturated landscape in less than a day and causing Cape Fear to reach 58 feet, Florence has lingered. After making landfall near Wilmington on Friday morning, it stalled as it was downgraded to a tropical storm. Over a four-day period, it dumped as much as 35 inches of rain in some areas. As of 9 p.m. Monday, the Cape Fear River was running at more than 56 feet and was forecast to crest Tuesday at 62 feet. The record of 68.9 feet was set in the famed 1945 flood.
In many ways, Florence exemplifies hurricane behavior in a warming world.
Most scientists are careful not to attribute any single storm to our changing climate. But the scientific community — including experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — has long warned that anthropogenic climate change influences extreme weather events. The 2015 National Climate Assessment concluded that “hurricane intensity and rainfall are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.” Rainfall rates near the center of hurricanes are expected to increase by an average 20 percent by the end of the century, according to the report.
Research also shows there’s been a marked slowdown in hurricanes’ speed over both water and land, which increases the risk of heavy rain, flooding and storm surges. Moreover, a 2016 study found that climate change has caused hurricanes in the North Atlantic to migrate farther north ― a trend that is expected to continue in a warming world.
On Saturday, torrential rain triggered a mandatory evacuation for everyone within a mile of the river near Fayetteville. The city’s mayor, Mitch Colvin, said people refusing to leave should “notify your legal next of kin because the loss of life is very, very possible.”
“Please, be serious about it,” he said in a news conference. “The worst is yet to come.”
Despite local officials’ warnings, Fayetteville residents Sharon Hicks, Sally Leeman and Pat Williams opted not to evacuate their homes, which are nestled along the Cape Fear River on a cul-de-sac north of town. For the last several days, neighbors here have been working in three-hour shifts to monitor the river level. They take pictures and text one another to show how much it’s come up.
“Do you think we’re going to be OK?” Hicks asked Williams Monday afternoon as the three visited in the street.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “We’ll just keep a close eye on it, like we’ve been doing.”
It’s not that the women are taking the threat lightly, Leeman said. It’s that they’ve been through this before, are working together to track and share information, and are prepared to leave if the situation becomes dangerous. Leeman also didn’t think she’d be able to get into a shelter.
With the river threatening to cut off communities east of town, Army National Guard members of the 230th Brigade Support Battalion out of Goldsboro, North Carolina, conducted a supply run Monday to an emergency operations center and shelter set up at a school. En route, the trio of 5-ton military trucks received waves from residents gathered on the bridge spanning the Cape Fear River. The trucks weaved past flooded homes and farmland.
With help from at least two dozen police officers and firefighters stationed at the school, the National Guard made swift work of unloading pallets of water and food.
Matthew Gajdos, a public information officer for the Dagsboro Volunteer Fire Department in Dagsboro, Delaware, said the department has more than 40 firefighters in North Carolina to assist with rescues and the aid response. The men and women stationed in Fayetteville, he said, are assisting multiple local fire departments so that they can “dry out” and “get some rest.”
“That’s the thing about this country,” Gajdos said. “We may disagree on stuff, but when it matters we come together.”
Extensive flooding continues in both North and South Carolina. In Lumberton, about 30 miles southwest of Fayetteville, a makeshift levee reinforcement broke Sunday, inundating poor neighborhoods that were flooded during Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. And in Fair Bluff, which also hasn’t recovered from Matthew’s destruction, water began to fill Main Street on Monday.
Faircloth said Florence has been yet another eye-opening experience for the people of North Carolina.
“You never feel safe once you’ve been through one of ’em,” he said. “It always makes you appreciate the things in life better. I think it makes you appreciate your family, your God, everything around you. And never take anything for granted. Never.”