5 Years Later: Emergency management leader, chief meteorologist reflect on Florence’s impact

Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 11:31 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Hurricane Florence hit the Grand Strand and Pee Dee five years ago resulting in catastrophic flooding.

Before it even rolled off the coast of Africa as a cluster of storms, what would soon be Hurricane Florence had the looks of a system that would mean trouble.

That cluster of thunderstorms was classified as a tropical depression on Thursday, Aug. 30. By Tuesday, Sept. 4, it was a hurricane.

By the next day, Florence became a major hurricane with 115 mph winds.

The weekend of Sept. 8 was critical in the life cycle of the storm.

Would it head harmlessly out to sea, or miss the exit and continue on a course for the U.S.?

By the end of the weekend, the answer was becoming clear. Florence fluctuated in intensity for a few days before an ominous strengthening trend began on Monday, Sept 10. By this time, it was becoming apparent that the Carolinas would have to deal with the hurricane.

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, Florence’s winds reached 140 mph and hurricane watches were issued for the Carolina coast.

Over the next several days, the preparations kicked into high gear. For the first time since its implementation, all three evacuation zones were ordered to leave and lane reversals were put into place. The Grand Strand was a ghost town.

As the week wore on and preparations continued, the forecast became even more complicated. It appeared that Florence would deliver a bit less wind, but a lot more rain as the newest forecasts showed the storm stalling near the coast.

At 7:35 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach with 90 mph winds. As the storm was making landfall in North Carolina, the rain was just starting in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee.

That rain would not stop for another three days.

Florence weakened to a tropical storm early on Saturday, Sept. 15, as it entered South Carolina. It took a full 24 hours for the center to move across Horry County. All the while, the rain still fell and flash flooding started to develop.

Band after band of rain moved through the region and rain totals were already near 10 inches in some areas. Sunday, Sept. 15, was a disaster. While Florence continued to weaken, the rain would not stop. Band after band of torrential rain moved across the area through the day and severe flash flooding developed. To make matters worse, the bands were also bringing tornadoes.

The rain finally ended on Monday, Sept. 16, and the totals were staggering. Loris had 24 inches, Marion received 20 inches, and Dillon, Bennettsville and Lumberton each got 18.

Some areas in southern North Carolina picked up 35 inches. The next two weeks brought river levels and heartache like this area had never seen. One by one, homes, neighborhoods and towns were engulfed by water.

On the Lumber River, the rising waters closed a 33-mile stretch of Interstate 95. The Lumber River is estimated to have crested near 25.4 feet, over one foot higher than the Hurricane Matthew crest just two years before.

Robeson County Emergency Management reported over 500 structures were damaged by the storm. Thousands of sandbags stacked to protect the south and west sides of Lumberton were not enough to hold back the floodwaters.

Two million gallons of sewage spilled into Lumberton and the town of St. Pauls. Over 75% of customers lost power across Robeson County. Two people died due to Florence. The flooding then spread southward.

In Marlboro County, hundreds were evacuated. In the town of Nichols, 150 homes rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Matthew were damaged again. Flooding was described by residents as much worse than during Matthew. Flooding on the Great Pee Dee River shut down a portion of the city of Florence’s municipal water system on Sept. 24.

By Sept. 17, 100 people had been rescued from flooded homes and cars in the town of Loris.

The Waccamaw River at Conway crested at a record-breaking 22.1 feet, breaking its Matthew crest by four feet.

Nearly 1,000 homes and businesses near the river were flooded, many severely. Homes in the Polo Farms neighborhood off S.C. 905 were flooded five feet deep.

Aberdeen Country Club in Longs and the Bradford Creek neighborhood off S.C. 544 also flooded with up to three feet of water entering homes.

On Sept. 26, raw sewage flowed from the Conway wastewater treatment plant into a tributary that feeds into the Waccamaw River. The community of Dongola in western Horry County was isolated for 10 days. The flood wave continued to create devastation as it moved downstream through the towns of Bucksport and Socastee.