Matthew's Not Done Yet: Historic River Flooding On Its Way

Oct 9, 2016

Record amounts of rainfall from Hurricane Matthew inundated roads and homes across the state over the weekend. It brought down trees, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers and killed eight people, as of Sunday night.

But the worst, may still be yet to come, at least for some.

Governor Pat McCrory laid out the fear in plain language yesterday.

"Water can kill. And that's exactly what has happened in North Carolina," McCrory said during a press conference on Sunday. "And we still have those dangers ahead of us."

What's ahead for many down east could be historic. The Tar River is expected to crest Wednesday at more than 26 feet – at 24 feet, water is predicted to flood the streets downtown.

In Kinston, the Neuse River will likely hit 28 feet on Thursday. Officials say that would trigger "disastrous flooding" of businesses and homes.

"It's kind of hard to grasp, but the forecasted projection for those downstream communities is higher than it was for Floyd," said Matthew Starr, the Neuse River Waterkeeper.

Aerial photograph of inland flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Credit J. Jordan of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Hurricane Floyd is a touchstone for many in eastern North Carolina. The 1999 storm wasn't an especially hard hit on the coast, but when the rain that soaked the Piedmont came roaring downstream, the Neuse, Roanoke, Tar, and other rivers exceeded 500-year flood levels.

And the water was a toxic stew of hog waste, human waste, and other harmful contaminants.

"How flooded our rivers and streams are, I think we'll see any kind of pollution you can think of, which is not a good thing," Starr said.

The Department of Environmental Quality says no coal ash ponds are threatened by flooding at this time. It's unknown yet if the tens of thousands of hog lagoons and private septic systems have flooded, but if the past is any indication, they either already have, or they will.

"In the case of the flooding from Hurricane Floyd, stormwater and sewage, the systems were just overtaxed," said Rachel Noble, an associate professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences and an expert in microbial contaminants. "And those systems ended up resulting in fecal contamination being in the waters."

Noble points out that the state has a robust testing and warning system for when coastal waters or shellfish – like oysters – are unsafe.

Related: See the National Weather Service's flooding prediction map

But the population most at risk from both the flooding that will occur this week and the aftermath is low-income people who live in communities further inland.   

In Lenoir County - where the Neuse River runs through Kinston - nearly one-quarter of the low-income people who reside in the county live in the flood plain.

Those families are less likely to evacuate, and less likely to have flood insurance to deal with the destruction to property.

“Each one of these disasters takes a mental toll on the people who experience it,” said Jessica Whitehead, the coastal communities hazards adaptation specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant. “Just being able to get off the couch and do the work to – get the clime filed, to cut out this drywall - that’s an incredible amount of mental fortitude that you have to get yourself together to do.”

Later today, major rivers will begin cresting. The Neuse is expected to rise to more than 30 feet in Goldsboro – nearly two feet higher than Floyd. If it rises just a few feet higher than predicted, officials say the Goldsboro waste water treatment plant could be inundated.

Late Sunday, Governors McCrory again repeated the dangers.

“Hurricane Matthew is off the map, but it’s still with us,” he said. “And it’s still deadly. And we’re taking it very serious. It’s going to be with us for a long time.”