Florence sweeps deeper into North Carolina, and the worst may still lie ahead

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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.

Five North Carolinians had died from storm-related incidents as of Saturday morning, and Gov. Roy 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, one 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.

“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 in a Saturday news conference.

North Carolina Emergency Management tweeted 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.

Across the Carolinas, power outages topped the 1 million mark Saturday morning, including more than 28,000 in Wake County, more than 10,000 in Mecklenburg and about 800 in Durham.

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.

Humanity shines amid storm

While the storm brought grief, anxiety and massive inconvenience, it also brought reminders of shared humanity.

Emergency crews, utility workers and volunteers from at least 23 states have converged on the Carolinas.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Some communities on the North Carolina coast were allowing evacuated residents to return Saturday. But in Myrtle Beach, S.C., officials urged evacuees to stay put, citing the risk of continued wind gusts and rain, the Sun News reported.

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. 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.

Charles Duncan of the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News and Ely Portillo of The Charlotte Observer contributed.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms