Thousands of people living near North Carolina’s rising rivers were ordered evacuated Saturday as hurricane-turned-tropical storm Florence practically parked itself over land and poured on the rain Saturday, raising fears that the state could be in for the most destructive flooding in its history.
The death toll climbed to at least seven.
A day after Florence blew ashore in North Carolina with 90 mph (145 kph) winds, Coast Guardsmen, Marines and other rescue crews used helicopters, boats and heavy-duty vehicles to reach scores of people trapped on rooftops or otherwise caught in the floodwaters.
More than 2 feet of rain had fallen in places, and the drenching went on and on, with forecasters saying there could be an additional 1½ feet by the end of the weekend.
Rivers and creeks rose toward record levels, threatening flash flooding that could devastate communities and endanger dams, roads and bridges.
“I cannot overstate it: Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren’t watching for them you are risking your life,” Gov. Roy Cooper said.
As of 2 p.m., Florence was centered about 50 miles (85 kilometers) west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, inching west at 3 mph (6 kph) – about as fast as a person walks. Its winds were down to 45 mph (75 kph). With half of the storm still out over the Atlantic, Florence continued to collect warm ocean water and dump it on land.
In its initial onslaught along the coast, Florence buckled buildings, deluged entire communities and knocked out power to more than 900,000 homes and businesses. But the storm was shaping up as a two-part disaster, with the second, delayed-action stage consisting of epic inland flooding, caused by rainwater working its way into rivers and streams.
Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile of a stretch of the Cape Fear River and the Little River. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.
Officials in North Carolina’s Harnett County, about 90 miles inland, urged residents of about 1,100 homes to clear out because the Lower Little River was rising toward record levels.
One potential road out was blocked as flooding forced the shutdown of a 16-mile (26-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 95, the main highway along the Eastern Seaboard.
In New Bern , along the coast, homes were completely surrounded by water, and rescuers used inflatable boats to reach people. More than 360 people had been carried to safety since Thursday night.
Kevin Knox and his family were rescued from their flooded brick home with the help of Army Sgt. Johan Mackie, part of a team that was using a phone app to locate people in distress. Mackie rode in a boat through a flooded neighborhood, navigating through trees and past a fencepost to get to the Knox house.
“Amazing. They did awesome,” said Knox, who was stranded with seven others, including a boy who was carried out in a life vest. “If not we’d be stuck upstairs for the next … how long? I have no idea.”
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 were taking off across the street to rescue stranded people. Coast Guardsmen said choppers had made about 50 rescues in and around New Bern and Jacksonville as of noon.
Also, Marines rescued about 20 civilians from floodwaters near Camp Lejeune, using Humvees and assault amphibious vehicles, the base reported.
Along the Lumber River in Lumberton , workers used heavy machinery to dump extra sand on a railbed prone to flooding. Not far away, Jackie and Quinton Washington watched water filling both their front and back yards near the river.
Hurricane Matthew sent more than 5 feet of water into their home in 2016, and the couple feared Florence would run them out again.
“If it goes up to my front step, I have to get out,” Quintin Washington said.
The dead included a mother and baby killed when a tree fell on a house 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 had fallen across a highway.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence broke a North Carolina rainfall record that had stood for almost 20 years: Preliminary reports showed Swansboro got over 30 inches and counting, eclipsing the mark set in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd dropped just over 24 inches on the state.
As of noon, Emerald Isle had over 23 inches of rain, and Wilmington and Goldsboro had about a foot. North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had around 7 inches.
Stream gauges across the region showed water levels steadily rising, 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 rise over their banks, flooding cities and towns.
The storm interrupted a September rite in the South: college football. Schools canceled, postponed, switched sites or changed kickoff times because of Florence. No. 2 Clemson and Georgia Southern had sunny skies and unseasonably mild weather for the only major conference game being played in the Carolinas and Virginia.
The hurricane center said the storm will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a sharp rightward swing to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.
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).