GEORGETOWN, SOUTH CAROLINA - The last community in the way of Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters as they slowly flow to the sea got some good news Wednesday — the predictions aren’t as dire as they once were.
Officials originally expected flooding in the worst areas of Georgetown County to be from 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters). But the latest forecast lowered that estimate to 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters), according to the county’s Facebook page.
Twelve days after the once-fierce hurricane arrived on the coast, and more than a week after it blew north and dissipated, rivers swollen by its relentless rains are still flooding homes and businesses in their paths as they make their way to the sea.
The death toll from the storm is still adding up. North Carolina officials blamed the death of a 67-year-old man who fractured his neck cleaning up storm debris Sept. 18 in Craven County on the storm. Florence has killed at least 47 people — 36 in North Carolina; nine in South Carolina; and two in Virginia.
The newest predictions from South Carolina officials moved back the peak of the flooding from Thursday to Friday in Georgetown County, where the most swollen waterways — the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers— meet three other rivers on their way to the Atlantic Ocean.
The forecasts could change again, officials warned, and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster joined the call for residents to not let their guard down.
“We are still in full battle mode in Georgetown County,” McMaster said at a Wednesday news conference.
The slow-moving disaster has allowed forecasters to pinpoint exactly who will flood. There have been few rescues or surprises in South Carolina — just black, reeking water slowly seeping in and even more slowly receding.
“It’s kind of playing out exactly like we forecast,” said Conway Fire Chief Le Hendrick, who sent firefighters to houses that had never flooded more than a week ago to warn them water was coming. Those same homes were flooded when firefighters surveyed them Monday and Tuesday.
There appeared to be good news in Conway too. The Waccamaw River, which flows through the city of 23,000, has spent nearly a day at just over 21.1 feet (6.4 meters), some 6 inches (15 centimeters) under the predicted crest.
That could avert potential environmental and transportation problems. The river water was still just inches below a coal ash pond at a closed power plant in Conway, according to the state-owned utility Santee Cooper.
The floodwater from the river also had not made it over a temporary barrier hastily built on U.S. Highway 501, the main link to Myrtle Beach. Water is touching the barrier of sand and plastic called the Lifeline, but is still well below the top of it, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Preliminary estimates show about 2,000 homes have been damaged by flooding in South Carolina, with half of them suffering major damage or being destroyed, said state Emergency Management Division Director Kim Stenson, adding those numbers are far from final with flooding still occurring that could affect hundreds or thousands of additional homes.
“A lot of the country thinks that Florence came and went. But unfortunately, a lot of that water it takes weeks to process down,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Brock Long said.
Long visited South Carolina on Wednesday and said the agency has already had 4,000 people register and paid $500,000 in claims in the state.
In North Carolina, residents in Lumberton sued CSX Corp. saying the railroad company refused to give permission to build a temporary sandbag berm under a bridge until an emergency order from the governor at the last minute.
The lawsuit said the underpass also created a gap in a levee that made flooding worse during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and cited a report in May where the state called for a floodgate. CSX issued a statement that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but noted the “extraordinary storm” devastated Lumberton and other communities with its flooding.
Also in Robeson County, Sheriff Kenneth Sealey said his deputies with help from National Guard high-clearance trucks rescued 400 animals — which included dogs, cats, horses, peacocks, chickens, quail and potbellied pig — from a flooded property after some were seen stranded on a rooftop in the Orrum community. About 300 more animals were found dead on the property over the weekend, Sealey said.
Authorities were meeting with prosecutors Wednesday to see if the people responsible for the animals should face charges.