'Calm before storm,' Trump warns South Carolina after Florence deluge

By Jeff Mason
'Calm before storm,' Trump warns South Carolina after Florence deluge

By Jeff Mason

CONWAY, S.C. (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump warned South Carolina on Wednesday "water is coming your way" from more floods as the death toll from Hurricane Florence rose to at least 36 after a sheriff's van was swept away killing two women.

"Over the next couple of days, it's going to get rough in South Carolina... Whatever you need from Washington, we are there," Trump told an official briefing in Conway, South Carolina.

"Now it looks nice, but it's really the calm before the storm," he said referring to water draining into rising rivers after Florence's epic deluge over the weekend.

Trump visited a neighbourhood in Conway where residents were loading moving vans in anticipation of more flooding.

Florence has killed at least 36 people, including 27 in North Carolina, eight in South Carolina and one in Virginia. Two of the South Carolina victims were mental health patients who drowned on Tuesday when a van carrying them was swept away by floodwater.

More than 15,000 people remain in shelters and more than 200,000 customers are without power across North Carolina because of Florence, according to state officials.

Although the storm is long gone, river flooding still poses a danger. The Cape Fear River was expected to crest at 61.5 feet (19 meters), four times its normal height, on Wednesday in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a city of 200,000 near the Fort Bragg Army base in the southern part of the state, according to the National Weather Service. Floodwaters have disrupted efforts to restore power, clear roads and allow evacuated residents to go home.

Wilmington, just down the coast, remains almost completely cut off by flooding from the Cape Fear River and earlier storm surges from Florence.

ENVIRONMENTAL TOLL

At least 16 rivers remained at a major flood stage, with three others set to crest in the coming days in North Carolina, the state said.

The toll of environmental damage was also mounting as human and animal waste gets swept up in the roiling floodwaters.

North Carolina is one of the leading U.S. hog-producing states and the floodwaters have caused 21 hog "lagoons," which store waste from pig farms, to overflow, creating a risk of standing water contaminated with bacteria like salmonella, according to the state's Department of Environmental Quality.

Trump promised North and South Carolina would have strong federal support. "We're going to be there 100 percent," Trump told officials at a briefing shortly after arriving at the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, North Carolina.

Trump, who has been criticized for his handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, also thanked first responders for their work since Florence made landfall on Friday.

He was accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long, Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Trump visited a church in New Bern, a town of 30,000 located at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers that was hit especially hard by flooding, and joined volunteers in passing out boxed meals to locals in a drive-through line. He also walked through a neighbourhood lined with discarded wet furniture, hugging residents and posing for pictures.

Thousands of rescues have taken place in the Carolinas. Fire and rescue crews were waiting to go into many areas to assist with structural damage resulting from Florence, which dumped up to 36 inches (91 cm) of rain in parts of North Carolina.


(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington, Bernie Woodall in Miami; Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Jessica Resnick-Ault and Barbara Goldberg in New York; and Anna Mehler Paperny in North Carolina; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)