UPDATE: Florence kills 9 and batters N.C. agricultural town with relentless rain
'This is an uninvited brute that just won't leave,' said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
UPDATE: BURGAW, N.C. — More than a day after Florence’s eye passed through southeastern North Carolina, a slower, and potentially more destructive threat emerged: pounding rains and a storm surge that pushed rivers over their banks, overflowing into small inland towns.
In the agricultural town of Burgaw, about 26 miles north of Wilmington, the swollen Northeast Cape Fear River and various creeks connected to it poured into streets and slipped into homes. Authorities began swift-water boat rescues before dawn, and the activity picked up as water continued to rise.
Many of the state highways leading out of town were also disappearing under water.
The operations were made more perilous by fallen trees and power lines; officials didn’t expect power to be restored for weeks. More than 751,859 people in North Carolina without power as of 3 p.m. ET in North Carolina, North Carolina Emergency Management tweeted.
At least eight people were killed after Hurricane Florence made landfall on North Carolina's coast on Friday, and at least one person was killed in South Carolina.
Rescued families were delivered to shelters, where approximately 20,000 people across the state were housed on Saturday.
Here's the latest on Tropical Storm Florence:
- Three people were killed in Duplin County, North Carolina, in separate incidents. Each person died after their vehicle washed away in high waters, according to Duplin County Sheriff Blake Wallace. The total dead from the storm in North and South Carolina was nine as of 4 p.m. ET.
- More than 751,859 people in North Carolina were without power as of 3 p.m. ET in North Carolina, North Carolina Emergency Management tweeted.
- A rain gauge in Wilmington, North Carolina, measured 13.82 inches from Florence so far, according to the National Weather Service. The service said an additional 13 inches could fall before Florence dissipates.
- As of Saturday at 5 p.m. ET, the storm's center was about 60 miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and was moving west at 2 mph.
- A flash flood warning was in effect for Wilmington, Lumberton and Murraysville until 10 p.m. ET, according to the NWS.
- The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 20 to 30 people in River Hills, a subdivision near Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Burgaw Mayor Pete Cowan warned that the local hospital was not accessible; it had already been evacuated. “We’re asking people, please stay off the streets unless it is an absolute emergency,” he said.
Cowan said he worried that the floods would destroy many of the crops that drive the local agricultural economy.
The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm on Friday evening, and the National Weather Service said early Saturday that it was "slowly weakening." Its sustained winds had weakened to 45 mph and the storm was expected to further downgrade to a tropical depression by Saturday night.
Steve Goldstein, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration liaison to FEMA headquarters, said on Saturday that the storm would "produce catastrophic flooding for some time," adding that many rivers would still experience catastrophic flooding from the storm and that 3- to 5-foot storm surges were still possible along the coast. Areas further inland through southwest Virginia could see as much as 15 inches of rainfall.
By mid-afternoon Saturday, about 20 rescue operations had taken place in communities near the Northeast Cape Fear River and one of its tributaries, the Black River, said Tammy Proctor, spokeswoman for Pender County Emergency Management.
Some parts of Burgaw commonly flood during heavy rains, and officials went to those parts before Florence’s arrival to tell residents there to evacuate. The swift-water rescues on Saturday morning were mostly of people who hadn’t heeded those orders, said Burgaw Fire Capt. Nick Smith.
Many people may have mistakenly believed that they were in the clear after the worst of Florence’s winds passed, Smith said, but the back end of the storm is lingering longer than expected.
“Usually we’d be cleaning roads and done by now,” Smith said. “But we’re still in the throes of it.”
On Saturday morning, Gov. Roy Cooper echoed Smith, saying that residents faced "walls of water" along the coast and rivers.
"Know that the water is rising fast everywhere, even in places that don’t typically flood," Cooper said. "This system is unloading epic amounts of rainfall. Many people who think the storm has missed them have yet to see its threat."
Tom Watson watched floodwaters creep toward his home on the south edge of Burgaw, where he rode out the storm with his wife and adult daughter, who fled from Wilmington to be with them as Florence approached. Over the course of two hours on Saturday morning, the water had risen 4 inches, he said.
"If it rises any higher, I’ll break out the jon boat and go somewhere,” said Watson, 62, a retired building inspector. “But right now we’ll wait and see if the water gets up to that point.”
Under a car port on Route 117 South in Burgaw, Kevin Everett’s family cooked pancakes and bacon on a charcoal grill. They didn’t have power or running water, and were trying to make the best of things.
During most serious storms, floodwaters filled the roadside drainage ditch then receded. But on Saturday morning, the water kept coming, swallowing Everett's front yard and threatening his 1978 Ford F100 custom pickup.
Everett, 43, didn’t plan to evacuate, but he had seven family members to think about, including a young grandson.
“I’ll grow concerned if the water starts getting close to my truck. Then maybe I’ll take my family to closest shelter,” he said.
But for now, “we’re going to try to ride it out as long as we can,” he said.
William Woodburn and his family stood on their porch in bare feet, watching the rain. Florence had torn a piece of their roof off, and now water was leaking in and approaching from the yard.
“It’s been a little hairy at times,” Woodburn, 45, said.
Woodburn hadn’t considered fleeing — yet.
“I don’t even know if we can get out of Pender County right now,” Woodburn said. “If we do, we’ll just try to head to higher ground, even if we have to stay in a van.”
Asked if he was getting nervous, he said: “I’m not worried because there’s a point where fear has to face the God I know and its bigger than anything in this world.”
In other parts of the state, those who decided to stay behind and ride out the storm needed rescuing as the storm stalled.
Early Saturday, approximately 20 people were rescued near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, by military officials and delivered to the Piney Green Volunteer Fire Department before being transferred to Onslow County shelters.
Roger Cozine, 62, who lives in Jacksonville, tried to stay in his home as long as possible, but said rising floodwaters forced him to flee to a relatives house.
“I rode out the storm as much as I could," Cozine said. "I woke up at 6 a.m., and the water was coming into the house.”
Cozine packed his belongings and went up the street to a relative's house, but said if the water continues rising at the current rate, they will have to evacuate.
"These are terrible times and now all I can do is just pray not only for me but for everybody around me,” he said.
PREVIOUS STORY: WILMINGTON, N.C. — At least five people were killed after Hurricane Florence crashed ashore on North Carolina's coast Friday morning, ripping apart roofs with extreme winds, threatening massive storm surges and requiring dozens of water rescues.
Hours after Florence's eye made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, northeast of Wilmington, the storm wobbled along the coast with a slow grind. Its lumbering pace propelled fears that flooding would worsen during high tide and force rivers to crest at record levels.
At 5 p.m., the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm, but the National Weather Service warned that it was expected to produce “catastrophic freshwater flooding” in parts of the Carolinas, and that potentially life-threatening storm surge will continue Friday night.
Here's the latest on Hurricane Florence:
- A mother and her 8-month-old child died in Wilmington when a tree fell on their home, police said. Another woman died in Pender County after suffering a medical condition, and two deaths occurred in Lenoir County.
- The storm made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. ET Friday. As of 5 p.m., Florence was about 50 miles west-southwest of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 25 miles northeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and moving west at around 3 mph.
- There were more than 686,000 power outages as of Friday afternoon in North Carolina, according to the state department of public safety. More than 66,000 customers in South Carolina were also in the dark.
- New Bern, north of Wilmington, had about 150 calls for people requiring rescue Friday.
- About 20,000 people in North Carolina sought refuge in more than 150 shelters, officials said. In South Carolina, there were more than 6,000 people in shelters Friday afternoon.
Florence was a Category 1 storm when it made landfall but continued to carry maximum sustained winds of 70 mph and crawl along at just 3 mph Friday evening. Forecasters warned of a potential storm total rainfall of up to 40 inches of rain in some parts. "This rainfall will produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding," the National Hurricane Center said.
More than 686,000 customers were without power in North Carolina Friday afternoon, according to emergency management officials, as social media users shared videos of snapped trees and water rushing onto coastal streets like rivers.
In Wilmington, first responders rushed to a neighborhood where a tree fell on the back of a home, trapping a father, mother and child, reported NBC News' Lester Holt.
The unidentified woman and 8-month-old infant were killed, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said at a news conference.
The father was freed and taken to the hospital with unknown injuries, although a fire official said the victim had a "crush injury" and may have had a body part amputated, Holt reported.
In neighboring Pender County, a police spokeswoman said a woman died after suffering a medical condition. She had called for assistance, but large trees blocked roads to her home, the official added.
Two people died in Lenoir County, county Emergency Services Director Roger Dail said. A 78-year-old man was electrocuted while attempting to connect two extension cords in the rain, and a 77-year-old man was found dead Friday morning and he is believed to have been killed after being blown down by wind while going outside to check on his hunting dogs, Dail said.
Wilmington was hit with wind gusts of over 100 mph on Friday morning. Drivers weaved through streets cluttered with debris, and much of the city of about 115,000 residents remained without power Friday afternoon.
But the city was spared from widespread flooding, at least so far; authorities warned that storm surges may still swell the Cape Fear River and its tributaries, which at some points looked perilously close to overflowing Friday afternoon.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper cautioned that flooding and rising waters could inundate low-lying communities for days.
"This is an uninvited brute that just won't leave," Cooper said on "Today."
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said earlier Friday that his city had gotten more than 100 emergency calls, but crews have had difficulty getting out while the storm rages ashore and there's been "significant" inland flooding.
"I've been here all my life, and I've never seen a hurricane that's here for two days and pretty much on top of you," Saffo told "Today." He said Friday afternoon that "we’ve had a tremendous amount of damage in the community," and warned that many deaths in a hurricane happen in the storm’s aftermath.
Buddy Martinette, chief of the Wilmington Fire Department, added that crews have been unable to reach the city's beach neighborhoods and felled trees have turned accessing roads into a "jigsaw" puzzle.
"It is dangerous out there. There are live power lines, there are trees — it is a bad situation, and the winds are still pretty strong out there, and we expect more trees to come down," Evangelous, the Wilmington police chief, said Friday afternoon.
Officials have been most concerned about torrential rainfall and flooding as high tide approached by noon, with another high tide expected around midnight Friday. The National Hurricane Center said a gauge in Emerald Isle, about 84 miles north of Wilmington, reported 6.3 feet of inundation. More than 20 inches of rain was reported at Atlantic Beach, located on a North Carolina barrier island.
Fire and rescue officials in the riverfront city of New Bern, about 90 miles north of Wilmington, said water rescues were taking place and urged people not to take refuge in their attics unless they have a way to cut through the ceiling.
New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw said about 200 people were rescued overnight and taken to shelters, while another 150 were still awaiting help early Friday. He said some residents remained holdouts even after crews went door to door pleading for them to seek emergency shelter.
"Be patient, we're on the way. We will get you rescued," Outlaw said while cautioning that first responders must be careful for their own safety.
In Jacksonville, North Carolina, more than 60 people, including one child, had to be rescued from a motel just after 12:30 a.m. ET as the storm threatened its structural integrity, Mayor Sammy Phillips told "Today." No one was killed, but there were reports of trees and power lines and other damage elsewhere in the city.
In total, more than 10 million people face "life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds" from Florence, the NHC said. Days ahead of the storm, about 1.7 million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia were warned to evacuate before its outer bands reached the coast Thursday.
Among those deciding not to flee Florence was Wilmington resident Julio Martinez, who told NBC News on Thursday that he had hoarded enough water and food to last a few days.
"Everyone is evacuating and freaking out," Martinez, 28, said, "and I tell them, 'I'll see you when you get back.'"
Downpours from Florence were expected to continue through the weekend into early next week, having already produced more than 10 inches as the storm moves through South Carolina and farther inland. Severe flooding is forecast from Charleston to Columbia in South Carolina and north in Charlotte, North Carolina.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at a news conference Friday afternoon that the main concern is flooding because of the slowness of the storm and the fact that rivers in the state flow from North Carolina, which is also experiencing heavy rain.
"We are not going to have electricity for a large part of the state for days and maybe even weeks," McMaster said. "This is going to be a very trying period," he said.
On Twitter, President Donald Trump thanked first responders and law enforcement for their "incredible job" during Florence.
Trump plans to visit areas affected by the storm in the middle of next week, once it is clear that the trip would not disrupt rescue and recovery efforts, a White House spokesperson said.
Trump received backlash for tweeting Thursday that "3,000 people did not die" in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. An independent report commissioned by the Puerto Rican government and conducted by George Washington University's Milken Institute of Public Health found an estimated 2,975 people died in Puerto Rico in the five months after Maria devastated the island.
Jon Schuppe reported from Wilmington, and Erik Ortiz reported from New York.