Tuesday, May 24, 2022

NCDOT warns evacuees not to take ‘so-called routes’ back to Wilmington area

NCDOT officials say they know evacuees are going 'stir-crazy,' but urge them to stay put a little longer.

A truck drives through a flooded section of River Road near the Cape Fear River south of Wilmington, Saturday, September 15, 2018. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)
A truck drives through a flooded section of River Road near the Cape Fear River south of Wilmington in the wake of Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Due to flooding on roads across southeastern North Carolina as rivers and creeks in the region continue to rise, major highway closures continue to cut Wilmington off from supplies and residents who had evacuated further inland before Hurricane Florence made landfall.

According to DriveNC.com, which shows road closures by county, route number and region real-time on a 24-hour cycle, a roughly 30-mile stretch of I-40 between Castle Hayne and Wallace remained closed due to flooding as of Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. It also showed a significant closure on U.S. 76 west of Wilmington near Lake Waccammaw, as well as a roughly 50-mile stretch of I-95 between Lumberton and Fayetteville.

North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) spokesman Steve Abbott warned those who had evacuated to places like Raleigh and Charlotte to stay off the roads and leave them open to hundreds of first responders, repair crews, and power company trucks that are currently heading to New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties.

“It’s just too dangerous out there, we’re not recommending any route that we can’t guarantee the safety for the drivers,” Abbott said, referring to an expression that has become popular after the hurricane: “Turn around, don’t drown.” He also warned that residents who do make it back to their homes will only add pressure to local governments dealing with recovery efforts.

“People may be going back to a house with no power, that’s damaged, they don’t have water, and what do they do? Then they have to go to local officials for help and those officials are already impacted with people who are down there,” Abbott said.

For those trying to use alternative routes, Abbott said the conditions on any road can change drastically within a short time frame.

‘Back to a normal life’

A quick check of social media will let you know, Wilmington residents are definitely finding their way home.

Wilmington resident Mandy Burke left Raleigh Tuesday afternoon and returned safely to Wilmington within three-and-a-half hours, driving south on I-40 to N.C. 42 and west to U.S. 421, then all the way southeast into Wilmington.

“We got lucky with traffic but I think the word’s out (about the route). There was no flooding, no issues going through … a lot of people have had success with it,” Burke said.

But despite these “success” stories, the NCDOT is still telling evacuees to stay where they are and not try to return home.

“Someone who left three hours later may run into closed roads and floodwaters,” Abbott said. “And if (the road) becomes closed off behind them, then you have someone who now has to be rescued … One of the so-called routes you can use — U.S. 70 near the Kinston area — we’re anticipating that to be flooded and closed Friday or Saturday when the Neuse River rises.”

“A route that works today may not be viable tomorrow,” Abbott said.

Abbott said that most of the hurricane’s rising fatalities have occurred after the storm, citing a vehicle last week that tried to drive around a barricade and was swept away, killing a child.

“For people who do venture out and come across a barricade, even if it looks like the road on the other side of that barricade is in fine shape, do not go around the barricade,” Abbott said. “There are a lot of cases where the roadway is there, but the ground underneath is gone. As soon as they drive on it, they’re collapsing into some sort of hole.” 

Abbot said that the NCDOT will not know the status of the flooded highways and roads until the water recedes and they are able to assess the damages. As for the growing sentiment among evacuees to return home, he urged them to stay put.

“We realize people are going stir crazy, and the weather’s nice in most of the state. People want to get home and check their properties on the shore — they want to get back to a normal life, I realize that – but it’s not going to be a normal life in those communities that still don’t have power, still don’t have water,” Abbot said.

According to DriveNC.gov, as of 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, the following sections of roads and highways remained closed:

  • A roughly 30-mile stretch of I-40 between Castle Hayne and Wallace;
  • A significant closure on U.S. 76 west of Wilmington near Lake Waccammaw
  • A roughly 50-mile stretch of I-95 between Lumberton and Fayetteville;
  • A roughly 20-mile stretch of I-95 between Godwin and Benson;
  • A roughly 15-mile stretch of N.C. 24 between Beulaville and Kenansville.

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