WILMINGTON, N.C. - Blowing ashore with howling 90 mph winds, Hurricane 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, two-part, slow-motion disaster. At least four people were killed.
Forecasters warned that drenching rains of anywhere from 1 to 3½ feet as the storm crawls westward across North and South Carolina could trigger epic flooding well inland over the next few days.
As 400-mile-wide Florence pounded away at the coast with torrential downpours and surging seas, rescue crews used boats to reach scores of people besieged by rising waters along a river. More than 60 others had to be rescued as a cinderblock motel collapsed.
Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and knocked out power to three-quarters of a million homes and businesses, and the assault wasn’t anywhere close to being over, with the siege in the Carolinas expected to last all weekend.
“It’s an uninvited brute who doesn’t want to leave,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
The hurricane was “wreaking havoc” and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its “violent grind across our state for days,” the governor said. He said parts of North Carolina had seen storm surges - the bulge of seawater pushed ashore by the hurricane - as high as 10 feet.
A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from Wilmington police. 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 a man was electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain, authorities said.
Shaken after seeing waves crashing on the Neuse River just outside his house in the town of New Bern, restaurant owner and hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.
“I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth,” he said.
After reaching a terrifying Category 4 peak of 140 mph earlier in the week, Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles 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 weakening to 70 mph as it pushed inland. But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind.
Florence’s forward movement during the day slowed to a crawl - sometimes it was moving no faster than a human can walk - and that enabled it to pile on the rain. The town of Oriental, North Carolina, got more than 20 inches of rain just a few hours into the deluge. Others got well over a foot.
For people living inland in the Carolinas, 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.
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.
Authorities warned, too, of the threat of mudslides and the risk of an environmental disaster from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.
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 death toll was put at nearly 3,000.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a right hook to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.