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Florence’s death toll rises to 11 as storm shifts inland, bringing ‘epic’ rainfall and record floods

Florence’s death toll rises to 11 as storm shifts inland, bringing ‘epic’ rainfall and record floods
Resident Joseph Eudi looks over flood debris and storm damage at a home on East Front Street in New Bern, N.C. (Gray Whitley / Sun Journal via AP)

With a plodding pace belying still-unspent fury, an increasingly deadly Tropical Storm Florence pushed deeper into the Carolinas on Saturday, inundating homes, toppling trees and pushing rivers far beyond their banks as rescuers in boats and helicopters rushed to keep pace.

Six new fatalities were reported Saturday, bringing the storm toll to 11. Nearly a million people, mainly in North Carolina, were without power a day after Florence made landfall a few miles northeast of Wilmington, N.C., as a howling Category 1 hurricane.

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By midafternoon Saturday, the massive storm was crawling westward at about 3 mph, unleashing havoc as it went. Inland, the peril grew; on the coast, storm surge warnings were discontinued Saturday.

As the winds abated, the waters rose. And rose.

Mayor Dana Outlaw of hard-hit New Bern, N.C., said Florence’s lumbering pace, with lingering, rain-dumping storm bands hovering overhead, increased the damage and danger.

“This one stayed around awhile,” he said.

Floodwaters surged over roads, prompting the closing of Interstate 95 just north of the Carolinas’ border. With more than 2 feet of rain having already fallen in coastal areas and more forecast for days to come in the western mountains, officials ordered new evacuations affecting thousands.

Those included a mandatory evacuation issuedbecause of “imminent danger” for anyone who lives within a mile of the banks of North Carolina’s Cape Fear River and Little River. That took in parts of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.

In all, an astonishing 18 trillion gallons of rain could fall on the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states, according to the Associated Press. That’s as much water as there is in the Chesapeake Bay, and enough to cover the state of Texas with nearly 4 inches of water, the news agency said.

Authorities warned it would be hard to keep pace with where all the water might wind up, how fast the storm would move and where it would tack next. “It has been most unpredictable,” said South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned people who fled their homes against going back too soon, citing perils including flash flooding and falling trees.

“If you are safe, stay put.... Don’t go back until this storm passes,” he implored at a briefing Saturday. “This system is unloading epic amounts of rainfall.”

The triple punch of falling rain, rising rivers and storm surges was already triggering catastrophic floods in several locales.

More than 450 people were rescued in New Bern, a city of 30,000 at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. The Coast Guard brought in helicopters and inflatable boats to pluck people from rooftops, cars and inundated homes.

The White House said President Trump had issued a disaster declaration for North Carolina a day earlier, freeing up funds for housing and home repair. Embroiled in a bitter social media dispute over the death toll in Puerto Rico last year from Hurricane Maria, Trump praised first responders and said his administration was fully prepared for whatever unfolded.

While the Carolinas bore the brunt, neighboring states braced for an expected blow. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam told residents in the southwestern part of the state to prepare for likely flooding and a risk of landslides early in the coming week.

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In a few areas, though, the picture was not as dark as feared. In North Carolina’s Outer Banks — beloved by tourists but highly vulnerable to storms — officials began allowing homeowners and workers to go back to the fragile barrier islands.

In South Carolina, emergency managers were watching several northeastern rivers that flooded two years ago during Hurricane Matthew, destroying homes and government offices.

One of those was the Waccamaw River in South Carolina’s Horry County, which had reached 8.9 feet by Saturday; it floods at 11 feet.

Forecasters said the river’s crest was expected at 19.1 feet, beating the record 17.9 feet set during Hurricane Matthew. The county has a population of 325,000, with about 20,000 in the riverfront county seat of Conway.

Along Conway’s Waccamaw Drive, residents who have already been flooded out of their homes three times in as many years had hours to decide again Saturday afternoon: Stay or go? Brian Saunders opted to leave, although most of his furniture would have to stay.

“We can’t get it all out — it’s too late,” he said as a neighbor helped carry out a few antique chairs, family heirlooms.

In North Carolina, unrelenting rains were expected to swell the Cape Fear River to 62 feet next week, 3 feet higher than during Matthew in 2016. The river runs through Fayetteville — home to the Army’s Ft. Bragg — where officials opened emergency shelters and urged riverfront residents to evacuate.

Less than 500 feet from the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville, residents of an apartment complex dashed from their homes to their cars in the pouring rain, stuffing their passenger seats and trunks with boxes of clothing, blankets and baby photos as the parking lot pooled with puddles.

“I feel so nervous, I’m going to throw up,” said Ashley Pulver, a 27-year-old dental hygiene student who had lived in the complex only a month. In her bare living room, she stood in green rubber boots, looking down at a box of pink children’s clothing and a plush Minnie Mouse in a pink-and-white polka-dot dress.

Major flooding was also expected to the east in Kinston on the Neuse River, expected to reach 27 feet by Monday, nearing the record 28.3 feet set during Hurricane Matthew. To the north, officials were monitoring the Tar River and sandbagging the French Broad River to the west and the Lumber River to the southeast.

“If you live in a floodplain and planned on staying, you might need to reevaluate,” said Joel Cline, a North Carolina native and meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center. “There’s a lot left to this even though the winds have died down and it’s inland.”

On the coast, Albemarle and Pamlico sounds will probably become bottlenecks, filling with runoff faster than they can drain into the ocean, he said.

“I don’t see any portion of the state of North or South Carolina that’s not going to be impacted in some way,” said Cline.

Even with the storm’s passing, it will be many days in some areas before life returns to anything approaching normal. In North Carolina’s New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington and the town of Wrightsville Beach, where the storm came ashore, nearly 90% of the county’s homes were still without power.

State and county officials hope to open food and water distribution centers for those who did not flee the storm. County Manager Chris Coudriet said authorities were preparing to open centers to provide food and water for up to 60,000 people a day for four days.

In addition to out-of-state emergency teams, volunteers from aid groups around the country have converged on North Carolina to help with the rescue efforts.

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Ryan Bartholomew, who works with the Humanitarian Aid and Rescue Project, flew from Sacramento to Charlotte and then drove to flood-stricken New Bern to lend a hand.

“It gets to the point where they say, ‘We do need help,’” said Bartholomew, 32. “And we’re here to help.”

Hennessy-Fiske reported from Conway, S.C., Megerian from New Bern, N.C., and Jarvie from Fayetteville, N.C. Times staff writer Laura King contributed from Washington.

4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with new details including information on evacuations in Fayetteville, N.C., lifting of coastal storm surge warnings, food and water distribution set in county where storm made landfall, some residents returning to Outer Banks, and warnings for Virginia in the coming week.

1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with details about rescues in New Bern and potential rainfall totals and comments from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.

This article was originally published at 9:10 a.m.

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