This NASA photo shows Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station on Monday.
Virginia emergency management officials are calling for “catastrophic levels of inland flooding” during Hurricane Florence, and the governor has ordered the mandatory evacuation of 245,000 residents in the lowest-lying shorelines of Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore.
Rainfall of up to 20 inches is projected in some areas of the state, while estimates of 8 to 15 inches covered more than half of the commonwealth, according to Jeff Stern, the state coordinator of emergency management. Florence is currently a Category 4 storm set to make landfall in North Carolina on Thursday.
“Take this storm very seriously,” Stern said. “This is a very challenging storm that works against our normal planning scenarios because in addition to a major Category 4 or 5 potential storm — something that no one in Virginia has experienced in their lifetimes — coming ashore just south of us or even potentially still directly into Virginia, we will see with the potential stall that is predicted catastrophic levels of inland flooding throughout the state.”
Gov. Ralph Northam told residents living along coastal Virginia to heed his evacuation order, which will go into effect at 8 a.m. Tuesday. The state will not reverse any lanes on Interstate 64.
“This is a serious storm, and it’s going to affect the entire state of Virginia,” he said at a news conference at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Chesterfield County on Monday afternoon. “The largest threat to life from hurricanes is not the high winds. Flooding is the deadliest result of these storms. This is a serious storm, and it’s going to affect the entire state of Virginia.”
Localities have been told to prepare emergency shelters for their residents but also the 100,000 people who the Red Cross estimates will need sheltering after fleeing the storm surge from the coastlines of North Carolina and Virginia.
The storm could be the first significant test for the James River floodwalls here in Richmond since the 1990s, Stern said. The metro region will likely experience significant inland flooding as runoff from the western part of the state flows downriver.
“That water has to go somewhere,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said at a news conference earlier Monday. “We expect to feel the effects on out even a week after landfall.”
The floodwall was last tested in June and inspected by the Army Corps of Engineers two weeks ago as part of an annual check, according to Bob Steidel, deputy chief administrative officer for operations in the city. The concrete barriers are activated in stages as the river water level rises. The James is already expected to rise above 6 feet on Tuesday after wet weather over the weekend, Steidel said. That leaves little room before it reaches levels, around 9 or 10 feet, when city officials will begin to close parts of the floodwall to provide protection for the city.
Steidel said underground portions of the system are used frequently, even in smaller storms to prevent flooding from reaching the city. The 14th Street Bridge gates would likely be the first above-ground closure if flooding became severe, he said.
Both Northam and Stoney have declared states of emergency. For the state, this allows for what Stern called the “unprecedented mobilization of the entire force of the Virginia National Guard.” That amounts to 6,000 troops, though only about 1,500 will have been activated for storm duty by Wednesday night. The remaining 4,500 will be available if needed.
The state, also for the first time, asked for mutual aid from neighboring states. Requests included 21 swift-water rescue teams and five incident management teams that will provide movement, supply and air support to local governments and the military bases.
In Richmond, the emergency status enables city officials to mobilize its Emergency Operations Center, which will be partially up and running on Wednesday and fully operational on Thursday, and loosens federal purse strings if spending on storm preparations or response reaches a certain level.
“While we are not expected to receive the direct impact of the storm, we will begin to mobilize and prepare ourselves for the what could happen once the storm makes landfall,” Stoney said Monday afternoon. “It’s too early to tell what impacts Florence may have on our city, but it’s not too early to prepare for this storm.
“The city of Richmond will be ready, and I urge residents and businesses to prepare and be ready as well.”