'They're still under water': 2 mental health patients die in South Carolina flooding

The death toll from Hurricane Florence has climbed to at least 37, including two mental health patients who drowned when a sheriff's van was swept away by rising South Carolina floodwaters, and North Carolina's governor pleaded Wednesday with thousands of evacuees not to return home just yet.

Horry County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Brooke Holden said that a sheriff's office van was carrying two "detainees" and two deputies to Darlington when it was overtaken by floodwaters. Officials said that the van was near the Little Pee Dee River, one of the bodies of water that state officials are watching following the heavy rains of Florence.

Marion County coroner Jerry Richardson confirmed to The Associated Press early Wednesday the victims were Windy Wenton, 45, and Nicolette Green, 43.

"They're still under the water," he said. "It's come up two feet since just last night."

Richardson said the van came across rising water and was carried off the road.

"They were trying to negotiate through fast-running water, and it just didn't work out," he told AP.

Holden said that deputies tried to get the victims out but couldn't. Rescue teams plucked the deputies from the top of the van.

Justin Bamberg, a state lawmaker and lawyer who has represented the families of several people injured or killed by law enforcement officers, said Wednesday he's perplexed by the decision to transport anyone in such uncertain weather conditions.

Passersby look at a section of washed-out road damaged by Florence in Currie, N.C. The governor said statewide more than 1,100 roads were closed. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

"If that road is in an area where it is a flood risk, and waters were rising, why were they driving on that road anyway?" he said. "People need to know exactly how it happened. It makes it seem like someone took a very unnecessary risk in creating the problem in the first place."

In a release on Tuesday night, Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson said his office would co-operate with the probe.

"Just like you, we have questions we want answered," said Thompson.

'We will be there 100%': Trump

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, arrived in North Carolina on Wednesday.

Gov. Roy Cooper greeted him and pleaded with thousands of evacuees to be patient and not return home just yet. Cooper warned that the flooding set off by as much as one metre of rain from Florence is far from over and will get worse in places.

The governor asked for help "cutting the red tape" in getting federal assistance, noting that farmers suffered significant losses and scores of people lost their homes. 

Some 10,000 people remain in shelters and more than 200,000 customers are without power across the state. Roads remain treacherous, Cooper said, and some are still being closed for the first time as rivers swelled by torrential rains inland drain toward the Atlantic.

After arriving at Marine Corps air station in Havelock, N.C., the president praised first responders and pledged his administration's help at a joint briefing of officials.

"We will be there 100 per cent," said Trump. "All of the folks from the federal government that are around the table are confirming it."

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, Cooper said the state will push to make sure that pledge is honoured.

Trump then moved on to assist volunteers at a church in New Bern, N.C., by helping hand out warm meals.

A car sits in a flooded parking lot at an apartment complex near the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville, N.C. Emergency workers reported rescuing and evacuating more than 2,200 people statewide. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

The U.S. Military has said more than 12,000 troops are supporting federal, state and local response efforts in areas affected by Florence.

U.S. Northern Command said in a news release late Tuesday that about 5,600 personnel are active-duty and reserve forces. Another 6,800 are National Guard.

The response has included the use of high-water vehicles and other rescue equipment.

Cooper was also urging people to be patient on Wednesday, saying dangers remain and some rivers have yet to crest.

"I know that people in North Carolina are resilient, and they are going to be moving as fast as they can to get back to life as they know it," he said. But he cautioned that there is still much to be done, adding that the damage to the state and people's lives will last far longer than the burst of media attention that has descended on the storm-ravaged state.

Temporary housing needs 'up in the air'

In Wilmington, meanwhile, workers began handing out supplies using a system resembling a giant fast-food drive-thru: Drivers pulled up to a line of pallets, placed an order and left without having to get out. A woman blew a whistle each time drivers had to pull forward.

Brandon Echavarrieta struggled to stay composed as he described life post-Florence: no power for days, rotted meat in the freezer, no water or food and just one bath in a week.

"It's been pretty bad," said Echavarrieta, 34, his voice breaking.

While thousands have had to make use of shelters in North Carolina, the number doing so in South Carolina is estimated in the hundreds. 

But many could need a place to stay for weeks, even months.

Lutrice Garcia stands outside a Red Cross shelter where she's staying Tuesday, at a school in Bennettsville, S.C. Her own home, affected by Hurricane Matthew two years ago, has apparently suffered unspecified damage in flooding caused by Hurricane Florence. (Russ Bynum/Associated Press)

Lutrice Garcia left a Bennettsville, S.C., shelter where she had spent several nights on a cot and tried to head home. But floodwaters from overflowing Crooked Creek covered the road, and an emergency responder told her water was seeping into the houses.

With the creek still rising, the 28-year-old nurse mostly wondered if the home she recently finished repairing from Hurricane Matthew's flood damage in 2016 would once again wind up uninhabitable.

Her mother lives nearby, but already has eight other relatives under her roof. If she can't go home, Garcia isn't sure where she'll go.

"It's up in the air. I'm just taking it day by day," Garcia said.

FEMA officials have been in the area for days assessing housing options, said Mike Sprayberry, director of North Carolina's Division of Emergency Management. He said they expect to use FEMA's Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which uses state and federal funds to house displaced residents in hotels.

The demand for hotel rooms for Florence's victims could be much greater than after Hurricane Matthew. While 4,000 evacuees found protection in North Carolina shelters during Matthew, that number during Florence peaked at over 20,000.

Storm-related tornado confirmed

FEMA reduced its reliance on trailers after they became symbols of the troubled federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when more than 144,000 trailers were deployed to Louisiana and Mississippi.

That led to shortages last year amid high demand after Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas and Hurricane Irma struck Florida. FEMA had just 1,700 trailers when Harvey hit in August 2017, and the agency rushed to put out bids for an additional 4,500.

A furniture store in Chestefield, Va., shows damage from a tornado on Monday. One person died as a result of a Florence-related tornado, officials said. (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

FEMA hasn't said how many trailers it has available after Florence.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service confirmed early Wednesday that the remnants of Hurricane Florence spawned a total of six tornadoes in Virginia earlier this week.

The strongest tornado levelled a flooring company in Chesterfield, killing a man who worked there. That storm was categorized as an EF2 tornado, with winds of 193 kilometre per hour.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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