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Hurricane Florence catastrophic flooding, rescues, and deaths: what we know

The storm is now a tropical depression. But more flooding is expected.

A bear statue stands amid flood waters in New Bern, North Carolina, September 14, 2018.
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

As of Saturday afternoon, more than 35 inches of rain had fallen in Surf City on the North Carolina coast. That’s an enormous amount of water to fall in two days. And the flooding isn’t over.

Florence made landfall in North Carolina on Friday morning near Wilmington as a hurricane, and then slowed down to a sluggish 2 miles per hour. It essentially stalled over the Carolinas, bringing incredible amounts of rain to the region.

Even though it was downgraded to a tropical storm and, now, a tropical depression, the danger it poses in terms of flooding is far from over, as floodwaters continue to fill rivers inland. “As the moisture with Florence moves into the Appalachians, expect more flash flooding and possible landslides,” the National Weather Service warned Saturday afternoon.

Local authorities have reported at least 14 deaths related from the storm so far. And though the rain is slowly making its way out of the region, conditions on the ground still continue to be dangerous in many places.

The NWS is called the flooding “catastrophic.” In all, forecasters estimate that 18 trillion gallons of water may drop on the region. Here’s what we know about the flooding still to come and why this is shaping up to be a very costly natural disaster.

Florence broke rainfall records

As the storm crept from North Carolina to South Carolina, it dumped a truly enormous amount of rain, breaking records. Swansboro North Carolina saw more than 30 inches. That’s a record amount, 6 inches greater than the city saw with Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

These numbers make Florence comparable to last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which stalled over the Houston area and broke the national rainfall record for a single tropical storm. It dumped around 27 trillion gallons of water in total and destroyed around 30,000 homes.

Track where the storm goes from here with this map that pulls in the latest forecast from the National Hurricane Center.

Flooding will continue, especially inland

All the rain means there’s a lot of potential flooding over a huge area. And it’s not just happening on the coasts. As the storm progresses and the heavy rain continues to fall, rivers and creeks further inland will start to overflow as well. Not helping: The fact that the ground in the Carolinas is already saturated from a storm-filled summer. That will lead to more surface runoff inland.

For instance, the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is about 100 miles from the coast. It’s expected to flood more than 27 feet above its banks.

“Life-threatening, catastrophic flash floods and prolonged significant river flooding are likely over portions of the Carolinas and the southern to central Appalachians from western North Carolina into west-central Virginia and far eastern West Virginia through early next week,” the weather service warned Saturday, adding that landslides are possible in the mountains.

This flooding also poses an environmental risk. According to the Associated Press, 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash — a byproduct of coal power production — were washed away from a landfill near Wilmington, North Carolina. Coal ash includes toxic substances like mercury and arsenic, which can now flow into rivers, lakes, and the ocean.

This storm is impacting 5 million people. 1 million are without power. Over a dozen people have already died.

About 5 million people throughout the region will see 10 inches of rain or more over the next few days, the NHC predicted last week, covering an area hundreds of miles wide and including the cities of Wilmington, Fayetteville, Charlotte, Myrtle Beach, and many others. The southeastern-most areas of North Carolina will see the worst of it, where accumulations greater than 20 inches are predicted.

Duke Energy, a power utility that services North and South Carolina, estimates 1 to 3 million people could be without electricity due to the storm, and that it could take weeks to restore it all. Already, more than a million are without power, mostly in North Carolina.

Emergency responders and volunteers have had to rescue hundreds of people from their homes in New Bern, North Carolina. And the wind, rain, and floods have claimed several lives, including an infant.

Other deaths, the Charlotte Observer reports, include a person electrocuted trying to operate a power generator, and a woman who died of a heart attack waiting for rescue crews to reach her.

Climate change likely made the flooding worse

Hurricane Florence Slams Into Coast Of Carolinas
Volunteers from the Civilian Crisis Response Team help rescue three children from their flooded home in James City, North Carolina, on Friday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A preliminary assessment from Stony Brook University modeled the forecast of Florence but also imagined what would have happened in a world that hadn’t been artificially warmed up by greenhouse gas emissions. In short, they concluded, the warmer atmosphere we live in today allowed Florence to dump 50 percent more rainfall.

In the months to come, climate scientists will more carefully and painstakingly conduct climate change attribution studies to confirm or amend this result. (Over this past year, climate scientists have now determined via two separate research efforts that Hurricane Harvey’s record-blasting rains were likely amplified by climate change.)

But we don’t need these studies to know that climate change has already had an impact. As the Washington Post reported Thursday, “Some six inches of the coming storm surge is attributable to climate change because sea levels have risen in the past 100 years or so.” If this same exact storm had hit before seas levels had risen, it would not be able to push as much water inland.

How to follow Florence:

  • The National Hurricane Center has a page updating every few hours with the latest watches and warnings for Florence. Check it out.
  • Follow the National Hurricane Center on Twitter; it will keep you up to date with all the latest forecasts, hazards, and warnings. Also follow its Charleston, South Carolina, branch.
  • Follow the Capital Weather Gang’s Twitter account. These folks tend to live-tweet storm updates.
  • Here’s a Twitter list of weather experts via meteorologist Eric Holthaus. These experts will give you up-to-the-second forecasts and warnings.

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