Hurricane Florence’s slow-motion assault on North Carolina continued Saturday morning with catastrophic storm surge and torrential rains that will drag on for days.
Eleven deaths in North Carolina have been blamed on the storm, which made landfall at Wrightsville Beach at 7:15 a.m., with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. By late afternoon, the winds had died down and Florence was reclassified a tropical storm.
But the heavy rain continued, topping 15 inches in many places along the coast by early Saturday morning. As the storm slowly moves westward Saturday into Sunday, rivers and creeks across central and eastern North Carolina are expected to leave their banks, with record or near-record flooding on the Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear and Neuse rivers.
None of the deaths involved drowning. In Wilmington, a mother and her infant died and the child’s father was injured when a tree fell on their home.
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Two people in Lenoir County were killed: a 78-year-old Kinston man who was electrocuted when connecting extension cords in the rain and a 77-year-old man who was blown down by the wind when he went to check on his hunting dogs.
A woman in Hampstead, in Pender County, died of an apparent heart attack after emergency crews could not clear debris to get to her. Three people died in Duplin County “due to flash flooding and swift water on roadways,” according to the Duplin County Sheriff’s Office.
An 81-year-old man in Wayne County who fell while packing to evacuate Friday is being counted as a storm-related death by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh, the Associated Press reported. A husband and wife who died in a house fire in Cumberland County on Friday are also being counted as storm-related, according to the Associated Press and The Fayetteville Observer.
By 5 a.m. Friday, about 200 people had been rescued from flooded homes in New Bern, where the National Weather Service reported 10 feet of water. People were stuck in their cars, attics and rooftops, waiting for rescue.
A woman named Bree tweeted: “If anybody could help ... our cars is under water and so is our house stuck in attic. Phone about to die please send help to 611 Watson ave, new bern. NC”
A friend later tweeted that the woman and her family had been rescued.
In Beaufort Count 300 people were rescued from flooded homes. By late afternoon, Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood hoped the worst was over.
“It has slowed,” he said. “We have started to see the water recede.”
Hurricane force winds
The National Hurricane Center described Florence’s path as a wobble around Southeastern North Carolina.
But the size of the storm meant the path didn’t really matter. Hurricane-force winds were extending out up to 80 miles from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds extended up to 195 miles.
Rain totals were high by Friday afternoon, according to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction. The town of Newport in Carteret County had 19 inches of rain in a 26-hour period Thursday and Friday, while Swansboro had 14 inches and Emerald Isle nearly a foot.
Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm Friday evening, with sustained winds of 70 mph. But the storm had slowed to a 3 mph crawl.
Early Friday, rescue crews in Onslow County helped evacuate 70 people from a Jacksonville hotel after the roof collapsed and rain rushed in.
Onslow County spokesman Cornelius Jordan said some visitors at the Triangle Motor Inn were able to drive away on their own, but emergency personnel had to take others to a safe location. Emergency crews also rescued an Onslow family from their home after a tree fell through the roof, Jordan said.
Power outages increased throughout the day. By 11 p.m., more than 800,000 customers were without power across North Carolina, and utilities predicted the number of outages could rise as high as 1 million to 2.5 million. The outages extended to the Triangle, where winds took trees down. The region is under a flash flood warning until 8 p.m. Sunday.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said the risk of fatalities will only grow when people venture out, once the winds die down. He urged residents to stay home and not get in the way of emergency workers.
“Hurricane Florence is powerful, slow and relentless,” Cooper said. “It’s an uninvited brute who doesn’t want to leave.”
Storm surge was as high as 10 feet on the Neuse River, he said. Flooding also hit the Bogue Sound near Beaufort, the Pungo River at Belhaven and the Pamlico River at Washington. The Cape Fear and Lumber rivers may rise higher than they did in Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Cooper said flooding will continue for days and the full magnitude of the hurricane is unknown. “For overall damage, it would be hard, at the end of the day, I think, to find a rival for this storm,” he said.
Emergency crews were stretched thin and accepted help from volunteers. Five hundred National Guard troops had responded to calls by 11 a.m. Friday.
Roads are particularly bad in Pamlico and Craven counties, with major and secondary roads flooded, according to N.C. Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon.
Travel is extremely hazardous because of storm surge, Trogdon said, and will only get worse. Areas from Wilmington through Fayetteville to Charlotte will experience 500-year to 1,000-year flood events, he said.
As the storm plods west, it could cause another problem — flooding and landslides in the mountains.
Nearly 23,000 people hunkered down in 150 schools, churches and a coliseum in Winston-Salem. Another shelter will open Saturday on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
The evacuees had heeded officials’ warnings that the storm was treacherous, with record-setting rains and storm surges not seen in North Carolina in decades.
Others who decided to stay at home perhaps regretted their decision. The Neuse River rose rapidly, overcoming the streets of New Bern.
Craven County emergency crews put out the message to people stranded to shelter in place, as 150 people were waiting for help before midnight Thursday. Additional swiftwater rescue teams were on the way.
“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city of New Bern tweeted around 2:30 a.m Friday. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”