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Florence: Nasty Water, Mounting Damage

Overview of the Sutton plant in Wilmington shown from the northwest on Sept. 22. Photo: NCDEQ

Updated 12:20 p.m. Tuesday with preliminary damage assessment numbers from Onslow County

COASTAL NORTH CAROLINA — As floodwaters from Hurricane Florence continue to rise in some areas, clean water advocates, state regulators and national attention are turning to the nasty mix of pollutants heading downriver and downstream here.

As reported Friday, floodwaters from the Cape Fear River breached Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton facility in Wilmington. Water flowed into Sutton Lake on the north side and back into the river on the south side.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality said a thorough investigation of events would soon follow and that Duke Energy would be held responsible for any environmental damage. An EPA coordinator and NCDEQ staff met with Duke Energy and personnel at the Sutton facility Monday to survey conditions, according to a tweet late Monday by EPA Southeast.

DEQ said Sunday that 32 waste lagoons at 27 swine operations were discharging into floodwaters. Lagoons at five facilities showed structural damage, although DEQ said that means the lagoon may or may not be discharging. Another seven facilities with nine lagoons were inundated, with water surrounding and flowing into the lagoons and 16 facilities with 18 lagoons were full and likely to spill over. As many as 31 facilities, or 39 lagoons, were 3 inches or less from being full.

In some flood-prone area beach towns, officials were allowing the pumping of stormwater in nearby ponds, sounds and the ocean.

Bogue Banks beach towns were this week using pumps to address the flooding in neighborhoods, where streets have been impassable and septic systems failing. Towns including Pine Knoll Shores and Emerald Isle were still pumping Monday and advising the public to avoid contact with standing water.

Emerald Isle staff Sept. 21 on one of the town’s flooded streets. Photo: Town of Emerald Isle

Officials in Pine Knoll Shores noted Saturday that the town had been pumping into golf course ponds, the man-made canal that loops through town and into the ocean, as permitted during emergencies.

In Emerald Isle, pumping in some areas alleviated the flooding, but groundwater seeped in and caused these areas to flood again.  The town said pumping would continue until water levels stabilize.

Larry Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper based in Morehead City, said he was investigating water quality issues on Bogue Banks Monday. He noted several locations where stormwater was being pumped out of neighborhoods and into the ocean or sound, but one location was especially foul.

“This particular one smells absolutely horrible,” Baldwin said of the water being pumped to the ocean from the Land’s End development off Coast Guard Road in Emerald Isle. “This water coming out of Land’s End is different from the stormwater we see coming elsewhere in Emerald Isle.”

Baldwin said he’d seen people during the weekend walking through the drainage.

“I’ve got a lot of concerns,” he said. “Everybody here is on septic. We’re doing basic bacterial testing and taking samples to a lab in New Bern. I understand communities don’t want to flood but what are we doing environmentally just pumping this stuff where ever we want it to go? Somebody’s got to be looking at this water just from a public health standpoint.”

State recreational water quality officials before the storm gave notice advising the public to avoid swimming in all coastal waters of North Carolina following Hurricane Florence.

“Excessive rains and flooding can cause high levels of bacteria in the water that can make people sick,” J.D. Potts, manager of the N.C. Recreational Water Quality Program, said in a statement. “Floodwaters and stormwater runoff can contain pollutants such as waste from septic systems, sewer line breaks, wildlife, petroleum products and other chemicals.”

The notice listed as hazards the pumping of floodwaters, sanitary sewer malfunctions, overflowing manholes and lift stations failures which could discharge into coastal waters.

Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality officials issued Monday precautionary advisories for a large portion of the coast and updated its recreational mapping site.

Under the state Department of Environmental Quality, DMF Headquarters in Morehead City closed on Sept. 11 and Section Chief Shannon Jenkins expects it to open Thursday. The lab was temporarily unavailable because of HVAC issues, which Jenkins said affects a step in the testing process.

The DMF Central District Office in Morehead City also closed Sept. 11 and reopened Monday. “We did work out of the office during this time period as available to document and assess sewer overflows/flooding etc. and provide situation reports to the department,” Jenkins said in an email.

The division’s Wilmington Regional Office was closed Sept. 13 and will not reopen before Sept. 28 because of damage and safety issues.

Jenkins said that regarding shellfish, except for northern waters that didn’t experience the same rainfall or storm impacts, they don’t anticipate sampling the shellfish growing waters this week. “With the rainfall amounts alone, we wouldn’t expect the central/southern waters to return to normal anytime soon with the lands still draining.”

They will continue to assess wastewater overflows and flooded areas with Department of Water Resources and municipalities, which would have an impact on sampling plans, he added. “We will have more information as this week progresses.”

Damage Estimates

Although several rivers were above flood stage and seven river systems at major flood stage Monday, there were signs that recovery is in full swing in southeastern North Carolina. The full extent of the damage, however, is just starting to become clear.

Damage estimates from Hurricane Florence are rising and in a mid-afternoon update, Gov. Roy Cooper put to rest any comparison that ranks 2016’s Hurricane Matthew higher in terms of total devastation.

Gov. Roy Cooper

Cooper said the number of people applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance so far is already close to the total number of applicants who applied after Matthew. The state has recorded 35 storm related deaths so far.

“We’re going to see significantly more people affected by this storm and it is much more widespread than Matthew,” Cooper said.

“We’re going to see significantly more people affected by this storm and it is much more widespread than Matthew.”

— Gov. Roy Cooper

Many areas were hit hard in both storms, he said, a fact that the state will have to reckon with as it considers how and where to rebuild.

FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers opened in Onslow, Carteret and Pamlico counties to assist those affected by Hurricane Florence. The centers offer in-person support from FEMA recovery specialists, the U.S. Small Business Administration, the state and others.

The center in Jacksonville is next to Don Williamson Nissan at 312 Western Blvd. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Disaster Recovery Center in Morehead City is at the Carteret County Health Department, 3820 Bridges St., Suite A. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. until further notice.

The FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Pamlico County is in Grantsboro Town Hall, 10628 NC Hwy. 55 East, Grantsboro. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday.

Applicants must register online at www.fema.gov or by phone at 800-621-3362 prior to visiting the center to complete the application process.

North Carolina homeowners, renters and business owners in Beaufort, Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Harnett, Lenoir, Jones, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pender, Robison, Sampson, and Wayne counties may apply for disaster assistance for uninsured and underinsured damage and losses resulting from Hurricane Florence.

Moody’s Analytics has estimated the economic damage from Florence could be as much as $50 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported. Available local estimates are just a starting point.

Initial damage assessments were completed Friday in New Bern. Final numbers according to the city’s website are $74.5 million in residential damage from Hurricane Florence and $25.6 million in commercial damage.

Across Craven County, about 1,100 structures sustained major damage and 2,600 structures had been reviewed.

“As of right now, Craven County has $87.5 million of assessed damage and that figure is counting,” said Amber Parker, the county’s human resources director. “The damage assessments are ongoing as Craven County has a very large area to cover.”

Cornelius J. Jordan, Onslow County’s communications director, said Monday that county is still in the process of damage assessment. Jordan followed up Tuesday with preliminary numbers.

Total count for damaged residential structures, ranging from minor damage to destroyed, in unincorporated areas of Onslow as of Monday morning was counted at 7,212, at a total of $245,492,848. For businesses in unincorporated areas, the total came to 154 and at an estimated loss of $24,662,858, as of Tuesday morning. Jordan reiterated that the damage assessment is ongoing.

Onslow County Manager David Cotton informed the board of commissioners Friday during a special meeting that CrowderGulf, the debris removal contractor, has estimated that from the storm, the inert debris, such as leaves, limbs and logs, is 200 to 300 cubic yards and the construction and demolition debris — bricks, shingles, wood, sheetrock —  is 100,000 to 200,000 cubic yards.

Jordan told Coastal Review Online that although flooding was a concern, the most widespread damage was from leaking roofs.

Around the county as a whole, Jordan said that the number of blue tarps covering roofs shows that rain getting inside homes and causing interior damage is a huge concern.

He encourages county residents to report damage using the survey report on the county’s Hurricane Florence website to let the assessment team know where there is major damage.

“Though it may not look it from the front, there may be major damage on the inside (of a building),” he added.

In North Topsail Beach, Mayor Dan Tuman reported that about 874 structures had sustained minor damage and an estimated 77 structures had major damage. A team from the North Carolina State Building Code Enforcement Office arrived in town Wednesday to help identify properties “not fit for habitation and might be at further risk should they be connected to the town’s present water and electrical service,” according to an email Tuman sent to town residents Wednesday.

The governor said that with more rain coming residents should remain cautious.

“Even as recovery starts, serious risks remain in Southeastern North Carolina,” he said. Flooded roads are still making travel dangerous and many communities are still on boiled water alerts.

Special Session Set

The governor’s office also announced late Monday that a special legislative session will start Oct. 2. Cooper had first set the date a week later, but legislative leaders said they plan to get started on disaster-related policy matters before adjourning until Oct. 9 to allow time for the Cooper administration to put together its recovery funding request, WRAL.com reported. In addition to funding, school systems in hard-hit areas are expected to receive a waiver on calendar requirements.

The governor said his main concern over the timing of a session was to make sure it was safe to travel to and from Raleigh for anyone who wanted to attend the session.

Shortly before the governor’s Monday afternoon briefing, state Department of Transportation engineers cleared Interstate 40 for travel to Wilmington, reopening the main land route to the city after flooding shut it down more than a week ago.

Truck traffic to the state ports in Wilmington and Morehead City also resumed service Monday and on Sunday night, the DOT reopened Interstate 95 and U.S. 74. DOT Secretary Jim Trogdon said on Monday that waters covering the roads receded quicker than expected and crews determined there was no significant structural damage.

That wasn’t the case for one key route into New Hanover and Brunswick counties. Trogdon said damage to the roadway of U.S. 421 at the New Hanover-Pender county line will require major repairs. In all, about 400 roads, most of them in eastern North Carolina, remain closed.

Concerns about a potential break in a water line that runs under U.S. 421 were alleviated after emergency repairs over the weekend. Crews from the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority worked from the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority’s raw water main that runs roughly 20 miles from the Cape Fear intake near Lock and Dam No. 1 to the city’s treatment plant.

The line runs underground in the area where the highway was damaged. In a statement released Monday, CFPUA officials said they would continue to monitor the water line to avoid any disruption of service. After Hurricane Matthew, a failure in a main due to flooding near Riegelwood required weeks of mandatory water restrictions.

Interstate 95 opened to traffic over the weekend after portions of the major artery were closed since Sept. 15. As of Monday, 415 road closures remained statewide. According to the NCDOT website, US-74 was open from I-95 to Wilmington and U.S. 70 was open between I-95 and the coast with one lane closed in each direction in Kinston.

Motorists should avoid unnecessary travel in Brunswick, Columbus, Duplin, Pender, Robeson, Sampson and Scotland counties due to the flooding or washout of multiple North Carolina and secondary routes. The department also recommends avoiding Bladen and Wayne due to the flooding and washout of multiple major travel routes.

Across southeastern North Carolina, seven rivers were at major flood stage Monday and three were at moderate flood stage. Additional rain was forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday in some areas.

Well Testing

Cooper urged those who use private wells to get them tested at their county health department before assuming the water is safe to drink.

Free water sampling kits for New Hanover County residents with private water wells are available from the county public health department. Officials in a notice recommend testing wells flooded as a result of Hurricane Florence to ensure there is no contamination. Ingesting or being exposed to contaminated well water may cause sickness.

The free water sampling tests are available 8 a.m.to 5 p.m. at the New Hanover County Government Center, Suite 140, 230 Government Center Drive, or at the New Hanover County Fire Department, Station 11 in Wrightsboro at 3515 North Kerr Ave.

The kits include instructions. Residents must bring the well water sample within 24 hours of collecting the sample to New Hanover County Public Health laboratory, 2023 S. 17th St., Wilmington. If the well sample tests positive for fecal coliform bacteria, the Environmental Health division will follow up with treatment options.

The Craven County Health Department based in New Bern also is offering free well water test kits to homeowners, who can visit the health department to receive the kit and paperwork. Samples can be dropped off at the health department from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Results will be provided to the homeowner and if the well is contaminated, then the homeowner will be informed of a course of action. For more information, contact the Environmental Health Department at 252-636-4936.

For Carteret County residents, the county Environmental Health Department is offering free bacteriological samples for private drinking water wells flooded during the hurricane. After flooding around the well has receded and power has been restored, disinfect and chlorinate the well prior to requesting sampling. Instructions are on the county website. Sampling can be requested by contacting  252-728-8499. Environmental Health staff will visit to collect a sample.

Jennifer AllenKirk Ross and Mark Hibbs contributed to this report.

About the Author

Staff Report

The story was compiled by staff members of Coastal Review Online.