WILSON, N.C. (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Florence dumped “epic” amounts of rain on North and South Carolina as it trudged inland on Saturday, triggering dangerous flooding, knocking out power in nearly 900,000 homes and businesses, and causing at least eight deaths.
Florence’s intensity has diminished since it roared ashore along the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast on Friday as a hurricane. But its slow march over the two states, crawling west at only 2 miles per hour (3 km per hour), threatens to leave large parts of the region deluged in the coming days.
(GRAPHIC: Hurricane Florence to pummel U.S. Southeast for days – tmsnrt.rs/2oZFKSb)
“This system is unloading epic amounts of rainfall, in some places measured in feet and not inches,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a news briefing. His state has already endured record rainfall totals, with much more expected to come from the storm that forecasters said was 300 miles (480 km) wide.
“This is a hurricane event followed by a flood event,” said South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster.
With flood waters rising rapidly in many communities, stranded people were being rescued by boat and by helicopter, while tens of thousands of others hunkered down in shelters. Numerous roads were closed, and authorities warned of potential landslides, as well the possibility of flood waters imperiling dams and bridges as rivers and creeks swelled.
Utility crews worked to restore electricity even as flood waters inundated whole communities. As of Saturday afternoon, about 752,000 people remained without power in North Carolina, along with 119,000 in South Carolina.
In Wilmington, a city of about 120,000 on North Carolina’s Atlantic coastline, along the Cape Fear River that is home to historic mansions, streets were strewn with downed tree limbs and carpeted with leaves and other debris. Electricity remained out for much of the city, with power lines lying across many roads like wet strands of spaghetti.
“The fact that there haven’t been more deaths and damage is amazing and a blessing,” said Rebekah Roth, walking around Wilmington’s Winoca Terrace neighborhood.
At 2 p.m. EDT (1500 GMT), the hurricane center said Florence had maximum sustained winds near 45 miles per hour (75 km per hour) and continued to produce catastrophic flooding in the Carolinas. It said it was located about 50 miles (65 km) west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and forecasters predicted a slow westward march.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm would dump as much as 30 to 40 inches (76-102 cm) of rain on the southeastern coast of North Carolina and part of northeastern South Carolina, as well as up to 10 inches (25 cm) in southwestern Virginia.
Fayetteville, a city of about 210,000 people about 90 miles (145 km) inland, issued a mandatory evacuation order for thousands of residents near Cape Fear River because of flooding. Fort Bragg, a sprawling U.S. Army base, is just west of Fayetteville.
Governor Cooper advised North Carolina residents inland that rivers will rise days after the rain has stopped. Officials said there had been at least seven storm-related fatalities in the state.
Authorities in South Carolina reported one death, saying a woman was killed when her vehicle struck a fallen tree.
Florence already has set a North Carolina record for rainfall totals, exceeding that of Hurricane Floyd, which struck in 1999 and caused 56 deaths. Floyd produced 24 inches (61 cm) of rain in some parts of North Carolina while Florence already has dumped about 30 inches (76 cm) in areas around Swansboro.
On Thursday, Florence was a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale with 120-mph winds (193 km). It was downgraded to Category 1 before coming ashore on Friday near Wilmington.
In New Bern, at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers in North Carolina, Florence overwhelmed the town of 30,000, with the downtown area under water. Some area residents described a harrowing retreat as the storm hit.
“It was pitch black and I was just scared out of my mind,” said Tracy Singleton, who with her family later drove through torrential rain and high winds from her home near New Bern to a hotel some 80 miles (130 km) away.
More than 20,000 people were in 157 shelters in North Carolina, with nearly 6,000 in South Carolina shelters, officials said.
South Carolina authorities said law enforcement officers were guarding against looting in evacuated areas.
Schoolteacher Leslie Ochoa said she and her family loaded up 10 adults, 5 children, 14 goats, 10 dogs, two cats and one guinea pig and evacuated from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Columbia, South Carolina last Tuesday. As her son fed the goats in a hotel parking lot, she said she might not be able to return home until the middle of next week.
“Our friend behind our old house, they have gators swimming in the water. So yeah, not safe,” Ochoa said.
The White House said President Donald Trump approved making federal funding available in some affected counties. Trump plans a visit to the region next week.
As the United States dealt with Florence, a strong typhoon tore across the northern tip of the Philippines, killing at least three people, wrecking homes and triggering landslides before heading toward Hong Kong and southern China.
Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Wilson, Ernest Scheyder in Wilmington, and Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Devika Krishna Kumar and Gina Cherelus in New York; Andy Sullivan in Columbia, South Carolina; Jason Lange in Washington; Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, David Gregorio and Rosalba O’Brien