Hurricane Matthew Leaves Behind Historic Flooding in North Carolina

The after-effects of Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina hard and will be felt for the rest of the week as the state's eastern communities brace for downstream flooding.

By Lynn Bonner and Richard Stradling

The after-effects of Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina hard and will be felt for the rest of the week as the state's eastern communities brace for downstream flooding.

Public schools in Wake and Harnett counties will be closed Monday. Johnston County public schools will be closed Monday and Tuesday.

Leaders in the town of Princeville ordered a mandatory evacuation Sunday afternoon and set a 7 p.m. curfew after flash flooding forced evacuation of two neighborhoods there Sunday morning, according to the town website. Kinston is ordering an evacuation of residents in the Neuse River basin, said Gov. Pat McCrory in a news conference Sunday afternoon.

"The impact of Hurricane Matthew is still here and extremely dangerous in North Carolina," he said.

Matthew was blamed for at least nine deaths after as much as 16 inches of rain fell in parts of the state throughout Saturday. The death toll is expected to climb, McCrory said. Five people were missing, four in Cumberland and one in Harnett.

Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses remain without electricity as the combination of sodden ground and gusty winds brought down countless trees.

The Sandhills, which was still recovering from flooding rains from a week earlier, was among the hardest hit areas of the state. Nearly 15 inches of rain fell at Fayetteville Regional Airport, and numerous roads remain blocked by water or fallen trees.

As of Sunday afternoon, there had been more than 1,000 water rescues in the state _ 700 in Cumberland County alone, McCrory said.

The nine deaths were related to vehicles that tried to traverse flooded roadways, McCrory said. Additionally, one person died in a Wayne County shelter.

Two of the deaths occurred in Johnston County, where Smithfield received a foot of rain. One was 19-year-old Diamond Shuntelle Bennett of Millbrook Street in Selma, whose car was swept away in floodwaters on Interstate 95 near mile marker 85 on Saturday night, according to State Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Jeff Gordon. Bennett was found shortly before 6 a.m. Sunday.

The other happened when five people got stuck inside a Nissan Versa that became submerged in floodwaters on Cornwallis Road near N.C. 42 in the Cleveland community, Gordon said.

"Four escaped and were able to cling to trees until rescue arrived," Gordon said Sunday morning. "The other they're still looking for and is presumed deceased."

Smaller creeks and rivers, including Crabtree Creek in Raleigh, have crested, but larger rivers are still rising downstream. The Neuse River is expected to hit record levels at Smithfield and Goldsboro sometime Monday, and the North East Cape Fear River isn't expected to crest near Chinquapin until Wednesday.

"This is going to be a prolonged event," McCrory said. "Rocky Mount, Goldsboro, Kinston, Greenville _ every town in between. We will have very serious issues."

Power companies were gradually restoring service Sunday. About 434,500 Duke Energy customers in North Carolina were still powerless by 5 p.m. Sunday, according to the company's website, including more than 83,000 Wake County customers. Electric cooperatives reported about 198,000 outages Sunday afternoon.

More than 4,200 people sought refuge in 83 storm shelters that opened for the storm, McCrory said. About 70 people were evacuated from the Comfort Inn in Southport overnight after someone raised concerns that part of the building might fail. Shelters began closing Sunday and by the afternoon, about 3,000 people were in 76 shelters.

Sections of Interstate 40 and Interstate 95 were closed Sunday due to flooding.

A North Carolina Department of Transportation website has updates on interstate highway closures.

In the Triangle, numerous streets and roads remain blocked by water and fallen trees. Raleigh police warn that too many traffic lights are out in the city for officers to direct traffic at all of them and urged motorists to be patient and courteous.

In Johnston County, officials are urging residents to conserve water due to water line breaks in the southeastern part of the county. Because of a lack of water pressure in the distribution system, county officials are urging customers whose water has been restored to boil water intended for human consumption or use bottled water until further notice.

The heavy rain stressed dams in the region, including Lake Benson dam, which Raleigh officials say came within two feet of being overtopped by water late Saturday. About 8:40 a.m. Sunday, city officials said water levels at both the Lake Benson and Lake Wheeler dams were "improving by the hour," but urged residents downstream to be prepared "in the event conditions change."

McCrory said he was requesting an expedited major disaster declaration from the federal government, which would qualify the state for additional federal assistance. That would include making grants available to people without flood insurance and help to state and local governments in repairing roads and bridges and cleaning up debris.

(Staff writer Paul A. Specht contributed.)

(c)2016 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.