MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (AP) — Florence already has proven deadly with its nearly nonstop rain, surging seawater and howling winds, and the threat is days from ending as remnants of the once major hurricane slowly creep inland across the Carolinas.
Some towns have received more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) of rain from Florence, and forecasters warned that drenching rains with as much as 3½ feet (1 meter) of water could trigger epic flooding well inland through early next week. At least four people have died, and authorities fear the toll will go higher as the tropical storm crawls westward Saturday across South Carolina.
North Carolina Governor 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.
As 400-mile-wide (645-kilometer-wide) Florence pounded away at the coast with torrential downpours and surging seas, rescue crews used boats to reach more than 360 people besieged by rising waters in New Bern, North Carolina, while many of their neighbors awaited help. Dozens more were rescued 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. Also, 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, and 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.
After reaching a terrifying Category 4 peak of 140 mph (225 kph) earlier in the week, Florence made 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 came ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm later, its winds weakened to 60 mph (95 kph) as it moved forward at 5 mph (7 kph) about 15 miles (25 kilometers) west northwest of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
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 with more torrents on the way.
Florence’s forward movement during the day slowed to a near-standstill — sometimes it was going no faster than a human can walk — and that enabled it to pile on the rain.
The flooding soon spread into South Carolina, swamping places like North Myrtle Beach, in a resort area known for its white sands and multitude of golf courses.
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.
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 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 National Hurricane Center said Florence 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 said 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, he calculated.
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 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 left 500 people in peril.
“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city tweeted around 2 a.m. Friday. “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 assistance.
Ashley Warren and boyfriend Chris Smith managed to paddle away from their home in a boat with their two dogs and were left her shaken.
“Honestly, I grew up in Wilmington. I love hurricanes. But this one has been an experience for me,” she said. “We might leave.”