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 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 1-½ 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 midafternooon, Florence was centered about 50 miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, inching west at 3 mph — about as fast as a person walks. Its winds were down to 45 mph. 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 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.
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.
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 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, enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches.