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Tropical Storm Florence: As 50 feet of water approaches, North Carolina city orders evacuations

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Tropical Storm Florence: As 50 feet of water approaches, North Carolina city orders evacuations

FAYETTEVILLE – The mayor of this eastern North Carolina city had a stark warning Saturday for residents in the path of potential unprecedented flooding from Tropical Storm Florence: Leave.

Mayor Mitch Colvin told people living within a mile of the region’s main river, the Cape Fear, or the nearby Little River, that they had until 3 p.m. Sunday to get out.

“If you are refusing to leave during this mandatory evacuation, you need to do things like notify your legal next of kin because the loss of life is very, very possible,” Colvin said.

The mayor and other city and Cumberland County officials spoke at an afternoon press conference urging people to take seriously the storm that has been downgraded from a major hurricane but that because of its slow movement and massive amounts of rain was expected to cause more flooding than has been seen in at least a lifetime.

The warning came just days after residents of other eastern communities choosing to forgo evacuation found themselves in dire situations. There were five deaths reported, including a mother and her infant killed by a tree falling on a house in Wilmington. In New Bern swift water boat teams rescued nearly 500 people who decided to wait out Florence, some scrambling into their upper floors, attics and even roofs to escape shockingly fast floodwaters.

Rain on a historic scale

The expected 20-plus inches of rain over five days forecast by the National Weather Service means Fayetteville and the surrounding area will likely experience two 500-year floods within two years.

Until earlier Saturday, officials had only encouraged residents to evacuate.

But with the memory of deadly Hurricane Matthew still fresh from two years ago and with Florence continuing to dump rain in the eastern part of the state, the call was made Saturday afternoon to issue the mandatory order. 

At least 2,800 households are thought to be within the evacuation zone. Fayetteville is the sixth-largest city in the state with 205,000 peopel. There are another 119,000 living in smaller towns and unincorporated areas in the county. 

MORE:Live updates from WNC on Saturday

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Florence could be worse than Matthew

What Fayetteville is facing with Florence is potentially worse than two years ago with Matthew, when at least four people died as a result of flash flooding.

This time, the biggest danger isn’t flash floods. Instead the main threat will actually come when the rain stops, officials said, and the water drains from the region into the rivers. 

The Cape Fear was at 12.15 feet at 5 p.m. Friday, according to the National Weather Service. Flood level is 35 feet. During Matthew, the river reached 58 feet. By Tuesday, officials are expecting more than 62 feet for the river that runs through the city.

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While the storm didn’t make as violent an appearance as first expected, it was still very dangerous, officials said, as floodwaters from other areas poured into the rivers upstream.

“All persons who refuse or fail to comply with this mandatory evacuation order shall do so at their own risk,” the official announcement said, adding that emergency responders and other rescue personnel many not come to save them after the evacuation deadline passes.

Complicating the move for residents were power outages and road closures. As of Saturday afternoon, more than 21,653 customers were without electricity and many streetlights were not working.

A portion of the region’s major highway, Interstate 95 was shut down from exit 65 to exit 81. Alternate routes were posted.

Cooper warns of threats from flooding

Earlier Saturday, Gov. Roy Cooper warned of imminent threats posed by floods across the state.

He urged North Carolinians to beware of rising floodwaters in eastern and central counties across the Sandhills and in the mountains.

A statement issued Saturday afternoon by the governor’s office said twice as many roads were closed Saturday as on Friday.

“The flood danger from this storm is more immediate today than when it made landfall just over 24 hours ago,” Cooper said. “More people now face imminent threat than when the storm was offshore. I cannot overstate it: Flood waters are rising. If you aren’t watching for them, you are risking your life.”

More Tropical Storm Florence coverage:

Tropical Storm Florence: Live updates Saturday as storm moves to Western North Carolina

Photos: Hurricane Florence hits coast with heavy rain, storm surge

Latest: Sunday will be ‘main event’ for storm in Western North Carolina

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