By JONATHAN DREW
WILMINGTON, N.C. Blowing ashore with howling 90 mph winds, 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 1 to 3 feet, as the hurricane-turned-tropical 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 more than 360 people besieged by rising waters in New Bern, while many of their neighbors awaited help.
More than 60 people had to be rescued in another town as a cinderblock motel collapsed at the height of the storms fury.
Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and the assault wasnt anywhere close to being over, 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.
“The fact is this storm is deadly and we know we are days away from an ending,” Cooper said. Parts of North Carolina had seen storm surges the bulge of seawater pushed ashore by the hurricane as high as 10 feet, he said.
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, Lenoir County authorities said, and the governor’s office said a man was electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain.
Shaken after seeing waves crashing on the Neuse River just outside his house in 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.
It came 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 70 mph as it moved forward at 3 mph about 15 miles north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind. Several places already had more than 16 inches of rain, and Oriental, North Carolina got more than 20 inches 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 human can walk and that enabled it to pile on the rain.
The flooding soon spread into South Carolina, swamping places like North Myrtle Beach, in a resort area known for its white sands and multitude of golf courses.
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.