KINSTON, N.C. — On Saturday evening, as the Neuse River continued to swell above flood stage and inch closer to the family’s business, Rhoda Rikard stood in the rain and spray-painted a piece of plywood that covered one of the store’s front windows.
The words, in white paint, were the ones this community of about 20,000 people rallied around in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which brought devastating flooding to the area less than two years ago: “Kinston Strong!”
“Every time something big like this pops off, everybody kind of comes together,” Rhoda’s husband, Kendall, said.
For the past two days, the Rikards had worked to prepare the family flooring business for the flooding unleashed by Hurricane Florence. They stacked wood flooring, rolls of carpet and even their forklift on top of cinder blocks, keeping them several feet off the warehouse floor. Dozens of people from the community called to offer help, Kendall said.
During Hurricane Matthew, in October 2016, the store was inundated with about three feet of water. The Rikards took a big hit, but they recovered. They remodeled the showroom, which now includes a blue chair rail around the perimeter where the flood-damaged drywall had to be torn out.
The family didn’t think they would be going through this again so soon. But they’ve accepted what will likely take place over the next few days. And they’re anxious for it to pass so they can rebuild, once again, and move on with their lives.
“Luckily, we got the hookup on flooring,” Kendall said with a laugh.
After making landfall Friday morning near Wilmington, Florence stalled over the Carolinas. As of late Sunday afternoon, the storm ― downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical depression ― had caused the deaths of at least 15 people, The Associated Press reported, and dropped more than two feet of rain in places. Rain continues to fall across much of the region, causing devastating flooding. The Neuse River, which runs right through Kinston on its way to Pamlico Sound, is forecast to crest on Wednesday at between 11 and 14 feet above flood stage. The worst flooding “is yet to come” for parts of North and South Carolina, the National Weather Service said Saturday night.
Jeano’s Beauty & Barber was among a handful of Kinston businesses still open Saturday. Jeano Farlow, the owner, said he doubts this type of flooding is something anyone can get used to. But after two big events in as many years, he wonders if it’s the “new norm.”
“It looks like it’s going to be something you can always look forward to,” he said.
Authorities closed the highway Saturday between Kinston and New Bern, located at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers, because of the flooding. New Bern is one of the towns hit hardest by Florence thus far.
Junior Lor, 32, gazed out over the fast-moving Neuse on Saturday from just outside his hotel room in Kinston. He could have easily thrown a rock into the water. The New Bern resident came here several days earlier with his wife and two children, as Florence neared the Carolina coast.
The water was low when Lor checked into the hotel on Wednesday, but rose rapidly on Friday and Saturday. Now he wondered whether he should evacuate again.
Lor still hadn’t heard whether his home in New Bern had been damaged. He was unable to reach neighbors, and said power outages had probably kept them from charging their phones.
The storm surge in Pamlico Sound left downtown New Bern underwater. Hundreds of residents had to be rescued from the floodwaters. On Saturday, heavy rain triggered a mandatory evacuation in Fayetteville, southwest of Raleigh. Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin said people refusing to leave should “notify your legal next of kin because the loss of life is very, very possible.”
“Please, be serious about it,” he said in a news conference. “The worst is yet to come. Now go to the hills, because as soon as the floods will increase, you will be hard to get to save.”
The hotel this reporter checked into late Saturday in Kinston informed customers that they were doing so at their own discretion, as several routes leading out of town already were or could soon be blocked by floodwaters. A sign on the front desk warned that a mandatory evacuation was likely in the coming days.
This story has been updated with the latest death toll.