Florence floodwaters rising in N.C.

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(Bloomberg) --Hurricane Florence is delivering driving wind, pelting rain and torrential flooding to North Carolina, killing at least three people as it grinds through the region.

More than 643,000 customers are without power as the storm, carrying maximum sustained winds of 75 miles (120 kilometers) an hour, batters the Midatlantic. Hundreds of thousands evacuated the coast, more than 1,500 flights have been canceled, factories are shut and more than 21,000 North Carolina residents have taken cover in shelters. More than 100 people were rescued from rising waters, according to North Carolina’s Emergency Management office. A mother and infant died when a tree fell on a house in Wilmington, and a Lenoir County man died using a generator, authorities said.

“The storm is wreaking havoc on our state,’’ Governor Roy Cooper said Friday. “We’re deeply concerned for farms, for businesses, for schools and even whole communities which could be wiped away.”

More than 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain have drenched the region, and the total may reach 40 inches in some areas by the time Florence has passed, according to the National Hurricane Center. The governor’s officer warned of “1,000-year rainfall totals.” A 10-foot storm surge is flooding rivers in the region, and the National Weather Service is warning of potential tornadoes.

In Belhaven, an enclave in far eastern North Carolina, the Pungo River almost reached the second floor of buildings as the storm moved in, according to video posted on the website of The News & Observer. More than 60 guests fled the Triangle Motor Inn in Jacksonville, North Carolina, in the middle of the night after winds and rain put a basketball-sized hole in a corner room, according to city police. Cinder blocks were crumbling and parts of the roof collapsed, flooding rooms.

The total bill for damage may eventually reach $10 billion to $20 billion, said Chuck Watson, a disaster researcher at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia. Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach Friday morning as a Category 1 storm and could be downgraded to tropical-storm status.

About 680,000 homes and businesses are without electricity from Virginia to Georgia. Duke Energy Corp. shut down its Brunswick nuclear plant on North Carolina’s southern coast Thursday, and has estimated that as many as 3 million customers face potential power outages from the storm.

Environmental groups are getting ready to inspect waterways for toxic spills from coal-ash ponds and hog lagoons once the storm subsides. Waterkeepers, a watchdog group, said it plans to take airplane and boat trips near flooded industrial sites and gather water samples.

“There’s a very real possibility of another coal-ash spill,’’ said Matthew Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper at Sound Rivers, an advocacy group. “Once the weather breaks, it will be fairly obvious if there’s a problem,’’ he said from Raleigh.

As the storm ground inexorably east, residents did what they had to. Above the depopulated streets of Rockingham, North Carolina, was a menacing sky with fast-moving clouds. El Super Taco was locked and the video store was empty. But there was a steady stream of customers coming into the JD Mart convenience store to buy beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

“I’m stuck here,’’ said owner Hardik Patel.

About 100 miles east in Durham, home of Duke University, noodles were 30 percent off Melina’s Fresh Pasta. Carmella Alvaro, the 42-year-old owner, held an emergency sale in anticipation of a power outage. In an hour, she did as much business as she typically does in a single day.

“It was a happy moment: People coming into a locally owned business and helping us all out,” she said.

Pasta sales, however, are the least of the immense storm’s effect. The response can be gauged in numbers:

More than 11 million meals, 18 million liters of water, 60,000 cots and 1 million blankets were made ready to help residents. The Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring more than three dozen Superfund sites, oil-production facilities and chemical-storage operations that are in the path of the hurricane. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent inspectors to plants that could be damaged. More than 500 National Guard soldiers and air personnel are responding to calls across North Carolina. Water in Beaufort reached 3.74 feet above high tide Friday, topping the record set in 1955 during Hurricane Ione, the National Weather Service said in a tweet.For more, listen to this mini-podcast on Florence

Florence is expected to move inland across southeastern North Carolina and eastern South Carolina Friday and Saturday. It will then head across the central Appalachian Mountains early next week, potentially delivering rain to New York City on Tuesday.

As it goes, it may devastate the region’s economic drivers. North Carolina is the largest tobacco grower and ranks second among U.S. states in hog inventory and producing broiler chickens. CoBank ACB, an agricultural lender, estimates damage to North Carolina farming could hit $1 billion before the storm slows.

Along with agriculture, the Carolinas are a regional hub for banking, technology, manufacturing and transportation, accounting for about 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to a Bloomberg U.S. economic analysis. The path may affect more than 4,000 manufacturing and distribution facilities, potentially hurting sectors including auto parts and packaged foods, according to Bloomberg Supply Chain data.

“This is not the end of it. Twenty-four to 36 hours remain of a significant threat,” Jeff Byard, FEMA’s associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery, said Friday. "I hope people bought flood insurance, because you are going to need it for this event."

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