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Florence pounds flooded Carolinas as death toll rises to 23

Florence, the once-powerful hurricane that swept across the Carolinas in recent days, has prompted a widespread emergency across all of North Carolina, from the ocean east to mountain west. Floodwaters are expected to push many rivers to all-time highs and could spur life-threatening landslides as the storm’s remnants move west.

FEMA said Monday afternoon that because of the ongoing impact of Florence, it was delaying a scheduled test of a system meant to allow presidents to send out a nationwide text during an emergency.

The agency, along with the Federal Communications Commission, had planned to test the system  Thursday afternoon. The test would have included sending something out through the Wireless Emergency Alerts system, which would have meant sending messages labeled “Presidential Alert” to cell phones that were on and near active cell towers, according to FEMA. The agency said the test would be rescheduled for Oct. 3.

Numerous environmental hazards are materializing in the Carolinas in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. A number of sewer systems have been overwhelmed, and are releasing untreated or partially treated water, according to Reggie Cheatham, the Environmental Protection Agency’s director of emergency management.

In a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, Cheatham and other federal officials outlined the challenges in responding to the storm, the remnants of which had reached the border of West Virginia and Kentucky.

“We have observed releases of wastewater from manholes, from overtopped sewer areas in the impacted zone,” he said. Cheatham said the wastewater treatment system in Onslow County, which experienced a storm surge during Florence’s landfall, suffered a “catastrophic” failure.

“They basically had to deal with the storm surge, loss of power, and obviously shut down pumps and the system completely depressurized and they haven’t been able to bring that backup,” he said.

He said the wastewater system in Wilmington had released partially treated water in the Cape Fear River. Other sites that experienced releases of wastewater include the eastern North Carolina communities of Princeton and Kenansville, Cheatham said, adding, “That’s just a snapshot of what I’ve got in front of me right now.”

Meanwhile, a second breach has occurred in a coal ash storage pit at a Duke Energy facility in Wilmington. Flooding had damaged a containment wall this weekend and led to an estimated 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash flowing into a ditch not far from the Cape Fear River. Duke Energy employees and contractors worked with heavy machinery to create a new berm to contain the material, which the company said posed no hazard to the public or the environment.

The details of the second breach remain unclear: “The particular volume of the release is unknown at this time and is currently being investigated,” Cheatham said.

A CSX train hauling chemicals, including what Cheatham described as butanol, derailed late Sunday in Anson County, N.C., south of Charlotte and near the South Carolina border. Cheatham said eight cars derailed because of washed-out tracks. The butanol did not spill, but an unknown volume of diesel fuel spilled and gathered in a low-lying area. The fuel did not reach the Pee Dee River, he said.