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Florence’s ‘one-two punch’

Relief groups and churches in North Carolina prepare for a second round of flooding from Florence

Florence’s ‘one-two punch’

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Sunday morning in New Bern, N.C., residents in one of the towns hardest hit by the effects of Hurricane Florence surveyed the massive storm’s damage and contemplated the possibility of more flooding this week, as rivers in coastal regions continue to rise.

“It’s been a pretty catastrophic storm,” said Pastor Jim Pennington of Temple Baptist Church in New Bern. “And the thing is—it’s going to be a one-two punch.”

The first punch came with the storm dumping record-breaking amounts of rain in the eastern part of North Carolina over the weekend, swamping some coastal communities with severe flooding and leaving at least 31 people dead in the Carolinas and one dead in Virginia, according to a Monday count.

The second punch could come later this week, as rivers still rising from the massive rainfalls could spill over into towns already reeling from the initial effects of the storm. In New Bern, relief groups had already arrived, but some weren’t beginning full-scale recovery efforts until after they believe the flooding is over.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Volunteers from the Civilian Crisis Response Team rescue a family from their flooded home. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In Wilmington, N.C., many roads were flooding on Sunday, cutting off primary access routes to the coastal city. In New Bern, Pastor Pennington was telling relief workers if they wanted to get ahead of the next round of potential flooding, “They needed to leave yesterday.”

Earlier on Sunday morning, Pennington greeted about 100 parishioners who had stayed in town through the storm that ravaged large swaths of North Carolina over the weekend. He opened his Bible to Mark 4 and read the account of the disciples panicking when their boat filled with water during a storm at sea. They cried out to Jesus—who was asleep on the boat—and asked Him: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

Pennington reminded churchgoers how Jesus responded: He calmed the waves and stopped the storm. The pastor told the small gathering that Jesus would help them too, whatever the days ahead hold.

Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP

A New Bern resident looks at flood debris and storm damage from Hurricane Florence. (Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP)

After the morning service, some congregants joined volunteers from the North Carolina Baptist Men’s organization to assess initial damage to homes in the community. Temple Baptist Church (which usually has about 1,200 in attendance on Sundays) is serving as a headquarters for the relief arm of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. 

Pennington said the church was already housing about 100 relief workers, and he expected the number to grow. The Baptist relief organization is prepared to serve thousands of meals a day, if needed, and to assist with cleanup and recovery. 

Pennington said help was pouring in from all over the country as well. When we spoke on Sunday afternoon, he had just come from the church’s fellowship hall, where he met police officers from New York City and Oakland, Calif., who were experts in swift water rescues.

Chris Seward/AP

Members of a swift water rescue team check a flooded street in New Bern. (Chris Seward/AP)

The pastor already had some experience with swift waters himself: On Friday, Pennington grabbed his kayak and headed toward the flooded parts of New Bern, where some residents were climbing to second floors to escape rising waters. Pennington said he joined another man with a flat-bottom boat and helped rescue dozens of people over the course of the day.

North Carolina officials said rescuers had plucked more than 1,000 people out of rising waters over the course of the weekend. The federal government has declared the state a major disaster zone, and state officials expect federal funds to help with damage and recovery for eight coastal counties.

Steve Helber/AP

Flooded homes along the Neuse River in New Bern. (Steve Helber/AP)

As rain finally dwindled on Sunday afternoon, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned residents the danger was still high, and he urged evacuees from the hardest-hit communities to stay away until the flooding was over. New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw told Meet the Press he was concerned the town of 30,000 would face more flooding this week.

Whatever happens, Pennington said church volunteers from across the region stand ready to help residents recover. Several members of his own congregation had already lost their homes, and some had lost businesses. “They’re sorrowful,” said the pastor. “But their faith is strong.”

—This story has been updated to reflect the known death toll as of Monday.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.