Rescuers were last night plucking residents from flooded homes as North Carolina's swollen rivers reached record or near record crests from the epic rains unleashed by Florence.

Though downgraded to a tropical depression, Florence is still massive and dangerous as it covers parts of six states with North Carolina yesterday still very much in the bull's eye.

At least 17 people have been confirmed dead from the fierce storm and officials warn several North Carolina rivers could reach record or near-record crests from today.

Meanwhile, the city of Wilmington had been largely cut off from the rest of North Carolina by rising floodwaters from Florence. Emergency officials said they planned to airlift food and water to the beleaguered city of nearly 120,000 people.

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"The risk to life is rising with the angry waters," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said yesterday.

The storm continued to crawl westward, dumping more than 75cm of rain in spots since Saturday, and fears of historic flooding grew. Tens of thousands were ordered evacuated from communities along the state's steadily rising rivers.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said officials were focused on finding people and rescuing them.

"We'll get through this. It'll be ugly, but we'll get through it," Long told NBC's Meet The Press. As rivers swelled, state regulators and environmental groups were monitoring the threat from gigantic hog and poultry farms located in low-lying, flood-prone areas.

The industrial-scale farms contain vast pits of animal faeces and urine that can pose a significant pollution threat if they are breached or inundated by floodwaters. In past hurricanes, flooding at dozens of farms also left hundreds of thousands of dead hogs, chickens and other decomposing livestock bobbing in floodwaters.

- AP