WASHINGTON, N.C. >> After slamming into the Carolina coast today with powerful winds and torrential rains, Hurricane Florence left a trail of devastation as it crawled over the southeastern part of the state, posing what may be its greatest threat in the days ahead as it roars inland with what are shaping up to be record-setting quantities of water.
The storm, whose destructive power was unlike any the area has seen in a generation, had already caused at least five fatalities as of this afternoon, and rescue crews across a wide region were attempting to pluck distressed residents from rooftops. The victims included a mother and her infant in Wilmington, North Carolina, who were killed when a tree fell on their house, the police department said.
Rescuers spent hours trying to reach the mother and infant, who were trapped by the tree and a portion of the roof that had collapsed on them, said Deputy Fire Chief J.S. Mason.
Downed trees also delayed crews responding to a 911 call from the home of a woman who died of a heart attack this morning in Hampstead, an unincorporated area of Pender County, North Carolina, officials said. Another two people, both in their 70s, were killed in Lenoir County, one while trying to connect two extension cords outside in the rain, and the other when he went outside to check on his hunting dogs and was blown down by wind, authorities said.
Rescue teams had to suspend some operations because of powerful winds in South Carolina’s Horry County, which includes the coastal cities of Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach.
“We have now halted emergency responses until storm conditions allow for personnel to respond safely,” said Jay Fernandez, the director of public safety for North Myrtle Beach, describing winds so strong that rescuers were at risk.
“We put the message out that most likely we will not be able to respond to you,” he said. “We will do everything we can and we give them advice.”
Winds of up to 90 mph downed majestic trees, tore statues from their moorings and knocked out power for 650,000 people in towns along North Carolina’s coast today. In Carolina Beach, water coursed through the streets, carrying tree limbs and debris.
The hurricane, a Category 1 when it made landfall, was downgraded to a tropical storm today. By evening, it was about 50 miles west-southwest of Wilmington, and its winds had dropped to 70 mph. It is expected to drift southwest into South Carolina before turning north.
But state officials and federal weather authorities warned that the next few days, with an expected rainfall of up to 40 inches, hold new and serious hazards from the storm.
With many roads impassable, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina urged people not to return home and emphasized that there were many days of rain in the forecast.
“If the storm hasn’t reached you yet, it’s coming,” he said.
The forecasts, Cooper said, were predicting 1,000-year rainfall in some areas — rainfall so severe it has a 1-in-1,000 chance of occurring in any given year.
President Donald Trump is expected to visit areas affected by the storm next week, once it is determined that his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts, according to White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
Officials said it was too early to gauge the hurricane’s cost, but one expert, Gregory Daco at Oxford Economics, estimated the infrastructure damage at $30 billion to $40 billion, which would make Florence one of the 10 costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
As the storm took its toll, even some emergency shelters housing evacuees closed: 100 people were transferred elsewhere after the roof in a Lenoir County shelter was damaged by the wind, said Roger Dail, the county’s emergency services director.
Many rescue efforts relied on an aquatic approach to save stranded residents from flooded homes. As residents called 911 and posted messages on social media pleading for help, Christian Dreyer, a rescuer working in Washington, North Carolina, said his crew extracted some people in vehicles, but in other cases they had to drive boats up to the front door.
In nearby New Bern, one of the hardest-hit towns in the path of the hurricane, more than 360 residents who were trapped in homes, cars and on their roofs had been rescued by this evening, while 140 were awaiting assistance.
But the continued rainfall did not bode well for that tally.
“With the deterioration of the weather, people are calling back and saying, ‘The water is creeping back into my home,”’ said Colleen Roberts, a spokeswoman for the city, late this afternoon. “‘Can you please come get me?’”
Florence made landfall at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, on the eastern edge of Wilmington, where roads were lined with tree limbs, street signs and other debris. By 9:45 a.m., sheets of rain were pelting homes and parked cars. Trees were bent over, their limbs scraping the soggy ground. Motorists slowed at blockages, flashing their headlights as they eased past split tree trunks and severed power lines.
With electricity out since the early morning hours, the hum of generators cut through the roar of swirling winds. Neighborhood streets were deserted as those residents who chose to stay home hunkered down inside. Along North Fifth Street, a major artery in downtown Wilmington, live oaks and magnolias had toppled over, blocking sections of the road.
Weather forecasters said the ground, already saturated by recent rains, could easily lead to flash flooding as the storm moved inland.
The Cape Fear and Lumber rivers are expected to rise, causing potentially catastrophic floods. More flooding is expected in eastern North Carolina, as well as from Fayetteville to Charlotte, including areas that have not flooded previously. Rains were also expected to start this weekend in western North Carolina, where they could lead to landslides.
In a sign of the storm’s scope and length, the authorities in cities far from the coastline said they were bracing for prolonged trouble. Many feared a reprise of Hurricane Matthew, which spared much of the shoreline from severe damage only to deluge small towns in North Carolina’s river-veined coastal plain. Officials in Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, said schools and municipal government offices would be closed on Monday.
Stacy R. Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said some areas would continue to see wind gusts greater than 74 mph and that the storm would spawn tornadoes.
“We’re moving from a coastal threat of storm surge flooding and strong winds to more of a heavy rainfall — very heavy rainfall,” Stewart said.