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Updated 8:30 p.m. ET
A slowing Tropical Storm Florence continued to creep through the Carolinas on Saturday. The storm’s death toll has climbed to 12, and that number is expected to rise.
“Flash flooding and major river flooding occurring over a significant portion of the Carolinas,” the National Weather Service said in its 8 p.m. update on Saturday.
The storm is currently about 40 miles south of Florence, S.C. and 65 miles east of Columbia, S.C. Its westward motion is expected to continue through Saturday night, but “a turn toward the west-northwest and northwest is expected on Sunday,” according to the agency. “Florence is forecast to turn northward through the Ohio Valley by Monday.”
Florence came ashore early Friday morning. The storm’s maximum sustained winds have decreased slightly, from 50 mph to 45 mph, with higher gusts in heavy rainbands over water, the National Weather Service said. As it continues to chug west, it has slowed down from 5 mph to 2 mph. That means its torrential rains will be felt harder.
Heavy rains and floods
Rains from the storm have already been relentless, and continue to dump a catastrophic amount of water in its path. A record 30.59 inches of rain hit Swansboro, North Carolina by 4 p.m. Saturday. And although “water levels along the coast of North and South Carolina are gradually receding,” the National Weather Service said, additional flooding along the coast is still possible on Sunday.
The agency says southern and central portions of North Carolina into far northeast South Carolina are expected to report an additional 15 to 20 inches of rainfall — with storm totals between 30 and 40 inches along the coastal areas south of Cape Hatteras, N.C.
These rains are expected to produce “prolonged, significant river flooding” according to the NWS. This flooding is the biggest concern in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Mayor Mitch Colvin told NPR’s Michel Martin. The town enacted a mandatory evacuation for areas around the Cape Fear River on Saturday afternoon.
On Saturday morning, residents near the river in Castle Hayne, N.C., were already wading through water to get to their homes. “When it came in, it came in full force,” Castle Hayne resident Michelle Mullins told NPR’s Greg Allen.
The NWS predicts the Cape Fear River will reach 62 feet on Tuesday, 27 feet above flood stage and well into the zone of “major” flooding.
“Residents should not let their guard down,” North Carolina Emergency Management tweeted.
The rest of South Carolina into western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia is expected to report 5 to 10 inches of additional rainfall, with 15 inches in some isolated areas.
Parts of west-central Virginia and far eastern West Virginia will see “life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding, along with an elevated risk for landslides,” according to the agency. These areas will see 3 to 6 inches of rainfall, with isolated cases of 8 inches.
Florence has also generated “life-threatening” swells affecting Bermuda, portions of the U.S. East Coast, and the northwestern and central Bahamas. “These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions,” the Weather Service says.
The coroner of Union County, S.C., William Holcombe, confirmed to NPR that 61-year-old Amber Dawn Lee died in a traffic accident. Her vehicle struck a tree that had fallen across a roadway. Officials say the tree fell due to the winds caused by Hurricane Florence. Hers is the first death in South Carolina blamed on the storm.
In a Facebook post, the sheriff of Duplin County, N.C. says three people died there due to “flash flooding and swift water on roadways.” The state of North Carolina released confirmation of the deaths of a couple in Cumberland County and an 81-year-old man in Wayne County.
At least five other deaths are connected to the storm. As NPR reported on Friday:
“On Friday, a woman and infant were killed in Wilmington, N.C., when a tree fell on their home, according to the local police department. Another victim of the storm — a 78-year-old man — died in North Carolina while plugging in a generator, the state’s governor says.
“A second man, 77, in Lenoir County, appears to have been killed by a gust of wind that knocked him to the ground when he was checking on his hunting dogs.
“In Hampstead, N.C., a woman had a heart attack and debris in the roads prevented emergency responders from reaching her to provide care, a dispatcher confirms to member station WUNC.”
President Trump tweeted about some of the early fatalities on Saturday, saying “Deepest sympathies and warmth go out to the families and friends of victims.”
About 750,000 residents in Florence’s path are currently without power. That number is down from about one million early Saturday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us.
“FEMA was ready and continues to be ready,” FEMA regional administrator James Joseph told NPR on Saturday.
The organization has rolled out a “rumor-control webpage” to combat misinformation and unfounded rumors. Contrary to some rumors, “all service animals are allowed in shelters,” reads one post. “FEMA does not have authority to issue or enforce evacuation orders,” reads another.
In New Bern, N.C., a town that sits between two rivers, rescuers pulled more than 100 people from their homes to safer ground as of Friday. Another 69 were rescued on Saturday morning, the city said in a tweet.
Dana Outlaw, the town’s mayor, told NPR that there had been 1,200 requests to 911 on Friday in 12 hours. “That’s very unusual. … We did everything we could to make residents aware of how dangerous this storm was going to be,” Outlaw said.
Craven County, where New Bern is located, issued a mandatory evacuation order.
NPR’s Brakkton Booker reported that much of the town remains under water. Some neighborhoods are only accessible by boat. Some residents stayed despite Tuesday’s evacuation order, unable to afford hotels or transport elderly family members.
“Some underestimated Florence,” Booker said.
About 2,800 National Guard members are at work on rescue and recovery efforts in North Carolina. Rescue teams from Texas to Massachusetts — including the famed Cajun Navy — are assisting with efforts across the Carolinas.
Florence is enormous, slow and very, very wet. Storms get those qualities from warm ocean water and weak wind currents that allow them to suck up moisture and come to a gradual halt over land, dumping water everywhere. Experts say Florence is the kind of storm likely driven by climate change.
Almost 20,000 people were housed in North Carolina shelters as of Saturday morning, NPR’s Debbie Elliott reported.
At least 5,500 people were staying at 59 Red Cross shelters across South Carolina on Friday, reported NPR’s Rebecca Hersher and John Poole. “And Florence’s plodding progress means they, and potentially many more, could be stuck sleeping among strangers for days more,” they said.