U.S. pastor Brunson arrives home in Turkey after release by court

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson arrives home after his trial in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Ezgi Erkoyun and Emily Wither

IZMIR, Turkey (Reuters) – The American evangelical Christian pastor at the center of a row between Ankara and Washington arrived at his home in Turkey on Friday after a Turkish court ruled he could go free, a move that may signal a major step toward mending ties between the allies.

Andrew Brunson arrived at his home in Turkey’s coastal province of Izmir, a Reuters cameraman said, having left the courthouse in a convoy of cars.

He was released after the court sentenced him to three years and 1-1/2 months in prison on terrorism charges but said he would not serve any further jail time. The pastor has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years and was put in prison two years ago and has been under house arrest since July.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has imposed sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to secure Brunson’s freedom, tweeted: “PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!”

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the North Carolina native wept as the decision was announced, witnesses said. Before the judge’s ruling he had told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”

After the ruling, Brunson’s lawyer told reporters the pastor was likely to leave Turkey. The U.S. military has a plan to fly Brunson back to America on a military aircraft, officials told Reuters.

The diplomatic stand-off over Brunson, who had been pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, had accelerated a sell-off in Turkey’s lira currency, worsening a financial crisis.

Brunson had been accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a coup attempt in 2016. Brunson denied the accusation and Washington had demanded his immediate release.

Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that testimonies against the pastor attributed to them were inaccurate.

Brunson’s wife Norine looked on from the visitors’ area.

Supporters of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson wait near his house in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Supporters of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson wait near his house in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

‘GREAT CHRISTIAN’

Brunson’s mother told Reuters she and his father were elated at the news. “We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers of so many people around the world,” she said.

Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case. The release could boost Trump’s ability to encourage such voters to support Republicans in large numbers in Nov. 6 elections, which will determine whether the party keeps control of Congress.

The heavily conservative constituency voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. He has called Brunson a “great Christian”, and Vice President Mike Pence, the White House’s top emissary to evangelicals, had urged Americans to pray for Brunson.

“We thank God for answered prayers and commend the efforts of @SecPompeo & @StateDept in supporting Pastor Brunson and his family during this difficult time,” Pence wrote on Twitter. “@SecondLady and I look forward to welcoming Pastor Brunson and his courageous wife Norine back to the USA!”

U.S. broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Brunson’s release.

“After an unjust imprisonment in Turkey for two years, we can all breathe a sigh of relief,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Twitter.

The lira stood at 5.9600 to the dollar at 1530 GMT, slightly weaker on the day after firming 3 percent on Thursday on expectations that Brunson would be freed.

NATO ALLIES

Relations between the two NATO allies are also under strain over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, and the U.S. jailing of an executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.

With Brunson’s release, attention may now turn to the fate of a Turkish-U.S. national and former NASA scientist in jail in Turkey on terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of the U.S. consulate who have also been detained.

Washington wants all these people released, while Ankara has demanded the extradition of Gulen. The cleric, who was lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, denies any role in the attempted coup.

Friday’s decision could be a first step to ease tensions, although Turkey’s presidency took aim at what it said was a prolonged U.S. effort to put pressure on its courts.

“It is with great regret that we have been monitoring U.S. efforts to mount pressure on Turkey’s independent court system for some time,” Fahrettin Altun, the presidency’s communications director, said.

Further moves which have been discussed include the return to Turkey of bank executive Mehmet Hakan Attila to serve out his sentence, the release of the U.S. consular staff, and agreement that the U.S. Treasury avoid draconian steps against Halkbank, the state lender.

“Like the Turkish courts, the Republic of Turkey does not receive instructions from any body, authority, office or person,” Altun, the Turkish official, said. “We make our own rules and make our own decisions that reflect our will.”

(Additional reporting by Mehmet Emin Caliskan in Izmir, Ali Kucukgocmen and Sarah Dadouch in Istanbul and Matt Spetalnick, Susan Heavey and Jonathan Allen in Washington, Writing by Daren Butler, David Dolan and Dominic Evans; Editing by Angus MacSwan, David Stamp, William Maclean)

Hurricane Michael’s death toll could rise as Florida searches intensify

First responders and residents walk along a main street following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Devika Krishna Kumar

PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (Reuters) – Rescuers used heavy equipment to clear debris in the Florida Panhandle towns hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, searching for survivors amid expectations the death toll of 12 from the powerful storm likely will climb.

Rescuers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used dogs, drones and global positioning satellites in the search.

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Bianna Kelsay is consoled by member of rescue personnel after being saved from her business damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

So far, no counties along the devastated northwest Florida coast have reported deaths related to the storm. That could change, as efforts to assess damage and look for casualties in the worst-hit communities have been hampered by downed utility lines and roads blocked by debris and fallen trees.

“I think you’re going to see it climb,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long said of the death count at a news conference. “We still haven’t gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas.”

Michael charged ashore on Wednesday near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history, with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour). It pushed a wall of seawater inland and caused widespread flooding.

Many of the houses in Mexico Beach were reduced to naked concrete foundations or piles of debris.

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida's northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O'Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Aerial photo shows boats laying among the debris from homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2018. Chris O’Meara/Pool via REUTERS

Although weaker as it pushed over the southeastern United States, the storm carried high winds and delivered drenching rains to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. It killed at least 12 people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said.

In Virginia, the remnants of the hurricane swept away four people in floodwaters. A firefighter also was killed when hit by a truck as he was trying to help an accident victim, the Washington Post reported.

About 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.

It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida, such as Panama City.

Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were obliterated by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 meters) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.

“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever but you have to build to a higher standard,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild, do it right.”

By early Friday morning the remnants of Michael had moved into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

A collapsed building damaged by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Callaway, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

HOSPITAL PROBLEMS

The storm, which came ashore as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, tore apart entire neighborhoods in the Panhandle.

Many of the injured in Florida were taken to Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach.

Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center treated some people but the hospital evacuated 130 patients as it was dealing with its own hurricane effects.

The hospital was running on generators after the storm knocked out power, ripped off part of its roof and smashed windows, according to a spokesman for the hospital’s owner, HCA Healthcare Inc.

Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 12 miles (19 km) east of Mexico Beach, was flooded by Michael, which snapped boats in two and hurled a large ship onto the shore, residents said.

“We had houses that were on one side of the street and now they’re on the other,” said Mayor Bo Patterson, estimating that 1,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed in his town of 3,500 people.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross. The Coast Guard reported rescuing 129 people.

Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan, and peanut crops, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million hectares), said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 percent and natural gas output by nearly a third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

It was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Fla.; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Fla., Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott; Editing by Frances Kerry)

North Carolina town may never fully recover from double whammy of storms

Katrina Bullock, who is still in the process of rebuilding after floods from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, stacks debris in front of her home after flooding due to Hurricane Florence receded in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, U.S. September 29, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

By Randall Hill

FAIR BLUFF, N.C. (Reuters) – The childhood home Katrina Bullock returned to in the rural North Carolina community of Fair Bluff about 16 years ago to care for her sick mother was devastated by flooding from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

A new roof went up after that. Walls saturated with muddy floodwaters were being replaced and things were looking up until a new storm, Hurricane Florence struck about 23 months later in September.

Katrina Bullock, who is still in the process of rebuilding after floods from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, cleans the inside of her home after flooding due to Hurricane Florence receded in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, U.S. September 29, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

Katrina Bullock, who is still in the process of rebuilding after floods from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, cleans the inside of her home after flooding due to Hurricane Florence receded in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, U.S. September 29, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

“We were starting to get it all back together and there comes Florence, and it takes it all again,” said Bullock.

She and other residents of Fair Bluff, and of many other communities in the southern and southeast parts of North Carolina hit by the double whammy of Matthew and Florence, are sorting through the latest wreckage, wondering if it is worth remaining.

Settlers first arrived in the area around Fair Bluff in the mid-1700s and one of the oldest buildings in Columbus County, where the town is located, is a trading post built on the banks of the Lumber River in the town, according to the local chamber of commerce. In the 19th century, railroads helped keep the economy

flowing.

Experts say such hamlets and towns face permanent changes, with fewer residents, fewer businesses and fewer prospects of returning to the way things were just a generation ago. Older residents whose roots run deep and those too poor to leave will soon likely make up the bulk of the population.

Those who can will leave, but others will do their best to rebuild.

A sign in front of the Fair Bluff United Methodist Church gives a message to the community after flooding due to Hurricane Florence receded in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, U.S. September 29, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

A sign in front of the Fair Bluff United Methodist Church gives a message to the community after flooding due to Hurricane Florence receded in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, U.S. September 29, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

“There will be a real desire to make Fair Bluff the best it can be, but it may look and be a different thing from what it has historically been,” said Patrick Woodie, president of the NC Rural Center, an economic development organization.

Even before Florence hit, many small towns in North Carolina were struggling due to a decline in agriculture and manufacturing. Poverty rates in the state are higher now than in the aftermath of the recession about a decade ago due to the loss of small industries such as textile and a downturn in the farming sector, according to the North Carolina Justice Center, a progressive research and advocacy organization.

Matthew led to catastrophic flooding throughout low-lying eastern North Carolina and caused billions of dollars in damage. In took 28 lives in the United States while Florence killed more than 50 and drove many rural communities into deeper despair.

Fair Bluff is a mostly agricultural community with a Main Street book-ended by two churches and nestled next to the Lumber River, a usually peaceful waterway that flooded during both Matthew and Florence.

The town’s small commercial area was struggling to get back into business after Matthew and inundated again with Florence. Many wonder if it will ever open again.

Randy Britt take a break as he works to clean one of his downtown buildings after flooding due to Hurricane Florence receded in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, U.S. September 29, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

Randy Britt take a break as he works to clean one of his downtown buildings after flooding due to Hurricane Florence receded in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, U.S. September 29, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

Almost all the stores on Main Street closed after Matthew and when Florence rolled in, the floodwaters brought fresh destruction to places like a furniture shop that had yet to remove all of its water-logged inventory from two years ago.

After the flooding from Florence receded, a dark muck covered floors in affected areas and a smell wafted through the air combining odors of moldy rot and a sewage plant that overflowed in the most recent storm.

Fair Bluff Mayor Billy Hammond believes the town had about 1,000 residents before Matthew and was left with about half that afterward, with many evacuees just never returning.

The permanent population now is probably about 350 to 400, most of them are people whose homes were not flooded, he said.

“It has been a ghost town for about two years,” he said in an interview. “We’re just going have to take it one day at a time and move forward and hope that people come back,” he said.

Fair Bluff is about 125 miles (200 km) south of Raleigh. About 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and median household income is $28,611, according to U.S. Census data. In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, home to the vibrant city of Charlotte, median household income is more than double that in Fair Bluff and the poverty rate is about half.

In low-lying areas near the river where some of the poorest people in Fair Bluff live, many have returned to storm-damaged homes because they do not have the money to move or rebuild.A disproportionate number of low-income people live in floodplains in river communities, according to Gavin Smith, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Randy Britt, 71, who has lived in Fair Bluff all his life

owns buildings on the Main Street commercial area and is working to re-open a flood-hit store.

“There is always hope. If there wasn’t hope, I wouldn’t be in Fair Bluff right now,” he said in an interview.

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)

Hurricane raises questions about rebuilding along North Carolina’s coast

People work in the reconstruction of Rodanthe pier after being partially damaged after the pass of Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression in Rodanthe, North Carolina, U.S., September 18, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Anna Mehler Paperny

RODANTHE, N.C. (Reuters) – When Florence was raging last Friday on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the hurricane tore a 40-foot (12-meter) chunk from a fishing pier that juts into the ocean at the state’s most popular tourist destination.

The privately owned Rodanthe pier has already undergone half a million dollars in renovation in seven years and the owners started a new round of repairs this week.

“The maintenance and upkeep on a wooden fishing pier is tremendous,” said co-owner Terry Plumblee. “We get the brunt of the rough water here.”

Scientists have warned such rebuilding efforts are futile as sea levels rise and storms chew away the coastline but protests from developers and the tourism industry have led North Carolina to pass laws that disregard the predictions.

The Outer Banks, a string of narrow barrier islands where Rodanthe is situated, may have been spared the worst of Florence, which flooded roads, smashed homes and killed at least 36 people across the eastern seaboard.

Still, the storm showed North Carolinians on this long spindly finger of land that ignoring the forces of nature to cling to their homes and the coast’s $2.4 billion economy may not be sustainable.

Some have called for halting oceanside development altogether.

“We need to actually begin an organized retreat from the rising seas,” said Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey.

In a government study published in 2010, scientists warned that sea levels could rise 39 inches by 2100

Higher sea level will cause more flooding and render some communities uninhabitable, as well as affect the ocean vegetation, jeopardize the dune systems that help stabilize the barrier islands, and cause more intense erosion when storms like Florence make landfall, scientists said.

Developers said the study was too theoretical to dictate policy.

Some argue policymakers do not need a 90-year projection to know something needs to change.

“When we have a hurricane, that shows everybody where their vulnerabilities are today, forget 100 years from now, but right now,” said Rob Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University who co-authored the study by the state’s Coastal Resources Commission (CRC).

Young said he would like to see development move back from the ocean’s edge and laments that homeowners and developers rebuild almost any structure damaged or destroyed by a bad storm.

But the idea of retreating is a tough sell for the people who live there and have invested in property.

“You’re asking us to say, ‘Hey, 4,000 or 5,000 people on little Hatteras Island, it’s time for you to pack up and move,’ and that’s not a reasonable expectation,” said Bobby Outten, manager for Dare County on the Outer Banks.

Opponents of using the CRC study to set policy said that most Outer Bank homeowners recognize the risks.

“If you’re buying on the coast, anyone that buys in an area surrounded by water, you’re always taking a risk that you’re going to have storm damage,” said Willo Kelly, who has worked in real estate for more than a decade.

Even though she acknowledges that sea levels are rising, Kelly is also among those who opposed making state policy decisions, including anything affecting home insurance or property values, based on the study’s dire 90-year forecast of sea-level rise.

Kelly supported a 2012 state law that banned North Carolina from using the 90-year prediction on rising sea levels to influence coastal development policy.

The CRC released a second report in 2015 predicting sea level rise over a 30-year period, instead of 90 years. The new report was praised by developers as being more realistic and said sea levels would rise 1.9 to 10.6 inches. (https://bit.ly/2xyGDVr)

The 2012 law was welcomed by the development community and panned by scientists whose warnings, they felt, were going unheeded. Members of the legislature who sponsored the bill did not return requests for comment.

After this year’s storm demolished the sandy protective berms that stand between the water and the main coastal road, the state sent backhoes to rebuild them and officials to assess damage to bridges and roads.

“There’s also a sense of denial,” said Gavin Smith, director of the University of North Carolina’s Coastal Resilience Center, adding that with rising seas and more intense storms it will be more costly and more difficult to replace infrastructure.

Rodanthe Pier was lucky this time, sustaining only moderate damage, said Clive Thompson, 58, who works at the pier. In the past, nor’easters have ripped its end from the ground and tore pilings from sand.

The beach was not so lucky. The ocean ate away about 50 meters of what used to be dry sand above the high-tide line, he said.

“It’s a waste of man-hours, time and money, having to do this over and over,” he said. “One day I hope people understand the power of water. … It don’t play.”

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)

Flooding expected to worsen in Carolinas after Florence’s departure

Emergency personnel and local media drive through flooded streets to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Florence, in Spring Lake, North Carolina, September 17, 2018. Spc. Austin T. Boucher/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

By Anna Mehler Paperny

KINSTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Flooding from rain-swollen rivers was expected to worsen across the Carolinas on Thursday and the next couple of days in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which killed 36 people in three states, forecasters said.

Twenty flood gauges showed some level of flooding in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, where some major waterways, well above their flood stages, were expected to rise through the weekend before they crest, the National Weather Service said.

“People in flood prone areas or near waterways need to remain alert as rivers crest and stay above their banks in coming days,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a written statement. “Stay alert and stay safe.”

Touring the area on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned South Carolina that “water is coming your way.”

“Now it looks nice but it’s really the calm before the storm,” he said.

Florence dumped up to 36 inches (91 cm) of rain on parts of North Carolina and many areas remained cut off by floodwaters and inundated roads. The slow-moving storm made landfall on Friday as a Category 1 hurricane.

In Lenoir County, North Carolina, where the rising Neuse River has flooded some roads, emergency medical workers have been running a “mobile disaster hospital,” which provides urgent care to residents cut off from the nearest hospital.

Tripp Winslow, medical director of North Carolina Emergency Medical Services, helped set up the mobile emergency room during a downpour on Saturday night. They have received 20 to 30 patients a day so far, he said, but expect to be busier as the river crests.

“Once we get isolated we expect to see more,” he said. “No pun intended, it’s a fluid situation.”

Members of the National Guard work on a long sand bag flood barrier being built by the South Carolina Department of Transportation on U.S. 501 to lesson damage to roads anticipated from floods caused by Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, in Conway, South Carolina, U.S. September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

Members of the National Guard work on a long sand bag flood barrier being built by the South Carolina Department of Transportation on U.S. 501 to lesson damage to roads anticipated from floods caused by Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, in Conway, South Carolina, U.S. September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill

MANY STILL WITHOUT POWER

At least 36 deaths have been attributed to the storm, including 27 in North Carolina, eight in South Carolina and one in Virginia.

Some 2,600 people had been rescued by boat or helicopter in North Carolina alone since the storm made landfall, and about 10,000 people remain in shelters, according to state officials.

More than 121,000 customers were without power across North Carolina, and more than 2.1 million customers across the southeast United States were affected by the storm, according to utilities.

Duke Energy Corp started to return its Brunswick nuclear power plant in North Carolina to service on Thursday. The company shut both reactors at the 1,870-megawatt facility before Florence hit the coast near the plant in Southport, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Wilmington.

One megawatt can power about 1,000 U.S. homes.

As floodwaters continue to rise, concerns are growing about the environmental and health dangers lurking in the water.

The flooding has caused 21 hog “lagoons,” which store manure from pig farms, to overflow, creating a risk that standing water will be contaminated, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. North Carolina is one of the leading hog-producing states in the country.

Several sewer systems in the region also have released untreated or partly treated sewage and storm water into waterways over the last week, local media reported.

Experts have said that climate change has increased the likelihood of more massive, sluggish storms like Florence, capable of dropping record amounts of rain and touching off catastrophic flooding.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Kinston, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Conway, South Carolina, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, and Scott DiSavino in New York; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Larry King and Bill Trott)

Trump pledges strong federal support for hurricane-stricken Carolinas

U.S. President Donald Trump greets people while distributing food after Hurricane Florence in New Bern North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Jeff Mason and Ernest Scheyder

HAVELOCK/WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday promised that North and South Carolina would have strong federal support as they recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Florence, whose floodwaters continue to threaten the region.

“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. “… There will be nothing left undone. You’ll have everything you need.”

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 and recapped the efforts to get food to residents and restore power.

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.

Supplies including bottled water are seen waiting to be loading into airplanes and be delivered to areas hit by Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, at the Raleigh Durham Airport in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Supplies including bottled water are seen waiting to be loading into airplanes and be delivered to areas hit by Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, at the Raleigh Durham Airport in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Keane

More than 15,000 people remain in shelters and more than 200,000 customers are without power across North Carolina because of Florence, which came ashore as a Category 1 hurricane, according to state officials.

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

“There is a strong potential that those who live within the 1-mile evacuation area of the Cape Fear River will be impacted by flooding,” the city said in a statement.

The city manager told CNN that 12,000 people are “in harm’s way.”

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.

A road is blocked by flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, in Kinston, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

A road is blocked by flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, in Kinston, North Carolina, U.S., September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

SWOLLEN RIVERS

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 has dumped up to 36 inches (91 cm) of rain in parts of North Carolina since Thursday.

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.

In the town of Fair Bluff, North Carolina, which has struggled to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, only about 50 residents remained on Tuesday, Fair Bluff Police Chief Chris Chafin told Reuters.

The town has largely been cut off by flooding from the still-rising Lumber River, which was expected to crest on Wednesday.

As Florence was bearing down on the Carolinas last week, Trump reignited the controversy over his handling of Maria by disputing the official death toll of 2,975 in the U.S. territory, which was compiled by public health experts at George Washington University. Trump said, without offering evidence, that Democrats had inflated the figure to make him look bad.

Maria also devastated the infrastructure of Puerto Rico, whose 3 million citizens are Americans but do not vote in presidential elections, and left much of the island without power for months. Critics said the Trump administration was slow to recognize the extent of the damage and slow to help.

Former basketball star Michael Jordan, a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets of the National Basketball Association, donated $2 million to the Florence recovery effort, the team said.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Patrick Rucker; 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; Anna Mehler Paperny in North Carolina and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott; Editing by David Stamp and Paul Simao)

North Carolina devastated as floodwaters rise from deadly storm Florence, 17 killed

People clean their house after the passing of Hurricane Florence in New Bern, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Ernest Scheyder and Anna Mehler Paperny

WILMINGTON/WILSON, N.C. (Reuters) – Deadly storm Florence drenched North Carolina with more downpours on Sunday, cutting off the coastal city of Wilmington, damaging tens of thousands of homes and threatening worse flooding as rivers fill to the bursting point.

The death toll rose to at least 17.

Florence, a onetime hurricane that weakened to a tropical depression by Sunday, dumped up to 40 inches (100 cm) of rain on parts of North Carolina since Thursday, and continued to produce widespread heavy rain over much of North Carolina and eastern South Carolina, the National Weather Service said.

“The storm has never been more dangerous than it is right now,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a news conference. Many rivers “are still rising, and are not expected to crest until later today or tomorrow.”

Some rivers were not expected to crest until Monday or Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

More than 900 people were rescued from rising floodwaters and 15,000 remained in shelters in the state, Cooper said.

Many of those rescues took place on swift boats in Wilmington, a historic coastal city of about 117,000 people on a peninsula between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Rescue crews negotiated downed trees and power lines to reach stranded residents, Mayor Bill Saffo told WHQR radio.

A partially submerged car is pictured on a flooded street after Hurricane Florence struck Piney Green, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A partially submerged car is pictured on a flooded street after Hurricane Florence struck Piney Green, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

“There are no roads … that are leading into Wilmington that are passable because of the flooding that is taking place now inland,” Saffo said.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the area until at least Monday morning and said up to 8 inches (20 cm) more rain could fall in some areas, creating an elevated risk for landslides in Western North Carolina.

Officials urged those who had evacuated to stay away.

“Our roads are flooded, there is no access into Wilmington,” New Hanover County Commission Chairman Woody White told a news conference. “We want you home, but you can’t come yet.”

In Leland, a low-lying city north of Wilmington, homes, and businesses were engulfed by water that rose up to 10 feet (3 meters) over Highway 17, submerging stop signs in what local people called unprecedented flooding.

The sheriff’s department and volunteers, including locals and some who came from Texas, rescued stranded residents by boat, extracting families, infants, the elderly and pets.

Gas stations were abandoned and fallen trees made many roads impassable. The whir of generators could be heard throughout the city, a sound not expected to dim soon as crews work to restore power.

In New Bern, a riverfront city near North Carolina’s coast, Bryan Moore and his nephew Logan did exactly what authorities warned against: they left their homes to go swimming in the floodwaters after having spent days at home without electricity or running water.

“We were stir-crazy from being inside so long,” Moore said. “Feels great. The water’s really cool. … We’re just having a good old time out here, enjoying the weather.”

Ember Kelly (C), 5 years old, runs with Iva Williamson (2nd L), 4 years old, to a boat brought up to the edge of flood waters on a street in their neighborhood, during their rescue from rising flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Ember Kelly (C), 5 years old, runs with Iva Williamson (2nd L), 4 years old, to a boat brought up to the edge of flood waters on a street in their neighborhood, during their rescue from rising flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Leland, North Carolina, U.S., September 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

More than 641,000 homes and businesses were without electricity in North and South Carolina and surrounding states, down from a peak of nearly 1 million.

Florence set a record in the state for rain from a hurricane, surpassing the previous record of 24 inches (61 cm) set by Hurricane Floyd, which killed 56 people in 1999, said Bryce Link, a meteorologist with private forecasting service DTN Marine Weather.

The storm killed at least 11 people in North Carolina, including a mother and child killed by a falling tree, state officials said. Six people died in South Carolina, including four in car accidents and two from carbon monoxide from a portable generator.

South Carolina’s governor urged anyone in a flood-prone area to evacuate.

“Those rivers in North Carolina that have received heavy rainfall are coming our way,” Governor Henry McMaster said during a news conference. “They have not even begun (to crest). But they will. And the question is how high will the water be, and we do not know.”

By Sunday night, Florence’s winds had dropped to about 30 miles per hour (45 kph), the National Hurricane Center said, with some weakening forecast over the next 24 hours before intensifying once again as an extratropical low-pressure center.The center of the storm was about 45 miles (70 km) north-northeast of Greenville and moving north at 10 mph (17 kph), the hurricane center said.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny and Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Miami; Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York and Makini Brice in Washington; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frances Kerry, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)

Hurricane Florence makes landfall, set to inundate Carolinas

Water from Neuse River floods houses as Hurricane Florence comes ashore in New Bern, North Carolina, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Hurricane Florence, weakened but still dangerous, crashed into the Carolinas on Friday as a giant, slow-moving storm that stranded residents with floodwaters and swamped part of the town of New Bern at the beginning of what could be a days-long deluge.

The center of the hurricane’s eye came ashore at about 7:15 a.m. EDT (1115 GMT) near Wrightsville Beach close to Wilmington, North Carolina, with sustained winds of 90 miles per hour (150 kph), the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

Flood waters are seen in Belhaven, North Carolina, U.S., September 14, 2018 in this still image from video obtained from social media. Courtesy of Ben Johnson/via REUTERS

Flood waters are seen in Belhaven, North Carolina, U.S., September 14, 2018 in this still image from video obtained from social media. Courtesy of Ben Johnson/via REUTERS

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said Florence was set to cover almost all of the state in several feet of water.

As of Friday morning, Atlantic Beach, a town on North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier island chain, already had received 30 inches (76 cm) of rain, the U.S. Geological Service said.

On the mainland in New Bern, authorities said more than 100 people had to be saved from floods and that the downtown area was underwater. The town’s public information officer, Colleen Roberts, told CNN 150 more people were awaiting rescue and that citizens were going out in their

boats to help, despite blowing waters and swift currents.

“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” New Bern city officials said on Twitter. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”

There were no immediate reports of storm-related deaths or serious injuries but more than 60 people, including many children and pets, had to be evacuated from a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, after strong winds caused parts of the roof to collapse, local officials said.

National Weather Service forecaster Brandon Locklear predicted Florence would drop up to eight months’ worth of rain in two or three days.

More than 440,000 homes and businesses were without power in North and South Carolina early on Friday, utility officials said. Utility companies said millions were expected to lose power and that restoring it could take weeks.

The roof of a house is seen affected by winds from Hurricane Florence as it hits the town of Wilson, North Carolina, U.S., September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The roof of a house is seen affected by winds from Hurricane Florence as it hits the town of Wilson, North Carolina, U.S., September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Florence had been a Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph winds on Thursday but dropped to Category 1 before coming ashore. But forecasters said its extreme size meant it could batter the U.S. East Coast with hurricane-force winds for nearly a full day.

It is expected to move across parts of southeastern North Carolina and eastern South Carolina on Friday and Saturday, then head north over the western Carolinas and central Appalachian Mountains early next week, the NHC said. Significant weakening is expected over the weekend.

About 10 million people could be affected by the storm and more than 1 million were ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia.

Almost 20,000 people had taken refuge in 157 emergency shelters, Cooper said.

Emergency declarations were in force in Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Still, some residents ignored calls to evacuate.

“I had a lot of fear initially but I’m glad to be inside and safe,” said Zelda Allen, 74, a retired tax accountant from Hampstead, North Carolina, who was riding out the storm at Wilmington’s Hotel Ballast with her husband.

“I’m worried about what I might find when I go home, though,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)

North Carolina feels first bite of mammoth Hurricane Florence

A man walks his dogs before Hurricane Florence comes ashore on Carolina Beach, North Carolina, U.S., September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Coastal North Carolina felt the first bite of Hurricane Florence on Thursday as winds began to rise, a prelude to the slow-moving tempest that forecasters warned would cause catastrophic flooding across a wide swath of the U.S. southeast.

The center of Florence, no longer classified as a major hurricane but still posing a grave threat to life and property, is expected to hit North Carolina’s southern coast Friday, then drift southwest before moving inland on Saturday, enough time to drop feet of rain, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Businesses and homes in the storm’s path were boarded up and thousands of people had moved to emergency shelters, officials said, urging anyone who remained near the coast to flee. Millions were expected to lose power, perhaps for weeks.

“There is still time to leave,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told “CBS This Morning” on Thursday. “This is an extremely dangerous situation.”

Florence’s maximum sustained winds were clocked on Thursday at 110 miles per hour (175 kph) after it was downgraded to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the NHC. The storm was about 170 miles (275 km) east of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 miles per hour (63 kph) extended outward up to 195 miles (315 km) from its center and were due to begin raking North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands around 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) before stretching over low-lying areas reaching from Georgia north into Virginia.

The rain posed a greater danger, forecasters warned, with some spots getting as much as 40 inches (1 m) of precipitation, enough to cause devastating flash floods miles from the coast.

In all, an estimated 10 million people live in areas expected to be placed under a hurricane or storm advisory, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. More than one million people had been ordered to evacuate the coastlines of the Carolinas and Virginia.

Besides inundating the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 13 feet (four meters) along the Carolina coast, Florence could dump 20 to 30 inches (51-76 cm) of rain over much of the region.

If it stalls over land, downpours and flooding would be especially severe. Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachians, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.

 

TEST FOR TRUMP

The storm will be a test of President Donald Trump’s administration less than two months before elections that will determine control of Congress. After facing severe criticism for its handling of last year’s Hurricane Maria, which killed some 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, Trump has vowed a vigorous response.

“We are completely ready for hurricane Florence, as the storm gets even larger and more powerful. Be careful!” Trump said on Twitter.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of disaster response, has come under investigation over his use of government vehicles, Politico reported on Thursday.

Emergency declarations were in force in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Emergency preparations included activating more than 2,700 National Guard troops, stockpiling food, setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so major roads led away from shore, and securing 16 nuclear power reactors in the Carolinas and Virginia.

Some in Wilmington could not resist getting one last look at their downtown before the storm hit.

“We just thought we’d go out while we still can,” said Amy Baxter, on a walk near the city’s waterfront with her husband, two sons, and dog.

Baxter, a 46-year-old homemaker, and her family plan to ride out Florence at home with board games and playing cards.

“We live in a house that’s more than 100 years old,” Baxter said. “We feel pretty safe.”

(For graphic on forecast rainfall in inches from Hurricane Florence, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZFKSb)

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Scott Malone)

Carolina coast battening down, boarding up as hurricane nears

Caitie Sweeney of Myrtle Beach texts her family while visiting the beach ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. REUTERS/Randall Hill

By Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Beach communities in North and South Carolina emptied out on Wednesday as Hurricane Florence threatened to unleash pounding surf and potentially deadly flooding as the most powerful storm to make a direct hit on the southeastern states in decades.

Florence had maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) and was on a trajectory that showed its center most likely to strike the southern coast of North Carolina by Friday, the National Hurricane Center said.

Updated NHC forecasts showed the storm lingering near the coast, bringing days of heavy rains that could bring intense inland flooding from South Carolina, where some areas could see as much as 40 inches (1m) of rain, to Virginia.

Florence is rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) invoked a former boxing champion to warn residents that it would bring “a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.”

“The time to prepare is almost over,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper at a Wednesday morning news conference. “Disaster is at the doorstep and it’s coming in.”

More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate the coastline of the three states, while university campuses, schools and factories were being shuttered.

The NHC said the first tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 miles per hour (63 kph) would hit the region early on Thursday with the storm’s center reaching the coast Friday. At 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Wednesday the storm was located about 530 miles (855 km) southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina.

The storm surge, or wind-driven seawater, poses a huge danger, FEMA Administrator Brock Long warned on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

“People do not live and survive to tell the tale about what their experience is like with storm surge,” he said. “It’s the most deadly part of the hurricane that comes in.”

FEMA FUNDS MOVED

MSNBC reported the Trump administration had diverted nearly $10 billion from FEMA to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which leads border enforcement. But that has not affected the response to Florence, Byard told a news conference.

He said there was “well over $20 billion” in FEMA’s disaster relief fund.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter warned of the storm’s dangers and praised his administration’s handling of past hurricanes, rejecting criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico. Some 3,000 people died in the aftermath of that storm.

“Hurricane Florence is looking even bigger than anticipated,” Trump said. “We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!”

State and federal officials have frequently urged residents in the target zone to evacuate but there was resistance along the coast.

“I’m not approaching Florence from fear or panic,” said Brad Corpening, 35, who planned to ride out the storm in his boarded-up delicatessen in Wilmington. “It’s going to happen. We just need to figure out how to make it through.”

The last hurricane rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson to plow directly into North Carolina was Hazel in 1954, a devastating storm that killed 19 people.

Emergency preparations in the area included setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so that all major roads led away from shore and getting 16 nuclear reactors ready in the three-state region for the storm.

(For graphic on Hurricane Florence heads toward Carolinas, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZ5m1v)

(For graphic on forecast rainfall in inches from Hurricane Florence, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2oZFKSb)

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)