Florence continued its torrential roll through the Carolinas on Saturday, with winds blowing up to 50 miles an hour and officials fearing that the worst damage was yet to come.
In an early morning briefing, the head of the National Hurricane Center, Ken Graham, said the storm’s slow churn made it particularly dangerous, dumping repeated bands of water on place like Surf City and Jacksonville, N.C. Some cities have already received 30 inches of rain, he said. “Which is absolutely staggering, and we’re not done yet.”
The hurricane center said the storm was about 35 miles from Myrtle Beach, with strong gales extending out nearly 200 miles.
Forecasters are predicting record-setting rainfall as high as 40 inches, with an additional 10 to 15 inches still expected in some areas of North and South Carolina. The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm on Friday. Wind speeds dropped to 50 miles an hour by 5 a.m. Saturday, but fierce rains were likely to produce “catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding,” the National Hurricane Center said. Nearly a million people have lost power.
Here are the latest developments:
• The center of the storm is expected to head west through South Carolina before turning north on Saturday. Track the storm’s location here.
• Officials have confirmed five deaths related to the storm, including a mother and child who were killed after a tree fell on their home in Wilmington, N.C., on Friday. An official in Carteret County, N.C., reported two additional deaths on Saturday, but could not say if they had been caused by the storm.
• Hundreds of residents of New Bern, N.C., were rescued from floods that inundated homes and swept away vehicles. More flooding is expected in eastern North Carolina as well as areas further inland, like Fayetteville and Charlotte, according to the National Weather Service.
• View photos of the storm and its effects on areas across the Carolinas.
Roads are flooded as rains drench Wilmington, N.C.
The waters of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, N.C., were gray and roiling at daybreak on Saturday as driving rain from Hurricane Florence continued to drench the city and wind gusts blew debris through nearly deserted streets.
With up to 20 inches of rain forecast, roads were flooded in some low-lying areas and along stream and river banks. Emergency authorities warned that widespread flooding was still a threat as the trailing bands of Florence swept past the city into South Carolina.
On Water Street along the Cape Fear waterfront downtown, rivulets of water began to form early Saturday. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said the river was expected to crest next week. Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina said the Cape Fear River could cause inland flooding as severe as it did during Hurricane Matthew, which inundated several eastern North Carolina towns in 2016.
Roads ranging from six-lane highways to winding suburban streets in Wilmington were blocked by fallen trees and severed power lines, creating road hazards as city and county officials struggled to get street clearance crews and power company trucks out on the streets. They said they hoped to get both up and running by Saturday.
At least 106,000 of 127,000 Duke Energy customers in the city and surrounding New Hanover County were without power, officials said late Friday. There was virtually no gasoline available in the region after stations closed down and wrapped their pumps in plastic.
Chief Ralph Evangelous of the Wilmington Police Department urged residents to stay off the streets. A curfew was in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“Stay indoors – it’s dangerous out there,” he said.
Chris Coudriet, the county manager, said the emergency response system was overwhelmed with calls from citizens seeking help or advice. He provided a separate phone number for nonemergency requests to free up responders for the most serious calls.
“This storm is not yet done,” Mr. Coudriet said, warning of continuing rain and winds throughout the day.
Most residents obeyed the authorities and stayed inside darkened homes. Many cranked up portable generators for temporary power.
One of the few residents on the streets downtown early Saturday was Keen Grady, who was on his way with a friend to the local Waffle House restaurant under the impression that it was open even during the storm. But a felled tree blocked the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, which was closed and dark.
Asked why he had ventured outside under such conditions, Mr. Grady responded, “We’re just spoiled Americans.”
Florence brings historic floods
Waterways across the Carolinas and beyond swelled to record-breaking levels this week, with several rising more than 20 feet above their averages, according to National Weather Service data.
The Cape Fear and Lumber Rivers were forecast to rise as high or even higher than they did during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, North Carolina officials said.
Christian Dreyer has seen this kind of flooding before, and he knows that the worst is yet to come. As a volunteer member of a New Jersey search-and-rescue team, he helped pull people from rushing floodwaters in this part of North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew.
Now he’s back with the same group, New Jersey Task Force 1, helping rescue people from their flooded homes in Washington, N.C., just north of New Bern. The crew got some people out in vehicles, but in other cases, they had to drive boats up to their front doors.
The flooding right now is caused mostly by storm surge, as the swollen ocean pushes rivers over their banks. It’s slow moving, Mr. Dreyer said, especially compared to the rushing floodwaters that will soon come from the opposite direction, down the rivers, as up to 40 inches of rain falls inland.
“A surge is like a bathtub flooding,” said Mr. Dreyer, who is also a sergeant first class with the New Jersey State Police, as tornado warnings went off in the background. “When it comes down from the mountains, it’s all gravity. It’s going to be much faster and more dangerous.”
Several deaths have been reported
Rescuers spent hours trying to reach the mother and infant who died in Wilmington after they were trapped by a tree and a portion of the roof that had collapsed on them, said J.S. Mason, a deputy fire chief. Chief Mason said the two victims, who were not identified, died before they could be freed. The child’s father was transported to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center with unspecified injuries.
“The sheer size of the tree was not something you could quickly cut with a chain saw,” Chief Mason said. “It was a very difficult rescue that required some technical equipment.”
A woman died of a heart attack this morning in Hampstead, an unincorporated area of Pender County, N.C., officials said.
Emergency crews responding to a 911 call tried to reach the woman’s home, but were delayed by downed trees on streets, said Chad McEwen, assistant county manager. They eventually used a front loader to clear the way, he said.
The authorities also reported the death of person who was killed while plugging in a generator in Lenoir County.
“Our hearts go out to the families of those who died in this storm,” Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina said. “Hurricane Florence is going to continue its violent grind across our state for days. Be extremely careful and stay alert.”