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After killing mother and her infant, slow-moving storm presses its 'violent grind'

The National Hurricane Center warned Friday that “life-threatening” flood danger could linger for days.

Ocean water swamped streets and swept into buildings, while powerful winds sent a tree crashing into a home, killing a mother and her infant.

But for all its strength, Hurricane Florence was a slow-motion disaster. Deliberate and hulking as it moved Friday throughout the Carolinas, it was unhurried in its terror.

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“The storm is going to continue its violent grind across our state for days,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said, calling it “an uninvited brute that doesn’t want to leave.”

Residents were urged to shelter in place, warned of extreme flash flooding and swiftly rising waters. Rescue crews rushed to save the stranded.

Police in Wilmington, N.C., said the first fatalities from the storm were the mother and child hit by a falling tree. The father of the dead infant was taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center with unspecified injuries. A third person was killed in Lenoir County while plugging in a generator, Cooper’s office said in a statement. Pender County also reported a "medical death" during the hurricane.

Downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane, Florence inched ashore at only 6 mph, while generating sustained winds of at least 90 mph. It had lost some of its initial power over the last few days, but showed little mercy when it made landfall, overwhelming small cities like New Bern, located where the Neuse River empties into Pamlico Sound, near the midpoint of North Carolina’s Atlantic coast. After making landfall, Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph. The winds were expected to gradually diminish overnight.

Pelted by sheets of rain, New Bern’s drainage ditches brimmed with debris. Power lines, uprooted oak trees and branches littered its streets. Metal signs rattled in the wind.

At a historic home on a corner near downtown, Debbie Edwards, 64, and her sister eyed the water outside through taped-up windows, while passing the time playing gin rummy.

They cleared out storm grates in the morning, hoping to prevent the rising water from reaching up and over the steps of the house that has been in the family for four decades.

“We’ve had hurricanes our entire life,” Edwards said. “Nothing like this.”

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Around town, rescue teams picked up stranded residents, including a family of four whose apartment already had a knee-high waterline etched into its wall.

Some turned down the offer of a ride to a shelter. “I don’t like living with nobody,” said Reginald Nobles, 52. Nearby, toppled trash cans and garbage strewn like seaweed showed how high the water had reached. The tide was expected to rise at night.

About 45 miles north, floodwaters swamped an intersection in the town of Washington, N.C., making it impassable for everyone except a few with pickup trucks.

The metal roof of a warehouse across the street was shredded by the wind. A neighborhood grocery store flooded.

At a used car lot, rising waters had already swamped two cars. “I can live with two cars [being damaged],” said the owner, Steve Griffin, 48, who lives nearby in Bath. “I can’t live with many more.”

The wind picked up and small waves of water continued rolling in. Although flooding isn’t unusual in Washington, “this is higher than it’s ever been in this lot,” Griffin said.

Gregory Sams, 60, a retired security guard, left his second-floor apartment to look for a store selling cigarettes but couldn’t find any. Like everyone else, he wondered how high the water might rise.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said as a light rain fell.

Fierce winds lashed at Wilmington, a port city near the southeastern corner of the state where many of the 120,000 residents had evacuated but some remain hunkered down to ride out the storm.

About a dozen people in the breakfast area of the Country Inn and Suites stared out the window as the wind howled and trees swayed.

Outside, the sky was blank and gray, and 80 mph wind gusts tore through the trees. Debris piled up in the streets and parking lots.

Hurricane Florence’s glacial pace may end up increasing the storm’s danger as high winds and rainfall linger over the state.

Other threats, such as tornadoes and landslides, loom as well.

Mandatory evacuations have turned large swaths of the state into boarded-up ghost towns, and government officials have urged residents to stay off the roads.

More than 12,000 people are riding out the storm in shelters.

About 500,000 people have already lost power, and the number could reach closer to 3 million, according to Duke Energy, the state’s largest utility. The heaviest power outages are in the area around Wilmington and in the stretch of coastline between Emerald Isle and Pamlico Sound.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deployed a team to the area to help restore power and protect nuclear power plants, according to a statement from the Trump administration. Nearly 4,000 federal employees are working with state and local agencies on storm response.

South Carolina was also bracing for the storm and for inland flooding that could have statewide effects. The governor implored residents to leave the coastal area as soon as possible.

“Remember this: Once these winds start blowing at that tropical storm rate, it will be virtually impossible for the rescuers to get in,” Henry McMaster said.

The region is expected to be hit hard by storm winds and persistent, heavy rain.

“It’s knocking on the door,” said Chase Dearman, a spokesman for the state’s emergency operations center. “Extensive high winds and storm surge is going to be an issue as well.”

Even in Columbia, the state’s capital and 115 miles inland, residents prepared for flooding along nearby rivers.

A mandatory coastal evacuation order left highways nearly empty in Charleston, the state’s largest city.

In Myrtle Beach to the northeast, residents made their way to rapidly filling shelters. A few holdouts sauntered on the sand by the ocean.

At Palmetto Bays Elementary, school staff cleaned and cooked for more than 400 — young families, elderly couples, immigrant workers — who lined up for a hot lunch in the cafeteria.

With four local hospitals evacuated, the American Red Cross had also set up a station at the school to care for those needing medical attention.

“The storm has time to regroup itself,” said a worried Dr. Bill Capehart, the agency’s shelter manager, who experienced Hurricane Matthew two years ago. “When it rains upstate, look out. They all drain into here, and the rivers rise so suddenly.”

Edward Sanchez, a housekeeper at a nearby oceanfront resort, was hopeful as he sat outside in sweatpants and flip-flops, trying to keep his cigarette alive in waves of windblown rain.

“At least we’re good, we’ve got a place to stay, food,” the 33-year-old said. “There are many people outside who’ve got it worse.”

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Sanchez’s life has been shaped by hurricanes. He moved to South Carolina seven months ago after Hurricane Maria destroyed his home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he worked as a chef and bartender. During Maria, he tried to flee to a nearby shelter, but it was full.

In the storm’s aftermath, he spent more than a month living on the streets with just a backpack of possessions, begging for help from emergency officials at the convention center.

At times, he said, he wanted to die. “Nobody helped,” he recalled, his gray-green eyes tearing.

Jarvie reported from Wilmington, Hennessy-Fiske from Columbia, S.C., and Megerian from Washington, N.C. Times Staff Writer Corina Knoll in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

5:20 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about fatalities, details about residents at shelters.

1:45 p.m.: This article was updated with details about fatalities and statements by the governors of North Carolina and South Carolina.

11:35 a.m.: This article was updated with details from Columbia, S.C.

10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with details about a shelter in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and the federal response.

8:50 a.m.: This article was updated with details from Washington, N.C.

6 a.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the mayor of New Bern, N.C.

5:10 a.m.: This article was updated with the storm making landfall.

This article was originally published at 4:05 a.m.

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