Fearsome New Stage Begins As Florence Floods Inland Rivers

NEW BERN, N.C. — As the death toll from Florence grew and hundreds of people were pulled from flooded homes, North Carolina braced for catastrophic, widespread river flooding that could be the next stage of a mounting disaster.

Weakened to a tropical depression early Sunday after blowing ashore as a hurricane with 90 mph (145 kph) winds, Florence was still spinning slowly atop the Carolinas as it pulled warm water from the ocean and hurled it onshore.

The storm’s death toll climbed to 13 as authorities said two people died from inhaling carbon monoxide from a generator in their South Carolina home.

About 740,000 homes and businesses remained without power in the Carolinas, and utilities said some could be out for weeks.

Radar showed parts of the storm over six states.

Rivers swelled toward record levels, forecasters said, and thousands of people were ordered to evacuate for fear that the next few days could bring the most destructive round of flooding in North Carolina history.

Stream gauges across the region showed water levels rising steadily, with forecasts calling for rivers to crest Sunday and Monday at or near record levels: The Little River, the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse, the Waccamaw and the Pee Dee were all projected to burst their banks, possibly flooding nearby communities.

Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile (1.6 kilometers) of a stretch of the Cape Fear River and the Little River, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the North Carolina coast. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.

John Rose owns a furniture business with stores less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the river. Rain-soaked furniture workers helped him quickly empty more than 1,000 mattresses from a warehouse in a low-lying strip mall.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever had to move anything like this,” Rose said. “If the river rises to the level they say it’s going to, then this warehouse is going to be under water.”

On U.S. Route 401 nearby, rain rose in ditches and around unharvested tobacco crops along the road. Ponds had begun to overflow, and creeks passing under the highway churned with muddy, brown water. Farther along the Cape Fear River, grass and trees lining the banks were partly submerged.

Fayetteville’s city officials, meanwhile, got help from the Nebraska Task Force One search and rescue team to evacuate 140 residents of an assisted-living facility in Fayetteville to a safer location at a church.

Already, more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) of rain has fallen in places, and forecasters are saying there could be an additional 1½ feet (45 centimeters) before Sunday is out.

“Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren’t watching for them, you are risking your life,” Gov. Roy Cooper said.

Officials were warning residents not only to stay off the roads but also to avoid using GPS systems.

“As conditions change, GPS navigation systems are not keeping up with the road closures and are directing people onto roads that are confirmed closed and/or flooded,” the state Transportation Department said on Twitter.

Florence weakened to a tropical depression early Sunday and was crawling west at 8 mph (13 kph). At 5 a.m., the storm was centered about 20 miles (35 kilometers) southwest of Columbia, South Carolina. Its winds were down to 35 mph (55 kph).

In Goldsboro, North Carolina, home of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, roads that frequently flood were already closed Saturday by rushing water. Dozens of electric repair trucks massed to respond to damage expected to hit central North Carolina as rainwater collected into rivers headed to the coast.

On Saturday evening, Duke Energy said heavy rains caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at a closed power station outside Wilmington, North Carolina. Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said about 2,000 cubic yards (1,530 cubic meters) of ash were displaced at the Sutton Plant and that contaminated storm water likely flowed into the plant’s cooling pond.

In New Bern , along the coast, homes were completely surrounded by water, and rescuers used inflatable boats to reach people Saturday.

Kevin Knox and his family were rescued by boat from their flooded brick home with the help of Army Sgt. Johan Mackie, whose team used a phone app to locate people in distress.

“Amazing. They did awesome,” said Knox, who was stranded with seven others.

New Bern spokeswoman Colleen Roberts said 455 people were safely rescued in the town of 30,000 residents.

Spirits were high at the Trent Park Elementary School in New Bern, where 44-year-old Cathy Yolanda Wright took shelter after being rescued from her flooded home Saturday. Wright, who sings in the choir at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist, led residents at the shelter in an energetic singalong.

People clapped and shouted, “Amen!” and “Thank you, Lord.”

Across the Trent River from New Bern, Jerry and Jan Andrews returned home after evacuating to find carp flopping in their backyard near the porch stairs.

Coast Guard helicopters took off across the street to rescue stranded people from rooftops and swamped cars.

The Marines rescued about 20 civilians from floodwaters near Camp Lejeune, using Humvees and amphibious assault vehicles, the base reported.

The dead included a mother and baby killed by a falling tree in Wilmington, North Carolina. South Carolina recorded its first death from the storm, with officials saying a 61-year-old woman was killed when her car hit a tree that fell across a highway.

Three died in one inland county, Duplin, because of water on roads and flash floods, authorities said. A husband and wife died in a storm-linked house fire, officials said, and an 81-year-old man died after falling while packing to evacuate.

The Latest:

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Florence, now a tropical storm, swirled at a near-standstill over the Carolinas on Saturday, dumping non-stop rain over areas already flooded by seawater and swelling rivers and creeks across both states.

Some towns have already been soaked by more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) of drenching rains , and forecasters warned that totals could reach 3½ feet (1 meter), unleashing floods well inland through early next week. At least four people have died, a toll authorities fear will rise as the storm crawls westward across South Carolina.

At 8 a.m. Saturday, Florence stalled about 35 miles (55 kilometers) west of Myrtle Beach, moving forward at just 2 mph (4 kph), with top sustained winds of 50 mph (80 kph).

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper called Florence an “uninvited brute” that could wipe out entire communities as it grinds its way across land.

“The fact is this storm is deadly and we know we are days away from an ending,” Cooper said.

With tropical storm-force winds swirling 350 miles (560 kilometers) wide, Florence continued deluging the Carolinas on Saturday morning after pushing surging seas far ashore. Rescue crews used boats to carry more than 360 people from rising water in the river town of New Bern, North Carolina, while many of their neighbors awaited help. Dozens more were pulled from a collapsed motel.

Florence flattened trees, buckled buildings and crumpled roads. The storm knocked out power to nearly 930,000 homes and businesses, and the number could keep rising.

A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from Wilmington police. A 77-year-old man was apparently knocked down by the wind and died after going out to check on his hunting dogs, Lenoir County authorities said. The governor’s office said a man was electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain.

Storm surges — the bulge of ocean water pushed ashore by the hurricane — were as high as 10 feet (3 meters).

Shaken after seeing waves crashing on the Neuse River just outside his house in New Bern, restaurant owner and hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.

“I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth,” he said.

Florence peaked at a terrifying Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph (225 kph) over warm ocean water before making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles (kilometers) east of Wilmington and not far from the South Carolina line. It blew ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.

But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind.

Morehead City, North Carolina, had received 23 inches (58 centimeters) of rain by Friday night, and forecasters warned Saturday morning that parts of the Carolinas could get up to 15 inches (38 centimeters) more.

At times, Florence was moving forward no faster than a human can walk, and it has remained such a wide storm that its counter-clockwise winds keep scooping up massive amounts of moisture from the sea. The flooding began on barrier islands in North Carolina and then spread into coastal and river communities there and in South Carolina, swamping the white sands and golf courses in North Myrtle Beach.

For people living inland in the Carolinas, maximum peril could come days later as all that water drains, overflowing rivers and causing flash floods.

Authorities warned, too, of risks of mudslides and environmental disasters from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.

About 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats.

Florence could become a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the death toll was put at nearly 3,000.

The hurricane center said the storm will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a right hook to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com calculated that Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons (68 trillion liters) of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That’s enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay, or cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches (10 centimeters) of water.

North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons (36 trillion liters), enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches (25 centimeters).

In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door to door to pull more than 60 people out as the Triangle Motor Inn began to crumble.

In New Bern, population 29,000, flooding on the Neuse River left 500 people in peril.

“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city tweeted during the height of the storm. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”

Boat teams including volunteers rescued some 360 residents, including Sadie Marie Holt, 67, who first tried to row out of her neighborhood during Florence’s assault.

“The wind was so hard, the waters were so hard … We got thrown into mailboxes, houses, trees,” said Holt, who had stayed at home because of a doctor’s appointment that was later canceled. She was eventually rescued by a boat crew; 140 more awaited help.

Ashley Warren and boyfriend Chris Smith managed to paddle away from their home in a boat with their two dogs, and were left shaken.

“Honestly, I grew up in Wilmington. I love hurricanes. But this one has been an experience for me,” she said. “We might leave.”

Original Story:

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Blowing ashore with howling 90 mph winds, Hurricane Florence splintered buildings, trapped hundreds of people and swamped entire communities along the Carolina coast Friday in what could be just the opening act in a watery, two-part, slow-motion disaster. At least four people were killed.

Forecasters warned that drenching rains of anywhere from 1 to 3½ feet as the storm crawls westward across North and South Carolina could trigger epic flooding well inland over the next few days.

As 400-mile-wide Florence pounded away at the coast with torrential downpours and surging seas, rescue crews used boats to reach scores of people besieged by rising waters along a river. More than 60 others had to be rescued as a cinderblock motel collapsed.

Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and knocked out power to more than 700,000 homes and businesses, and the assault wasn’t anywhere near an end.

“It’s an uninvited brute who doesn’t want to leave,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.

The hurricane was “wreaking havoc” and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its “violent grind across our state for days,” the governor said. He said parts of North Carolina had seen storm surges — the bulge of seawater pushed ashore by the hurricane — as high as 10 feet.

A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from Wilmington police. The deaths also included that of a person killed while plugging in a generator, the governor’s office said.

Shaken after seeing waves crashing in the Neuse River just outside his house in the town of New Bern, hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.

“I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth,” said Ballance, owner of a seafood restaurant that was flooded.

By early afternoon, Florence’s winds had weakened to 75 mph, just barely a hurricane and well below the storm’s terrifying Category 4 peak of 140 mph earlier in the week. But the hurricane had slowed to a crawl, drenching coastal communities for hours on end.

The town of Oriental, North Carolina, had gotten more than 18 inches of rain just a few hours into the deluge, while Surf City had 14 inches and it was still coming down.

Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington and not far from the South Carolina line, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline. It started pushing its way westward across South Carolina later in the day, in a watery siege that could go on all weekend.

For people living inland in the Carolinas, the moment of maximum peril from flash flooding could arrive days later, because it takes time for rainwater to drain into rivers and for those streams to crest.

Preparing for the worst, about 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats that could be used to pluck people from the floodwaters.

Authorities warned, too, of the threat of mudslides and the risk of an environmental disaster from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.

Florence was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the storm was blamed for nearly 3,000 deaths in the desperate aftermath.

As Florence raged, a tropical disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico brought heavy rain to already saturated areas along the Texas coast, resulting in street flooding and prompting some schools to cancel or cut short classes.

The National Hurricane Center said Florence will eventually make a right hook to the northeast over the southern Appalachians, moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England as a tropical depression by the middle of next week.

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That’s enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay or cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches (10 centimeters) of water, he calculated.

North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons, enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches (25 centimeters).

On Friday, coastal streets in the Carolinas flowed with frothy ocean water, and pieces of torn-apart buildings flew through the air. The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines. Traffic lights out of order because of power failures swayed in the gusty wind. Roof shingles were peeled off a hotel.

The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 105 mph (169 kph), the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958.

In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull people out of the Triangle Motor Inn after the structure began to crumble and the roof started to collapse.

In New Bern, population 29,000, flooding on the Neuse River trapped people, and Mayor Dana Outlaw told The Charlotte Observer that about 200 had been rescued by 5 a.m. Residents reached out for help through the night by phone and social media.

“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city of New Bern tweeted around 2 a.m. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”

Sheets of rain splattered against windows of a hotel before daybreak in Wilmington, where Sandie Orsa of Wilmington sat in a lobby lit by emergency lights after the electricity went out.

“Very eerie, the wind howling, the rain blowing sideways, debris flying,” said Orsa, who lives nearby and feared splintering trees would pummel her house.

More than 12,000 people were in shelters in North Carolina and 400 in Virginia, where the forecast was less dire. Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it was unclear how many did.

Airlines canceled more than 2,100 flights through Sunday.

Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Jeffrey Collins in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Jennifer Kay in Miami; Tamara Lush in Jacksonville, Florida; Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina; Sarah Rankin and Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Skip Foreman in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jeff Martin in Hampton, Georgia; David Koenig in Dallas; Gerry Broome at Nags Head, North Carolina; and Jay Reeves in Atlanta contributed to this report.