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By Thomas Goldsmith, North Carolina Health News
Flooded state roads caused by Hurricane Florence meant that Wilmington was cut off from land routes Sunday, leaving the port city of 120,000 on the brink of closing its water plant because of waning fuel supplies.
“We are having a lot of road access issues into and out of the county,” said New Hanover County communications and outreach coordinator Jessica Loeper on Sunday. “It has created some issues with us in terms of getting the provisions that we have expected.”
Jim Trogdon, state transportation director, detailed Wilmington’s problem at a press conference Sunday at the NC Emergency Management Center in Raleigh.
“We … had a closure on U.S. 74 in Columbus County,” Trogdon said. “That’s presented us with a challenge of … right now we don’t have a land access to Wilmington.”
According to University of North Carolina system President Margaret Spellings, students who had evacuated from UNC Wilmington were unable to return to campus due to the closed roads.
New Hanover County officials initially said the water utility plant was running out of fuel because of the road closings, potentially affecting health and public safety.
Loeper said the county is using workarounds or routes on smaller backroads as alternatives to flooded main arteries.
Wilmington residents were “absolutely” worried about their isolation because of flooded roads, Loeper said. But the preparations many had made for Hurricane Florence were helping.
“We’re having some calls about this, but I think most of our residents were prepared not to have water and not to have power for several days,” she said.
State officials were working Sunday with the federal defense department and the North Carolina National Guard to allow first responders to reach Wilmington with high-water vehicles, Trogdon said.
In a morning news release, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority had said fire service, drinking water and other functions could be interrupted if the agency didn’t get the fuel it needed within 48 hours.
‘No immediate threat’
But by early afternoon Sunday, the utility offered a more reassuring picture.
“The New Hanover Emergency Operations Center has identified a source of fuel for the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority,” a news update from the agency said. “We are working to supply our equipment and generators quickly. There is no immediate threat to water service disruption.”
State officials said efforts are also underway to reach Wilmington through its access to the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.
“We’re … working other contingencies to support Wilmington on the ocean side,” Trogdon said.
Officials in New Hanover County have dedicated employees to emergency-related duties and have closed most county offices. District courts in New Hanover and Pender counties will be closed Monday and Tuesday.
Hospitals and other health-care providers had emergency plans in place and were not reporting problems Sunday, Loeper said.
Rose Hoban of North Carolina Health News contributed reporting to this story.