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Darkness and danger spread across North Carolina on Saturday, as Florence blasted an ever-widening swath of the state with torrential rain and dangerous wind.
At 3 p.m. Saturday, state officials warned that most of North Carolina will face flooding in the coming week and begged travelers to stay off the road. With stretches of interstate closed Saturday and a rolling wave of flash floods moving east to west, they said drivers could face major detours at best and life-threatening danger at worst.
“Powerful torrents of water are flooding homes, wiping out roads and sweeping away cars in North Carolina,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “I’m here with an urgent travel warning: Stay off the roads in most parts of the state of North Carolina.”
“I’ve never seen flash flooding like this occur in our state,” said Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon, a veteran of several hurricanes and storms in 27 years with the department.
Five people in North Carolina and one in South Carolina had died from storm-related incidents as of Saturday, and Cooper said others remained under investigation. The fatalities illustrate the scope of hazards facing people in Florence’s broad path: Two were killed by a tree falling on their home, while another was hit by a falling tree while driving. One person was electrocuted while connecting extension cords in water and one was blown over by wind while tending his dogs. Another succumbed to a heart attack while emergency workers coming to her aid were blocked by fallen trees.
As parts of the coast began readmitting evacuated residents, officials warned that many of the biggest problems will play out over the next few days.
“Many people who think that the storm has missed them have yet to see its threat: Residents of Charlotte, Asheville, Fayetteville, Statesville, the Southern Piedmont, the Sandhills, the mountains,” Cooper warned Saturday morning.
Saturday afternoon Cumberland County officials issued a mandatory evacuation for everyone living within one mile of the banks of the Cape Fear and Little rivers because of the risk of dangerous flooding. Twenty-eight counties, ranging as far north and west as Harnett County and Ashe County, had mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders in place Saturday evening.
North Carolina Emergency Management reported Saturday that portions of eastern North Carolina had 25 inches of rain already, with more to come. High tides bring an extra risk of “life-threatening inundation,” the agency tweeted. Heavy rain Saturday and Sunday carries the threat of “catastrophic flooding” in the coastal plain and sandhills, the report continues. “Gusty winds, scattered showers & a possibility of tornadoes will be constant through the day. Major river flooding possible,” it said.
In western North Carolina, “heavy rain and gusty winds throughout the weekend will increase the threat of flooding and numerous landslides across the mountains. River flooding is likely by the end of the weekend and into next week,” Emergency Management warned.
The North Carolina National Guard activated 2,800 troops for rescue duty. The state reported 245 rescues from the flooded eastern part of the state as of Saturday afternoon.
Across the Carolinas, power outages topped the 1 million mark Saturday morning. Utility crews were restoring some neighborhoods Saturday even as others went lost electricity. Wake County, for instance, went from more than 29,000 without power in the morning to about 15,000 by midafternoon. Mecklenburg went from more than 10,000 without power to fewer than 6,300 in the same span — but the worst of the storm was still heading toward the Charlotte region.
Officials warned residents not to let down their guard, even after the worst of Florence’s wind and rain passes them. Flooding and falling trees and power lines will remain a hazard for days to come, they said.
“Know that the water is rising fast everywhere, even in places that don’t typically flood. This system is unloading epic amounts of rainfall in some places measured in feet not inches. Rivers will rise days after the rain has stopped,” Cooper said. In eastern North Carolina, rivers will crest as late as Wednesday, he said.
Bright spots amid storm
While the storm brought grief, anxiety and massive inconvenience, it also brought glimmers of hope and humor.
Emergency crews, utility workers and volunteers from at least 23 states have converged on the Carolinas.
In Myrtle Beach, police posted video of officers coralling escaped ducks and a resident of the Osprey Cove neighborhood laughed and called “Run, gator, run! Run from Florence” as she taped an alligator crossing a neighborhood street during the storm, the News & Observer reported.
The News & Observer reported on a California couple who made the cross-country drive to Topsail Beach, just north of Wilmington, for their weekend wedding, only to be forced out by mandatory evacuation orders. They and their friends and relatives scrambled to re-organize the ceremony in New York, but they vowed to return next summer for the family’s annual beach trip.
And the herd manager for the famous Outer Banks wild horses told the News & Observer Friday that the horses appear to have survived the storm in fine shape. The herd had no losses “that we know of,” Meg Puckett said. “We were so, so lucky.”
Cooper called on residents to rise to the occasion.
“We in North Carolina have been through tough storms. This one is sure testing us,” he said. “Now is the time for us to persevere.”
Effects will linger
Life is nowhere near close to returning to normal.
High water, downed power lines fallen trees have blocked many roads in eastern North Carolina, a challenge that started spreading further inland Saturday. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police reported several roads blocked Saturday, The Charlotte Observer reported.
Flooding closed a 16-mile stretch of I-95 near Fayetteville and a five-mile stretch of I-40 in eastern North Carolina Saturday afternoon, the Department of Transportation reported.
At Saturday afternoon’s briefing, Trogdon raised the possibility that ongoing floods and road closures could keep colleges, universities and schools closed well into the coming week.
UNC-Chapel Hill opened a shelter Saturday that will hold several hundred people, the News & Observer reported. Since coastal evacuations began midweek, about 20,000 people have already taken refuge in a network of emergency shelters at schools and houses of faith across the state.
Several shelters in eastern North Carolina, including two in Wake County high schools, were full Saturday, according to the state’s tally. The five Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools set up to take evacuees still had space. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will remain closed Monday, the third day related to Florence, as the city sizes up storm damage and the need for shelters continues.
Some of Charlotte’s towering trees started crashing onto homes and power lines Saturday, but officials warned that the real deluge wasn’t expected to start until Saturday night.
Florence began battering the North Carolina coast on Thursday, flooding homes and damaging piers even before it made landfall near Wrightsville Beach as a Category 1 hurricane Friday morning. It was downgraded to a tropical storm based on wind speed Friday evening, but the slow-moving storm dropping record-breaking rain remains dangerous.
As of 9:06 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Geological Service rain gauge at Emerald Isle showed a 24-hour rainfall total of 27.7 inches, which would be a state record, the News & Observer reported.
Tornadoes added risk, with at least half a dozen reported on radar in eastern and southeastern North Carolina. The danger continues as the storm moves over land. Tornadoes spawned by hurricanes “most often occur in thunderstorms embedded in rain bands well away from the center of the hurricane,” a National Hurricane Center report says. “However, they can also occur near the eyewall. Usually, tornadoes produced by tropical cyclones are relatively weak and short-lived, but they still pose a significant threat.”
Coast is still risky
Some communities on the North Carolina coast were allowing evacuated residents to return Saturday. But Cooper urged people not to return.
“Don’t make yourself someone who needs to be rescued. … All roads in the state right now are at risk of floods,” Cooper said. “If you have evacuated from the coast to a safe place, don’t go back now.”
The people who stayed in Myrtle Beach awoke Saturday to more rain and gusts from the ocean, bringing higher waves than the Grand Strand had seen from the storm so far, the Sun News reported. In central Myrtle Beach, near the Skywheel and the old Pavillion, some people were venturing out to take a look at the beach or see if they could find an open store.
Jerry Bowman was walking back home down 6th Avenue North near Ocean Boulevard with his blue jacket pulled over his head against the wind and rain. “I’m just trying to find a store that’s open,” he said before he walked back into the weekly motel where he lives on Chester Street.
The beach was clearly eroded at access points. The winds and waves in recent days had pushed more sand back up to the dunes. Flowing water from the beach accesses cut through the sand, as much as two feet in some areas, as the rain drained to the ocean.
In Wilmington, a crowd of 500 lined up outside a Harris Teeter that got power back Saturday and became the first grocery store to open in four days, the News & Observer reported.
Charles Duncan of the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News and Ely Portillo and Ames Alexander of The Charlotte Observer contributed.
Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms