Thousands of people living near North Carolina's rising rivers were ordered to evacuate yesterday as hurricane-turned-tropical storm Florence practically parked itself over land and poured on the rain, raising fears that the state could be in for the most destructive flooding in its history.
The death toll has risen to 14, the Charlotte Observer reports.
A day after Florence blew ashore in North Carolina with 145kmh winds, Coast Guard officials reported using helicopters to lift scores of people from rooftops and swamped cars near the shoreline, and rescue crews used inflatable boats to reach others trapped in their submerged homes.
More than 60cm of rain had fallen in places, and the drenching went on and on, with forecasters saying there could be an additional 46cm by the end of the weekend.
Rivers and creeks rose toward record levels, threatening flash flooding that could devastate communities and endanger dams, roads and bridges.
"I cannot overstate it: Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren't watching for them you are risking your life," Governor Roy Cooper said.
As of 2pm, Florence was centered about 85 kilometres west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, inching west at 3kmh — about as fast as a person walks. Its winds were down to 75kmh. With half of the storm still out over the Atlantic, Florence continued to collect warm ocean water and dump it on land.
In its initial onslaught along the coast, Florence buckled buildings, deluged entire communities and knocked out power to more than 900,000 homes and businesses. But the storm was shaping up as a two-part disaster, with the second, delayed-action stage consisting of epic inland flooding, caused by rainwater working its way into rivers and streams.
Authorities ordered an immediate evacuation of an estimated 2800 homes within a 1.5km of a stretch of the Cape Fear River, plus a section of the Little River, because of what they said was imminent danger from floodwaters. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, with a population of 200,000.
Officials in North Carolina's Harnett County, about 90 miles inland, urged residents of about 1100 homes to clear out because the Lower Little River was rising toward record levels.
In New Bern, along the coast, homes were completely surrounded by water, and rescuers used inflatable boats to reach people. More than 360 people had been carried to safety since Thursday night.
Kevin Knox and his family were rescued from their flooded brick home with the help of Army Sgt. Johan Mackie, part of a team that was using a phone app to locate people in distress. Mackie rode in a boat through a flooded neighborhood, navigating through trees and past a fencepost to get to the Knox house.
"Amazing. They did awesome," said Knox, who was stranded with seven others, including a boy who was carried out in a life vest. "If not we'd be stuck upstairs for the next ... how long? I have no idea."
Across the Trent River from New Bern, Jerry and Jan Andrews returned home after evacuating to find carp flopping in their backyard near the porch stairs.
Across the street, Coast Guard helicopters were taking off to rescue stranded people. Coast Guardsmen said choppers had made about 50 rescues in and around New Bern and Jacksonville as of noon.
Along the Lumber River in Lumberton, workers used heavy machinery to dump extra sand on a railbed prone to flooding. Flooding forced the shutdown of a 26-kilometre stretch of Interstate 95, the main highway along the Eastern Seaboard.
The dead included a mother and baby killed when a tree fell on a house in Wilmington, North Carolina. South Carolina recorded its first death from the storm when officials said a 61-year-old woman was killed when her vehicle hit a tree that had fallen across a highway.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence broke a North Carolina rainfall record that had stood for almost 20 years: Preliminary reports showed Swansboro got over 76cm and counting, eclipsing the mark set in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd dropped just over 61cm on the state.
As of noon, Emerald Isle had over 58cm of rain, and Wilmington and Goldsboro had about 30cm. North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had around 17cm.
Stream gauges across the region showed water levels steadily rising, with forecasts calling for rivers to crest Sunday and Monday at or near record levels. The Little River, the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse, the Waccamaw and the Pee Dee were all projected to rise over their banks, flooding cities and towns.
The storm interrupted a September rite in the South: college football. Schools canceled, postponed, switched sites or changed kickoff times because of Florence. No. 2 Clemson and Georgia Southern had sunny skies and unseasonably mild weather for the only major conference game being played in the Carolinas and Virginia.
The hurricane center said the storm will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a sharp rightward swing to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.
North Carolina alone is forecast to get 36 trillion litres, enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 25cm.
There have been 11 deaths in North Carolina and three in South Carolina linked to Hurricane Florence, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Wilmington Police reported on Twitter that a tree fell on a house, killing a mother and baby around 9.30am on Friday (local time). The father was pulled from the home and transported to a local hospital with injuries, police said.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper confirmed one of the deaths occurred in Lenoir County, when someone was plugging in a generator, according to a press release. TV station WNCN said the 78-year-old victim and was "trying to connect two extension cords outside in the rain".
The station reported the fourth death involved a 77-year-old Kinston man who family members said died at 8am on Friday when he was "blown down by the wind" while tending dogs.
The fifth death, indirectly linked to the storm, occurred in Pender County's Hampstead community, when a woman died of a heart attack when trees blocked the road, stopping emergency crews from reaching her.
A 61-year-old woman died in South Carolina when the vehicle she was driving hit a fallen tree.
Three people died in Duplin County "due to flash flooding and swift water on roadways", the Duplin County Sheriff's Office announced on Saturday.
An 81-year-old man in Wayne County who fell and struck his head while packing to evacuate Friday is being counted as a storm-related death by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh, the Associated Press reported. A husband and wife who died in a house fire in Cumberland County on Friday are also being counted as linked to the storm, according to the Associated Press and The Fayetteville Observer.