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.
On the upside, Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm as it slowed on Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
"Significant weakening is forecast over the weekend and into early next week while Florence moves farther inland," NHC said.
But forecasters still 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 more than 700,000 homes and businesses, and the assault wasn't near an end.
"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, one person was killed while plugging in a generator, and a man was knocked to the ground while outside and died, authorities said.
Shaken after seeing waves crashing in the Neuse River just outside his house in the town of New Bern, hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.
"I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth," said Ballance, owner of a seafood restaurant that was flooded.
By early afternoon, Florence's winds had weakened to 75 mph, just barely a hurricane and well below the storm's terrifying Category 4 peak of 140 mph earlier in the week. But the hurricane had slowed to a crawl, drenching coastal communities for hours on end.
The town of Oriental, North Carolina, had gotten more than 18 inches of rain just a few hours into the deluge, while Surf City had 14 inches and it was still coming down.
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. It started pushing its way westward across South Carolina later in the day, in a watery siege that could go on all weekend.
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 storm was blamed for nearly 3,000 deaths in the desperate aftermath.
As Florence raged, a tropical disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico brought heavy rain to already saturated areas along the Texas coast, resulting in street flooding and prompting some schools to cancel or cut short classes.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence will eventually make a right hook to the northeast over the southern Appalachians, moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England as a tropical depression by the middle of next week.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons 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 4 inches (10 centimeters) of water, he calculated.
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 (25 centimeters).
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. Traffic lights out of order because of power failures swayed in the gusty wind. Roof shingles were peeled off a hotel.
The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 105 mph (169 kph), the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958.
Airlines canceled more than 2,100 flights through Sunday.
In Jacksonville, North Carolina, 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 trapped people, and Mayor Dana Outlaw told The Charlotte Observer that about 200 had been rescued by 5 a.m. Residents reached out for help through the night by phone and social media.
"WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU," the city of New Bern 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."
Sheets of rain splattered against windows of a hotel before daybreak in Wilmington, where Sandie Orsa of Wilmington sat in a lobby lit by emergency lights after the electricity went out.
"Very eerie, the wind howling, the rain blowing sideways, debris flying," said Orsa, who lives nearby and feared splintering trees would pummel her house.
More than 12,000 people were in shelters in North Carolina and 400 in Virginia, where the forecast was less dire. Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it was unclear how many did.
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