Florence’s record rain floods North Carolina as death toll reaches at least 9

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As pounding winds began to subside in the wake of deadly Hurricane Florence Saturday, the Carolinas readied for what may be even grimmer days ahead: unrelenting rain expected to push rivers already topping their banks even higher.

By Saturday evening, the storm’s death toll reached at least nine, including three people killed by flash flooding on roads. Flash flooding had shut down majors highways across North Carolina even as more evacuations were ordered. Hundreds have already been rescued from rising waters, including 300 in Beaufort County and more than 400 in historic New Bern, where Florence damaged a third of the small community’s homes.

In Lumberton, located near one of the region’s many troubled coal ash pits and the setting for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, residents and volunteers raced to brace a levee separating the town from the Lumber River with sandbags. The river was forecast to rise to over 19 feet by Saturday evening, then to nearly 24 feet Sunday, the same height that led to widespread flooding during Hurricane Matthew two years ago.

“We are doing all we can,” Lumberton Mayor John Cantey told CNN. “As the water comes in we’re going to try to block it, we’re going to pump. But please, God is with us.”

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Members of the National Guard and volunteers fill sand bags in Lumberton, N.C., where Hurricane Matthew caused damaging flooding after the nearby Lumber River topped its banks in 2016. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

Jabin Botsford The Washington Post

If preliminary measurements stand, Florence will have set a new record for rainfall in North Carolina, with the quaint fishing town of Swansboro hammered by more than 30 inches, about six inches higher than the record set by Floyd a decade ago. Storm surge warnings, which finally ended at 5 p.m., remained in place a full 24 hours after the storm’s eye crossed.

Florence began lashing the Carolinas with gusty wind and rain Thursday but didn’t make landfall until 7:15 a.m. Friday in Wrightsville Beach with 90 mph winds. Earlier in the week, about 600 miles from Cape Fear, it had threatened the coast as a fierce Cat 4 storm blowing at 140 mph. But while its winds weakened, its girth expanded, spreading damaging winds across more than 400 miles. More worrisome: it slowed down.

At 5 p.m. Saturday, the National Hurricane Center said the immense system was moving at just 2 to 3 mph through much of the day. That torturous pace, slower than most people walk, compounded the flooding threat by training repeated rain bands across the same areas, mostly in coastal North Carolina.

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Volunteers helped rescue residents from their flooded homes in New Bern, where a third of the town’s homes were damaged by Hurricane Florence. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla Getty Images

Flash flood warnings spread across the state and prompted evacuations as fears increased over cresting rivers, many of which are forecast to continue rising through next week. The Associated Press reported 7,500 had been ordered to leave areas along the Cape Fear river, including parts of Fayetteville, and another 1,100 about 90 miles inland. Complicating the escape: about 16 miles of I-95 was shut down.

Near Fayetteville, the river sat just under 20 feet on Saturday. It’s expected to hit 58 feet by Monday and over 62 feet Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

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Flood projections for rivers across the U.S. show Florence’s toll: purple dots show were rivers are expected to reach major flood stage over the next week.

“We know that people are anxious to get back home. But don’t go back until this storm passes and you get the all clear,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned. “Water is rising fast everywhere, even in places that don’t typically flood.”

The U.S. Coast Guard based in Elizabeth City conducted 50 rescues by helicopter on Saturday alone, a spokeswoman, along another five rescues in shallow water.

In addition to the flash flood deaths, authorities had confirmed six other fatalities: a mother and baby killed when a tree crashed through their roof in Wilmington; a 78-year-old man electrocuted when he tried to plug in an electrical cord in the rain; a 77-year-old man blown over by the storm; an ill woman rescuers were unable to reach because trees blocked the road to her house; and a 61-year-old woman killed when she drove into a downed tree. With flood threats increasing, the toll was expected to rise.

Power remained out for more than 850,000 Saturday evening.

In the coming days, as waters continue to rise and storm victims mount, FEMA is expected to face its biggest disaster since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year and left nearly 3,000 people dead. The agency said it embedded officials with the National Guard and other agencies before the storm hit and nailed down its logistics process.

“We’re not seeing gaps as far as preparing for Hurricane Florence,” Jeff Byard, FEMA’s associate administrator for Response and Recovery who took over the job before Harvey, said in a morning press conference. “So we feel like we’re very prepared.”

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People wait in line to fill up gas cans in Wilmington after Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas, leaving more than 850,000 without power on Saturday. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Mark Wilson Getty Images

The speed at which flash flooding spread surprised even state officials, who noted that the number of closed roads nearly doubled, from 60 to 100, in two hours. They asked highway travelers to avoid the state altogether.

“Let me assure you, this flooding is only going to get worse,” Mike Sprayberry, the state’s emergency management director, said in an afternoon press conference.

But there were some signs of hope. In Wilmington, a supermarket opened for the first time in four days, drawing throngs of people, many of whom saw the store’s notice on Facebook after power, and Internet access, returned to a two-block grid downtown.

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster said evacuation orders had been lifted for all but two counties, with schools and state offices to reopen on Monday. The state is also switching efforts from rescues to wellness checks.

“This has been an exercise in professionalism by people all over this state,” he said.

With the core of the storm almost parked over eastern South Carolina, forecasters predicted another 15 to 20 inches of rain could fall over south and central North Carolina and five to 10 inches to the rest of the state, South Carolina and Virginia.

By Monday, when a high pressure ridge lifts and weakens, it should finally begin to head into the Ohio Valley, likely leaving behind more than three feet of rain in its wake and days of flooded rivers.

This story was compiled from McClatchy papers in North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer; and in South Carolina, The State in Columbia, the Beaufort Gazette,The Island Packet in Hilton Head and The Sun News in Myrtle Beach; and supplemented with wire service reports.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich