The National Guard, State Highway Patrol and U.S. Coast Guard joined local first responders Tuesday in rescue operations across parts of North Carolina as rivers continued to overwhelm their banks, sending floodwaters racing through streets, homes and businesses.
As that battle pressed on, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said via Twitter that there are 17 confirmed fatalities in the state related to the storm. They updated death toll came about after the discovery of three more bodies and all were due to drowining, McCrory said during an afternoon press conference.
Power remained out to hundreds of thousands of residents, and thousands were boiling their water amid the collateral damage wrought by Hurricane Matthew. Rainfall levels from the storm reached up to 18 inches inland. Now, all that water has drained into rivers, sending them to record levels as they rush toward the ocean.
Across eastern North Carolina, "all major rivers will stay in flood stage for the rest of the week," said National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Kreitner from the Wilmington, N.C., office.
In Greenville, officials warned the Tar River would overwhelm every bridge in the county by sundown, splitting it in half before the river crests late Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
The flooding along the Tar River will be "devastating," said weather service meteorologist Lara Pagano of the Newport, N.C., office, who added that it's predicted to be the worst flooding in Greenville since Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
An angry Gov. Pat McCrory asked his citizens to stop refusing evacuation orders and driving around barricades blocking flooded roads.
"As a governor, that is unacceptable," McCrory told the AP on Tuesday. "You are not only putting your life danger, you are putting emergency responders' lives in jeopardy."
The Tar River in Greenville will crest Wednesday afternoon, Pagano said.
Some of the worst flooding swept through Lumberton, a Robeson County city of more than 20,000 people a little less than 100 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean and a little more than 100 miles east of Charlotte.
The Lumber River smashed its crest record by about 4 feet, and helicopters plucked residents from rooftops while boats shuttled along city streets to rescue others stranded in their swamped, powerless homes.
"Please pray for our community," Lumberton Rescue and EMS said on its Facebook page.
Robert Barnhill, 83, and his wife, Katie, 81, told the Associated Press they were rescued Monday from their home of 35 years carrying only medications, blankets and a pillow.
“The water’s up to the porch now, so it’s got one more step to go," Robert Barnhill said. “I’ve never seen a flood like this before.”
Other cities were also under a watery siege. In Manchester, 45 miles north of Lumberton, the Lower Little River crest exceeded records by more than two feet. In Smithfield, 80 miles northeast of Lumberton in Johnston County, the Neuse River reached record levels. In Goldsboro, 25 miles east of Smithfield at the confluence of the Neuse and Little River, the state evacuated all 797 inmates from Neuse Correctional Institution because of rising floodwaters.
Johnston County Emergency Management Coordinator Kevin Madsen told the News & Observer that bends in the Neuse River are particularly susceptible to flooding.
“Life safety efforts are our main focus right now,” Madsen told the newspaper. “We’ve done a lot of water rescues.”
Johnston County Schools remained closed Tuesday, and Superintendent Ross Renfrow said a decision on whether to remain closed for the rest of the week would be made Tuesday. He said about two-thirds of county schools did not have power and water late Monday.
"Our goal is to get back in session as soon as possible without putting anyone in harm's way," Renfrow said.
Hurricane Matthew, the strongest Atlantic hurricane in almost a decade, killed hundreds of people in Haiti on its furious march across the Caribbean last week.
Thirty people have died in the U.S. — half in North Carolina — as the storm churned up the coast from Florida, making landfall in South Carolina early Saturday.
McCrory said more than 1,000 state National Guard troops and nearly 200 high water and rescue vehicles have been activated, and more than 2,000 rescues have taken place. President Obama declared a major disaster for a multi-county area, providing desperately needed federal assistance.
Residents near rivers, streams and levees should prepare for flooding expected throughout the week, McCrory warned.
“I saw first-hand the very dangerous conditions that still exist for many people,” McCrory said. “I am proud of our citizens who are helping each other.”