Deadly storm Florence will soak Carolinas all weekend

Blowing ashore with howling 155 km/h winds, the former hurricane known as Florence splintered buildings, trapped hundreds of people and swamped entire communities along the Carolina coast.

Florence has been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm but worst may still be ahead

A rescue team from the North Carolina National Guard 1/120th battalion evacuates a family from their home as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Florence rise in New Bern, N.C., Friday. (Chris Seward/Associated Press)
  • Florence downgraded to a tropical storm.
  • At least 4 people killed.
  • Severe flooding possible in both North and South Carolina.
  • More than 890,000 homes and businesses without power.

Blowing ashore with howling 155 km/h winds, the former hurricane known as Florence splintered buildings, trapped hundreds of people and swamped entire communities along the Carolina coast Friday in what could be just the opening act in a watery, slow-motion disaster.

At least four people have reportedly been killed.

A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from police in Wilmington, N.C. The father was transported to a hospital for treatment.

Also, a 77-year-old man was apparently knocked down by the wind and died after going out to check on his hunting dogs, and another man was electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain, authorities said.

Forecasters warned that drenching rains — of between 30 centimetres and one metre as the storm crawls westward across North and South Carolina — could trigger major flooding well inland over the next few days.

As 645-kilometre-wide storm 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, N.C., while many of their neighbours awaited help. More than 60 people had to be rescued in another town as a cinderblock motel collapsed at the height of the storm's fury. 

High winds and water surround a house as Hurricane Florence hits Swansboro, N.C., Friday. (Tom Copeland/Associated Press)

Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and the assault wasn't anywhere close to being over by late Friday, with the siege in the Carolinas expected to last all weekend. The storm knocked out power to more than 890,000 homes and businesses, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks the U.S. electrical grid.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper called Florence an "uninvited brute" that could wipe out entire communities as it grinds across the state.

It's an uninvited brute who doesn't want to leave.- Roy Cooper, North Carolina governor

"The fact is this storm is deadly and we know we are days away from an ending," Cooper said. 

At a briefing with reporters Friday, he warned residents living inland to remain on guard. "If the storm hasn't reached you yet, it's still coming."

He said the state was preparing for the possibility that as many as 2.5 million residents could lose power.

After reaching a Category 4 peak with 225 km/h winds earlier in the week, Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. ET at Wrightsville Beach, a few kilometres east of Wilmington and not far from the South Carolina line, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.

By Friday evening, Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm, its winds weakened to 112 km/h as it moved forward at 6 km/h about 25 kilometres north of Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But it was clear that storm's impact was really about the water, not the wind. Several communities got more than 40 centimetres of rain, and Oriental, N.C., got more than 50 centimetres in just a few hours.

Florence's forward movement during the day slowed to a near-standstill — sometimes it was going no faster than a person can walk — and that enabled it to pile on the rain.

The flooding soon spread into South Carolina, swamping places like North Myrtle Beach, a resort area known for its white sands and multitude of golf courses.

For people living inland, 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.

Volunteer Amber Hersel from the Civilian Crisis Response Team helps rescue Keiyana Cromartie, 7, and her family from their flooded home on Friday in James City. The hurricane is forcing hundreds of people to call for emergency rescues in the area around New Bern, N.C., which sits at the confluence of two rivers. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Preparing for the worst, about 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats that could be used to pluck people from the floodwaters.

Volunteer Amber Hersel of the Civilian Crisis Response Team helped to rescue a family from their flooded home on in James City on Friday. Hersel told CBC News that she has a daughter the same age as seven-year-old Keiyana Cromartie, who she carried to safety.

"If I was in that situation I would hope someone would come and help my family," said Hersel. 

Rescue workers, police and fire department members wait to remove the bodies of a mother and child who were killed by a falling tree in Wilmington, N.C., Friday. (Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer via Associated Press)

Hersel said she kept Keiyana comfortable by getting her to talk about the family's dog.

Florence was seen as 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 storm was blamed for nearly 3,000 deaths.

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 68 trillion litres of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That's enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay or cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 10 centimetres of water, he calculated.

On Friday, coastal streets in the Carolinas flowed with frothy ocean water, and pieces of torn-apart buildings flew through the air. The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines.

Watch this video about the science behind Hurricane Florence:

A gas station crumples under the force of gusts generated by Hurricane Florence as it nears the U.S. East Coast. 0:28

Airlines cancelled more than 2,100 flights through Sunday.

In Jacksonville, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull 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. "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 neighbourhood during Florence's assault.

"The wind was so hard, the waters were so hard, that trying to get out we got thrown into trailers. We got thrown into mailboxes, houses, trees," said Holt, who had stayed at home because of a doctor's appointment that was later cancelled. She retreated and was eventually rescued by a boat crew; 140 more awaited assistance.

U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing to travel to areas affected by Florence next week.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will travel to the region "once it is determined his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts."

The Canadian government has warned citizens against travel to the stretch of the U.S. East Coast that is expected to be hammered by Florence.

With files from CBC News 

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