Tuesday, May 24, 2022

As successful return stories circulate, NCDOT says no safe stable routes, no timeline for reentry

As rumors swirl and recently-returned evacuees share successful routes on social media, the NCDOT continues to ask evacuees to stay away from Wilmington.

Flooded water from the Waccamaw River makes its way through southern Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Flooded water from the Waccamaw River makes its way through southern Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

WILMINGTON — A week after Hurricane Florence made landfall, highways in southeastern North Carolina remain vulnerable to washouts and flooding as many rivers and creeks continue to rise, according to the NCDOT. Officials still have no timeline for when evacuees can return — only an admonishment to stay away from Wilmington.

NCDOT Director of Communications Nicole Meister on Friday advised evacuees to keep the roads clear for emergency responders and supply crews, amid reports on social media and word-of-mouth that Wilmington residents have been finding successful alternative routes into the city. She also said that safety was still a major concern for drivers trying to make their way back to coastal cities, as roads that weren’t previously flooded are now washing out.

“We do not have a safe, stable route that we would recommend to anybody at this point because we continue to have flooding as the Cape Fear, Neuse and Lumber rivers all crest or even crest for a second time,” Meister said.

On a popular alternative route — U.S. 421 from Jacksonville to Wilmington — a traffic jam 16 miles long was reported Wednesday night, causing delays for first responders and NCDOT crews who were stuck in the traffic, according to NCDOT spokesman Steve Abbott.

Highway 421 at the Pender/New Hanover border on Friday morning. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Dan George)
Highway 421 at the Pender/New Hanover border on Friday morning. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy John Justice)

U.S. 421 then flooded overnight Wednesday into Thursday, and remains underwater Friday morning.

NCDOT stated that allowing returning evacuees onto the limited roadway access back into Wilmington could hamper post-storm recovery efforts.

“We realize people are antsy and want to get back, but if there’s only one road that has actual access, we need to make the priority for that road the first responders, DOT crews, supplies and gas trucks. If there’s a giant traffic jam, it’s going to take longer to get those crews and supplies into the city,” Abbott said.

Meister further emphasized that although there may be safe routes around the flood zones, such as U.S. 17 from Jacksonville to Wilmington, it is crucial to keep these alternative routes clear for emergency crews and supplies for the city. She also noted that this route could be prone to flooding over the weekend.

“It’s hard for people to grasp that rivers are still rising a week after (Florence),” Meister said. “And they’re not even going to crest until this weekend. And then the flooding doesn’t immediately go away — it takes time for (the flood water) to go down. And then we have to make sure the roads are safe, that there’s no damage to the roads.”

“The last thing we want is for people to drive on alternative routes,” Meister said. “It goes back to the safety of the people.”

For a real-time analysis of flood zones and where rivers are cresting, use the Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network (FIMAN), a NCDOT resource for emergency management personnel. You can also refer to DriveNC.com, which shows road closures by county, route number and region real-time on a 24-hour cycle.


Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com.

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