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Hurricane Michael forces waterlogged Carolinas to brace for another hit

"We need a good shower and rain to wash this funk away, but we don't need no 10 inches!" the mayor of one North Carolina community said.
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It's been nearly a month since the remnants of Hurricane Florence swamped the Waccamaw River where it cuts through Conway, South Carolina, and forced April O'Leary and her family to seek temporary housing in nearby Myrtle Beach.

Yet when O'Leary recently drove through her once-pristine neighborhood, she was bombarded by heaps of debris — mattresses and cabinets, couches and toilets, wood paneling and carpeting — littering the front lawns of homes now uninhabitable. The sight of garbage waiting to be hauled away has become repetitive misery in Conway.

"It's disorienting," O'Leary told NBC News on Tuesday. "It's kind of hard to describe whose house is whose. And it's sickening to see livelihoods piled up in front of properties."

But while the cleanup from Florence remains a slog for O'Leary and many others, the focus has been temporarily shifted to the next storm on the horizon: Hurricane Michael, a fast-moving Category 4 that is on track to slam Florida's northeast Gulf Coast before mowing across the Carolinas by Thursday, forecasters said.

While Michael might only drop 3 to 5 inches of rain in parts of North and South Carolina, including Conway — far less than the record Florence rainfall of 30 inches or more in some areas — communities along riverbanks are bracing for more water and 35- to 55-mph wind gusts.

"This one, if it comes and goes within 24 hours, we can breathe a sigh of relief," said Conway City Administrator Adam Emrick, lamenting how Florence hounded the region for about 3-1/2 days.

But with the Waccamaw still at above 11 feet, considered a moderate flood stage, any amount of water will only exacerbate the problem, he warned.

"There's the potential for isolated flash-flooding events — which sucks, but it is what it is," Emrick said.

O'Leary said that she and her husband, Patrick, an airport deputy fire chief, sat down with their two children, ages 11 and 7, to let them know another hurricane is expected to pass over.

"With everything they've already been through, we had to assure them it's not something they have to worry about — at least not like Florence," she said.

While flooding from Florence brought only 3 to 5 inches of water into the O'Leary family's home, it was enough to require the structure be gutted and renovated before they can return. The O'Learys bought the home four years ago after they were told it had never previously flooded, even after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 caused the Waccamaw to crest at nearly 18 feet near Conway. Florence caused the river to crest at more than 21 feet on Sept. 26.

More than 300 homes in Conway, a city of about 22,000 people, saw some damage. But in one subdivision called Pecan Grove, about 30 homes were flooded out and residents have yet to return, Emrick said.

By the time Michael rakes the Carolinas, it may no longer be a hurricane, said Steve Pfaff, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Image: South Carolina Flooding Continues Over A Week After Florence Made Landfall
A woman walks through floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence near the Waccamaw River on Sept. 23, 2018 in Conway, South Carolina.Sean Rayford / Getty Images

But heavy rainfall and gusting winds will be problematic for homes and businesses that suffered roof damage during Florence, which also led to the deaths of dozens of people across the Carolinas and one tornado-related death in Virginia. In addition, grounds still saturated by the last storm could make trees more susceptible to toppling over. There also remains the threat of tornadoes and rip currents along the coast.

"There's still a lot of people hurting, and we don't need this," Pfaff said.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday warned that while Hurricane Michael is not expected to be as devastating as Florence, North Carolinians still need to be prepared. The storm is expected to bring tropical-storm-force winds to the state, he said.

"I know people are fatigued from Florence. But don’t let this storm catch you with your guard down," Cooper said.

Winds will be powerful enough that tarps covering roofs in homes damaged by Florence could be ripped off, he said. Residents were urged to stock up on water, food, flashlights and extra batteries and other emergency supplies in case power is lost.

"It absolutely is a concern for me, as my house is still tarped," said Shane Fernando, 38, who lives near downtown Wilmington where trees toppled by Florence blocked roads and fell into houses — including his. "Of course that makes me anxious."

Fernando worried that Hurricane Michael, or its remnants, could cause new damage just as he's dried residual moisture from his home. "This is ironic, but we just finished the drying phase. We gutted the rooms that were affected and had industrial dehumidifiers to dry it out," he said.

Pender County, North Carolina, which suffered severe effects from Florence, declared a state of emergency on Tuesday in advance of Hurricane Michael, NBC affiliate WECT of Wilmington reported.

Billy Hammond, the mayor of Fair Bluff, North Carolina, located inland along the Lumber River, said his town is still reeling from Matthew and now Florence. Forecasters, he said, told him the area could get anywhere from 3 to up to 10 inches of rain from Michael.

"We need a good shower and rain to wash this funk away," Hammond said, "but we don't need no 10 inches."

Fair Bluff, where about 21 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty level, has seen its population plummet from about 1,000 residents to just over 350 because of the extensive damage to homes since Matthew, Hammond said. Many people never came back.

Florence, if anything, only reinforced the impression of a "ghost town," Hammond said.

"The river's still full here, so all we can do is watch and hope for the best," he added.