Florence: At least 11 deaths reported as storm slogs across Carolinas

Tropical depression Florence continued its march through the Carolinas on Sunday, dumping torrential and historic amounts of rain. Floodwaters are expected to push many rivers to all-time highs and could spur life-threatening landslides as the hurricane’s remnants move into the mountains in the middle of the states and then up into southwestern Virginia.

The storm has been linked to several deaths, according to officials. Follow Florence’s projected path here and read the latest forecasts here.

Key updates:  “Extremely hazardous” roads     Florence downgraded to a depression 

10:25 a.m.: It’s not the wind. It’s the water.

Lola Smith thought she’d be safe after the winds died down.

Smith, 69, and her neighbors at First Baptist Homes, an affordable-housing community for seniors and people with disabilities, had waited out the worst of Florence’s fury in the gymnasium of the high school in Lumberton, N.C., about 75 miles inland from the North Carolina coast where Florence made landfall on Friday.

But the shelter was cramped and uncomfortable: There were no showers or even hot water for sponge baths, and the narrow cots bothered her aging hips. “I just want to go home,” she said.

Her friends felt the same.

So on Saturday morning they packed up their belongings — blankets, Bibles, bags of insurance papers — and headed back to their apartments on the south side of town.

But the greater threat from Florence is not the winds, but the water. Torrential downpours soaked Lumberton’s streets and overwhelmed the surrounding marshes and canals. By Saturday evening, the Lumber River had swollen past flood stage and started to flood the city.

The water was creeping up to First Baptists residents’ doors when firefighters came by and told them they would have to leave. There was a mandatory evacuation for the whole southern part of Lumberton.

The fire officials turned off the water and gas, loaded the residents into vans and took them back to the high school.

They would be there until the river stopped rising. No one could say when that would be.

— Sarah Kaplan

10:20 a.m.: Wilmington’s water utility needs fuel to keep working

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority said it is in desperate need of fuel for its generators so that it could continue to provide water to Wilmington, N.C.

“If we do not get the needed fuel within the next 24-hours, we will not be able to continue water service for public health and safety such as fire suppression and other life-sustaining activities at the hospital. Also, this hard-hit community will be without drinking water,” Peg Hall Williams,  utility spokeswoman, said in an email.

Severe flooding has closed roads into Wilmington, making it nearly impossible to get resources into the coastal city by land.

— Patricia Sullivan

9:54 a.m.: Florence’s unrelenting rain could bring “catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding risk”

The National Weather Service on Sunday warned of a “catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding risk” in much of North Carolina, northern South Carolina and southwest Virginia.

Although record-level rains and flooding are expected to ease along the North Carolina coast through the evening and overnight, more serious flooding is predicted to spread farther inland.

The floodwaters are expected to push many rivers to all-time highs and, toward the mountains of western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia, could spur life-threatening landslides.

“[A]reas of the North Carolina Piedmont and the mountainous terrain of western North Carolina will experience devastating flash flooding unlike anything in recent memory,” tweeted Greg Carbin, chief of the operations branch at the National Weather Service. “Roads and bridges will wash away and damage will be severe.”

— Jason Samenow

[Read the latest forecast on Florence at Capital Weather Gang]

5 a.m.: Florence downgraded to a depression

The National Hurricane Center announced at 5 a.m. Sunday that Florence had weakened to a tropical depression, but that it would keep dumping rain — another five to 10 inches in central and western North Carolina and southwest Virginia, leading to flash flooding, prolonged river flooding, and greater risk of landslides.

Another four to six inches could drop on southern North Carolina and the northern portion of South Carolina.

A few tornadoes remain possible in North Carolina and eastern South Carolina into Sunday night, they reported.

Some areas of southeastern North Carolina have gotten well over 20 inches of rain from Florence, according to the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center, and a few have been drenched with more than 30 inches.

Flash-flood warnings, and road closures have followed.

— Susan Svrluga

4:10 a.m.: “Extremely hazardous” roads

As road conditions worsened overnight, state officials warned that travel was “extremely hazardous across North Carolina.”

Drivers were advised to avoid all roads south of U.S. 64 — which cuts across the state from Tennessee to the Outer Banks — and east of Interstate 73/74 — which runs north-south near Greensboro, N.C.

Interstate 40 was closed between Wilmington and Interstate 95, which cuts diagonally across the eastern third of the state.

State officials offered a map with a safer route, one that bypasses North Carolina entirely.

“This is an extremely long detour,” the North Carolina Department of Transportation special alert noted, “but it is the detour that offers the lowest risk of flooding at this time.”

With road conditions changing rapidly, officials advised travelers to check back frequently — especially because satellite navigation systems were still directing drivers to dangerous stretches of roadway.

Early Sunday morning, the National Weather Service in Raleigh, N.C., posted on Twitter that there were 81 roads in Sampson County covered by high water, and several washouts.

Local agencies warned of trouble spots, and urged drivers to check with the state department of transportation.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation announced early Sunday that it would begin building barriers on Route 378 at two locations south of Florence, S.C., to protect the highway from floodwaters that would otherwise rise over bridges.

But most state roads had been cleared, other than a few power lines, by early Sunday morning, according to the agency.

— Susan Svrluga

2:45 a.m. In New Bern, N.C., a respite of brisket

The line of cars on Saturday snaked out onto the highway outside Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q in New Bern, N.C., one of the few restaurants open in the area after Tropical Storm Florence passed through. Post video journalists Ashleigh Joplin and Zoeann Murphy spoke to some of the hungry customers.

2:10 a.m.: Coal ash landfill collapses

Rain and storm water may have triggered erosion at a coal ash landfill at a power plant in Wilmington, N.C., Duke Energy announced Saturday evening.

About 2,000 cubic yards of ash — enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-sized swimming pool — appeared to be affected at the Sutton Power Plant. But the company was unable to determine how much water may have reached Sutton Lake, the cooling pond built for the plant. The plant is next to the Cape Fear River.

Disposal of the coal ash produced by power plants has been the subject of contentious debate nationally.

Duke Energy officials said in a news release that coal ash is nonhazardous and that there is no risk to public health or the environment. A spokesman for the company could not be reached for comment Saturday night.

The Southern Environmental Law Center had warned of the dangers of leaving coal ash in pits vulnerable to hurricanes and extreme weather. Frank Holleman, a lawyer for the center, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday night, but a spokeswoman for the center shared a recent statement he made: “Duke Energy has spent years lobbying and litigating and still has not removed the coal ash from its dangerous riverfront pits in the coastal area, some of which are in the flood plain.”

The ash at the Sutton Power Plant was in a lined pit, according to Duke Energy, and most of the displaced ash was collected in a perimeter ditch and haul road on the plant property.

Megan Thorpe, director of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, wrote in a statement Saturday night that the department has been “closely monitoring all coal ash impoundments that could be vulnerable in this record breaking rain event.”

As soon as it is safe to do so, she said, department officials will conduct a thorough inspection on site. Once the damage is assessed, the department will determine the best path forward, she wrote, “and hold the utility accountable for implementing the solution that ensures the protection of public health and the environment.”

— Susan Svrluga

1:30 a.m.: Catastrophic flash flooding

Heavy bands of rain continued to deluge southeastern North Carolina, the National Weather Service warned late Saturday night, with flash flooding and major river flooding happening over much of the Carolinas.

Florence’s maximum sustained winds had slowed to about 40 miles per hour, with additional weakening expected as the storm crept inland, moving west just a few miles an hour. Its slow movement was drenching the region, with storm total accumulations up to 20 inches expected in western North Carolina and up to 40 inches in southeast North Carolina.

The National Weather Service predicted that would result in catastrophic flash flooding, prolonged river flooding, and a heightened risk for landslides in the western part of the state.

The Capital Weather Gang reported late Saturday night:

The storm has unloaded about 6 trillion gallons of rain so far, according to Ryan Maue, a meteorologist for weathermodels.com. By the time it exits the East Coast, he expects the number to rise to 18 trillion gallons, enough to cover Texas in four inches of water and fill the Chesapeake Bay. In other words, “we’re only about one-third of the way through this,” Maue said.

The National Weather Service tweeted at least 10 million people are predicted to see at least four inches of rain through early next week. “#Florence is far from done,” it said.

Tornadoes remain possible in North Carolina and southeastern South Carolina through Sunday.

Nearly 672,000 people were without power in North Carolina shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday, and there were 560 road closures, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

— Susan Svrluga

12:40 a.m.: Mountains in danger as well

As the storm continued its creep, Greg Carbin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, warned on social media Saturday night that parts of the North Carolina Piedmont and mountains in the western part of the state were at great risk.

Over the next 36 hours or so, he warned, those areas “will experience devastating flash flooding unlike anything in recent memory. Roads and bridges will wash away and damage will be severe.”

At Appalachian State University in Boone, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, classes were canceled through Tuesday and the school opened a shelter on campus Saturday evening. “It’s not often that we have to prepare for a hurricane in the mountains,” Jason Marshburn, the school’s director of safety and emergency management, wrote in a letter to students and faculty members, “but we are doing so on our campus.”

The school braced for heavy rainfall and the potential for landslides and flooding, and urged people to move cars to higher ground.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said on social media Saturday night that his administration had submitted six more counties to be added to a major federal disaster declaration, with more expected in coming days.

— Susan Svrluga

11:30 p.m.: Water rescues continue as officials warn of tornado risk overnight

Hundreds of water rescues were taking place Saturday night because of flooding from Florence, the North Carolina Emergency Management said, urging people to say home.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for parts of the state overnight.

— Susan Svrluga

Saturday 8:18 p.m.: Officials say at least 11 dead as a result of Florence

Tropical Storm Florence, which made landfall as a hurricane on Friday, was being blamed for at least 11 deaths as of Saturday night as its torrential rains continued to soak North Carolina and South Carolina during a slow march westward.

On Saturday evening, the North Carolina Office of the Medical Examiner issued a news release saying that it had confirmed seven storm-related deaths, including a 41-year-old woman and her seven-month-old son who died in Wilmington on Friday when a tree fell on their home. The state also listed the deaths of a 78-year-old man in Lenoir County, who died when he was electrocuted; a 77-year-old man in Lenoir County who fell and died due to a cardiac problem while outside checking on dogs during the storm; an 81-year-old man in Wayne County who fell and struck his head while packing to evacuate; and a husband and wife who died in a house fire in Cumberland County.

Local officials have confirmed three additional deaths in North Carolina connected to the storm. The Duplin County Sheriff’s Office said two people died when flash flooding overwhelmed roads on Saturday; in Pender County, officials said that a woman died Friday morning when she was having a heart attack and emergency crews were unable to reach her in time due to downed trees and debris in the road.

In South Carolina, a 61-year-old woman was killed late Friday when the vehicle she was driving struck a tree, according to Gov. Henry McMaster (R), who announced the death at a news conference Saturday afternoon.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux

Saturday 8:15 p.m.: Celebrity chef José Andrés feeds people after Florence

Saturday 5:29 p.m.: ‘She loved this river. She lived on this river for a long time.’

Waccamaw Drive runs parallel to a swelling river with the same name. Nearly all of the houses that line this long, winding road in Conway, S.C., stand several feet above the ground; most are built with high staircases leading to the front door.

But at least one house, with hardwood floors and a living room that overlooks the Waccamaw River, wasn’t built that way. Inside, Lisa Skipper was packing valuables in trash bags that she and her husband, Ricky, were about to load into a U-Haul van parked outside. Everything else they couldn’t bring — pots, pans, table lamps, pantry items, bottles of alcohol and others — was arranged on the kitchen counter, where floodwaters are less likely to reach them.

The Waccamaw is expected to rise significantly over the next few days, as Tropical Storm Florence continues to dump rain over the Carolinas. Residents here also expect that rain falling on the southern half of North Carolina will stream to the south through the 140-mile-long river, which flows through both states.

The National Weather Service forecasts that the river will rise to a little over 19 feet by Wednesday, about a foot higher than the record set by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. That year, a foot and a half of water flowed into the Skippers’ home.

The house, built in the early 1960s, belongs to Ricky Skipper’s father, Earl, who evacuated earlier this week. His son and daughter-in-law, who live in a raised house down the street, stopped by to prepare his home for what they believe would be worse flooding they have seen in years. Sentimental items that belonged to Earl Skipper’s late wife, Frances, have been moved to a storage unit.

Ricky Skipper said they built new floors in his father’s house right before Hurricane Matthew hit — only to replace them afterward. Now, they expect they will have to do the same again. But Earl Skipper loves living in the house because his wife loved it, Lisa Skipper said. He loves living near the river because his wife found delight in fishing it.

“She loved this river,” Lisa said, as she looked out the windows in the nearly empty living room. “She lived on this river for a long time.”

And so, after the waters rise and recede, the Skippers will return to this home by the river, as they always have.

Kristine Phillips

Saturday 5:11 p.m.: Sesame Street tries to provide emotional shelter for kids affected by storm

For thousands of children who have been affected by Florence or have watched menacing reports of whipping winds and mass flooding, the Weather Channel and Sesame Workshop have joined to help parents comfort their children and offer hope for the “adventure” that unfolds when neighborhoods rebuild.

In a video accessible here, Elmo joined Weather Channel anchor Stephanie Abrams to talk about what hurricanes are — “a very strong storm with lots and lots of rain and wind,” and why they can feel so stressful and scary.

They also demonstrate how to make a disaster kit — with snacks, a juice box and their favorite toy — and whom to turn to for help in an emergency. “The most important thing is to stay safe and to stay together,” Abrams says.

The video is part of Sesame Workshop’s “Sesame Street in Communities” initiative, helping parents speak with their kids about tough topics, such as divorce.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux

Saturday 3:59 p.m.: Transportation official: Out-of-state drivers should avoid North Carolina altogether

The head of the North Carolina Department of Transportation made a startling plea Saturday afternoon, asking travelers from the north and south to avoid the state entirely.

“We are asking those that would be traveling through North Carolina to avoid North Carolina,” Jim Trogdon said. “This is what we need to do today just to make sure that motorists are safe.”

Trogdon suggested that travelers essentially go around the state, detouring through Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia, if necessary. Mainly, he said he wanted to prevent drivers from getting stranded amid rising floodwaters and to keep roads as clear as possible for emergency workers.

He said roads throughout the state were rapidly continuing to flood — the number of closures nearly doubled during the span of a few hours Saturday. Even major arteries such as Interstates 40 and 95 have been affected, and the situation is likely to worsen.

“Road conditions across nearly all of our state will rapidly deteriorating in coming days,” Trogdon said. He noted that in his nearly three decades with the department, “I have never seen flash flooding like this occur in our state.”

Gov. Roy Cooper echoed calls for drivers — whether from North Carolina or elsewhere — to stay off the roads as much as possible.

“All roads in the state are at risk of floods,” Cooper said at an afternoon news conference. “Roads you think may be safe can be washed away in a matter of minutes.”

Brady Dennis

Saturday 2:55 p.m.: South Carolina reports first fatality linked to Florence

A 61-year-old woman died late Friday after crashing into a tree that had fallen across Highway 18 in South Carolina, becoming the state’s first fatality linked to Florence.

Officials said Amber Dawn Lee, of Union, hit the tree around 9:40 p.m., not long after it was felled by the storm’s winds. The area is in upstate South Carolina, far from the coast.

“Our prayers and hearts go out to her family and loved ones,” Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said at a news conference Saturday afternoon. “We are mighty sorry.”

Capt. Kelley Hughes of the S.C. Highway Patrol said in an interview that residents nearby tried warning drivers about the fallen tree, which was difficult to see in the darkness. He said Lee died at the scene. There were no passengers with her in the car.

Joel Morris, who lives near the scene of the accident, told a local television station, WYFF, that he saw the tree fall and was able to signal one driver to turn around. He told the station that when he saw Lee’s pickup approaching, he stood in the road and flashed his flashlight but was unable to get her to stop.

The pickup slammed into the tree, which Hughes said was suspended about six feet above the road.

The accident brings the death toll from Florence to at least six. Five deaths in North Carolina also have been attributed to the storm.

Brady Dennis

Saturday 2:10 p.m.: A shelter springs a leak, a Waffle House offers comfort in Wilmington, N.C.

The roof of a shelter housing about 200 people in Wilmington, N.C., sprung a leak Friday during the height of Florence and showered residents and their dogs with rain.

New Hanover County officials said they evacuated about 150 residents to another shelter Saturday morning because it was too dangerous to do so during the height of the storm. About 50 chose to stay because the shelter, at Trask Middle School, accepts pets while other shelters do not. About 600 people are staying in local shelters. 

“We made what I think is the right decision to not relocate people during the peak of the storm,” said Chris Coudriet, the county manager. “There is no structural problem with the building. Is it wet? Yes, but the building itself is structurally sound.”

Rain continues to pour over this region, where officials are warning that 14 more inches, on top of the 10 to 12 inches that have already fallen, are expected in the next 48 hours. The Cape Fear River is expected to crest late Monday or Tuesday, at a historic 25.8 feet.

County and local officials said at a news conference that they are pleased with the state and federal response, but they also pleaded that those agencies get their teams to the Wilmington area as soon as possible, before the flooding worsens.

“We’re just now entering the thick of it,” said New Hanover County Commission Chairman Woody White. “Overall, we survived this . . . but we’re still in the middle of it.” 

Wrightsville Beach Mayor Bill Blair said his community suffered significant damage, “but the structural damage is not as severe as it looks” on social media. Access to the popular beach community is still limited to police, fire, government and repair crews.  Blair said teams are working to get water and sewer facilities open again. 

In Wilmington proper, fallen trees and power lines block many roads, and traffic lights are out virtually everywhere. About 112,000 people, out of 127,000 locally, remain without power, and Duke Energy officials warned Friday that it may be weeks before power is fully restored. 

Residents, wrestling with cabin fever after a full day indoors, began venturing out despite the pleas of officials to keep off the roads. At one of the very few businesses open Saturday, nearly two dozen people lined up outside a Waffle House on Market Street, seeking hot food and a chance to get outside.

“My kids are tired of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” said April Bellamy, 38.

Patricia Sullivan

Saturday 1:23 p.m.: “The worst is yet to come.” As rivers rise, a new round of mandatory evacuations.

Ahead of what officials fear will be more than 45 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina, at least three local governments want residents to seek safer ground. Cumberland County, the city of Fayetteville and the town of Wade have issued a mandatory evacuation order for all people living within one mile of the banks of the Cape Fear River and the Little River within Cumberland County “to minimize the imminent threat of injury or loss of life.”

“There is the potential for life-threatening flooding, and those who reside in the area face imminent danger from the flood waters that will soon arrive,” Fayetteville city spokesman Nathan Walls said in a statement. “While the storm appears on the surface to be not as intense as expected, this is not the case. The worst is yet to come, as the flood waters from other areas are accumulating north of the county and filling the river basins beyond their capacities.”

Walls said people who fail to heed the evacuation order “do so at their own risk,” as first responders might not be able to reach flooded areas in case of an emergency.

“This one is deadly,” Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin warned Saturday, saying people near the evacuation zones “have to get out or risk being stuck — no one may be able to come and get you for days.”

Police and firefighters are going through the neighborhoods at risk and explaining why folks have to leave, he said.

“We’re trying to make it totally clear that this is deadly,” Colvin said in a phone interview. “At end of day, we can’t force folks to leave, but we are letting them know if they don’t get out they are not going to get help for some time and we can’t put our first responders in that kind of danger.

He said that residents went “through this trauma in 2016 during Hurricane Matthew when the river crested at 52 inches” and that four people died during flash flooding.

“This is an even greater risk,” Colvin said.

The warnings echo those from state leaders earlier Saturday urging residents that the most devastating effects from Florence could unfold in coming days as the threat of flooding grows. The state has asked residents to monitor this site, which shows which rivers are rising and allows people to sign up for flood alerts.

— Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and Brady Dennis

Saturday 12:41 p.m.: At one hotel, hospitality amid the worries: “When you’re under our umbrella, we take care of you.”

As soon as Florence reached Robeson County, about 75 miles inland, on Friday afternoon, essential services began to fall like dominoes. Lights flickered, then went out. The county issued an advisory to boil all water. Most people lost cellphone service — and, with it, their connection to the outside world.

But loss of electricity couldn’t stop Southern hospitality. At 9 a.m. Saturday, staff at the Holiday Inn Express in Pembroke, N.C., went room to room informing guests that breakfast was served. The guests — several of them locals who had been flooded during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and decided not to chance staying in their homes through another storm — wandered downstairs to find a buffet of scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage and grits.

Samantha Locklear, the housekeeper, had brought all the food from home and cooked it on a gas grill.

“When you’re under our umbrella,” said Tiffany Booth, the hotel’s manager, “we take care of you.”

Guests ate at tables illuminated by tea lights, talking quietly about the storm.

Melinda Jacobs had been awake almost the whole night, frightened by the howling wind and pictures posted by friends on Facebook of flooded roads, signs ripped off familiar storefronts and trees limbs on top of crushed cars.

“I thought, ‘I don’t understand how Noah made it through 40 days and 40 nights like this,’” she said.

This summer, she had moved in with relatives who live near the beach in Ocean Isle, one of the communities under mandatory-evacuation orders. Early reports from the coast suggest that her town experienced 70 mph winds and several feet of storm surge, but she doesn’t know how her home fared.

Sunday is Jacobs’s 42nd birthday. She has no idea where she will be or what she will still have.

“It’s nerve-racking,” she said, “not knowing how everybody is, wondering if I got a place to go back to.”

Sarah Kaplan

Saturday 12:07 p.m.: For one couple and two pets, an escape from rising floodwaters 

Denise and Jerry Railling had stayed in their one-story home in New Bern, N.C., even as the water inside reached their knees.

On Saturday, a rescuer brought Denise out first, seated at the front of a water scooter, cradling her cat, Boo Boo, in a thick tan blanket. Denise was barefoot. She said she had done a lot of praying over the past few days.

“We’ll find some clothes for you, some hot food,” said Ryan Bartholomew, a volunteer rescuer who’d come from Sacramento.

Denise’s husband came next, wearing a pair of baby-blue Crocs.

“We decided to get out when they said there was sewage in the water,” Jerry said.

On dry land, he leaned against his Chevy SUV, which he’d parked on higher ground Wednesday afternoon. Then the rescue team made one last trip into his home, this time to fetch the dog, Snookie, who rode on the water scooter with a bright-red life jacket around her neck.

Jerry said he couldn’t find the words to describe what he saw. Then he chose two: “Extreme chaos.”

“Just look,” he said.

Rachel Siegel

Saturday 11:35 a.m.: Florence breaks record in North Carolina for most rain in a single storm — 30 inches and counting

More than 30 inches of rain have fallen in North Carolina, according to preliminary reports submitted to the National Weather Service, which would shatter the statewide storm rainfall record of 24.06 inches set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Flash-flood emergencies — the most critical category of flood warning — have been in effect for several counties since Friday night. Up to 50 inches of rain could fall through Sunday in southeast North Carolina, which is coming into focus as ground zero for Florence’s most devastating effects.

A citizen weather observer posted a total of 30.58 inches of rain in Swansboro, which is in Onslow County. If verified, the amount would be a state record for a tropical storm or hurricane and would shatter the old record of 24 inches — set near Wilmington during Floyd. Many locations in southeast North Carolina are likely to smash this old record by the time the rain ends.

The Capital Weather Gang reports:

Despite its weakened status to a tropical storm, Florence has deluged parts of the North Carolina coastline with torrential and historic amounts of rain. Many areas in southeastern North Carolina have endured 15 to 30 inches of rain and up to 15 more could fall.

The rain is resulting in catastrophic flooding in southeast North Carolina that is spreading into the interior, reaching even into the population centers of Raleigh and Charlotte. Already, the event has broken the state’s record for most rain ever observed in a tropical storm or hurricane, with a preliminary report of over 30 inches.

The floodwaters are expected to push many rivers to all-time-high levels and, toward the mountains of western North Carolina and southwest Virginia, may spur life-threatening landslides.

For more details, click here.

— Brady Dennis and Angela Fritz

Saturday 11:15 a.m.: N.C. governor: “Know that the water is rising fast.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) warned Saturday morning that while the most damaging winds of Hurricane Florence have subsided, the most serious threat from the storm remains: water.

“Know that the water is rising fast — everywhere, even in places that don’t usually flood,” Cooper said at a late-morning news conference, adding that Florence is in the process of dropping “epic” amounts of rainfall on the state.

He also said that the worst effects probably lie ahead, as rivers will continue to rise and crest even after the storm has passed. Cooper warned residents across much of the state — from Fayetteville in the east to Asheville in the west — not to grow complacent.

“Many people who think the storms have missed them have yet to see its threat,” he said, adding that officials “expect flooding and potential landslides beginning tonight and continuing into Monday.”

Cooper and the state’s transportation director, James H. Trogdon III, pleaded with residents to stay off roads, warning that conditions would rapidly deteriorate as floodwaters rise. Trogdon said major roads in many counties already are impassable, and he expects a “significant” number of road closures in coming days.

— Brady Dennis

Saturday 10:37 a.m.: In a quiet beach town, hunting sea shells and waiting for Florence to leave

The streets of Myrtle Beach remained deserted and businesses there remained closed Saturday morning as city and county officials urged people to stay in emergency shelters and off the roads. This popular tourist spot on the South Carolina shore has remained largely unscathed by Florence, unlike parts of North Carolina. The ocean is roiling, but floods have so far spared the streets near the shore.

Joe Gacioch, 30, and his girlfriend, Ashley Gash, 23, who live a few miles inland and decided to stay put despite evacuation orders, drove to the beach to collect sea shells. They parked at the empty boardwalk near the restaurant where Gash works.

“I got my shells!” Gash said, holding up a Ziplock bag.

Gacioch said that he doesn’t think the rain is as bad as had been forecast and that local and state officials may have overreacted by evacuating much of the city. “But again, I understand why they did that. They’re concerned for people’s safety,” he said. “The governor, he did what he had to do. He’s supposed to make sure everybody’s safe.”

Still, city officials insisted that the storm is far from over. Overnight, some city roadways were flooded and there were 60 reports of property damage, including downed trees and power lines and broken traffic lights. But so far, officials said, the damage remains minimal.

“We want [people] to [be] back home as quickly as possible,” the city said in a Facebook post. “But first, Florence has to leave.”

— Kristine Phillips

Saturday 10:07 a.m.: “There’s a lot of rain to come,” FEMA warns

While Florence’s wind speeds have lessened during its plodding crawl through the Carolinas, authorities have repeatedly warned residents not to take this as a sign that the danger has passed.

“The way a hurricane is classified is based on the wind,” FEMA Associate Administrator Jeff Byard said at a briefing Saturday morning. “Wind can hurt you . . . but it is the water, it’s the surge, it’s the rain that effects and can kill you more than the wind can in a hurricane.”

Byard’s message has been one echoed repeatedly by state and federal authorities in recent days, amid the downgrading of Florence as its wind speed declined, even as it still created threats of intense flooding and storm surge.

“This is a massive storm that has put a lot of rain and a lot of water on our coast, inland,” Byard said. “There’s a lot of rain to come, there’s a lot of rain that’s fallen.”

As he spoke, Florence was continuing its slow churn across South Carolina, a steady path that forecasts said it would continue throughout Saturday.

“This thing will not move up the coast, it will not get out of the way, and we continue to just get copious amounts of rain,” Byard said.

The first two questions at Saturday’s briefing were about FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long, who was not present but has been under scrutiny this week amid an internal investigation of his use of government vehicles.

Byard, asked whether Long will remain in his post, said: “Our administrator’s our administrator. He’s given our team very clear guidance that the focus is Florence. I want to make sure I echo that . . . FEMA is clearly engaged, we know where our focus needs to be, and that is on the response and recovery.”

— Mark Berman

Saturday 8:52 a.m.: Trump approves disaster declaration for North Carolina

The White House announced Saturday morning that President Trump had approved a disaster declaration for North Carolina a day earlier, an order that opens up federal funding, including housing and home repair grants.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) had on Thursday requested such a declaration, writing in the request that officials in his state “have been overwhelmed in preparing for and the expected severity from the hurricane.”

In a statement on Thursday announcing his request, Cooper said: “We know this massive storm will cause incredible damage and I’m asking Washington to act quickly so federal recovery help can come as soon as possible.”

— Mark Berman

Saturday 8:40 a.m.: 385 rescued amid flooding in New Bern, city says 

This city took a significant hit from Florence in the storm’s early hours, with intense flooding prompting hundreds of rescues in the city, which has a downtown flanked by two rivers.

As of Saturday morning, 385 people had been rescued, according to Colleen Roberts, a spokeswoman for the city. She said shortly after 8 a.m. that authorities were working to determine how many people still need to be rescued; the rescue teams working Saturday were being pulled back in while they figure out how many people need to be saved, Roberts said.

More than 1,200 people were in shelters Saturday morning, Roberts said, adding that the 24-hour curfew there remains in place.

Sheena Jordan said the storm had a hellish impact on her neighborhood in New Bern. She said there’s flooding in her backyard, but she doesn’t know how deep.

She has a gallon of drinkable water in her home, but she doesn’t know how long it will last between four people. She knows the water in New Bern will continue to rise, but she doesn’t know how she’d get to a shelter if she needed to leave.

Jordan left her car at the town’s DoubleTree hotel, where she works as a housekeeper. She said she doesn’t know when her power went out or when she’ll get her next paycheck.

As she sat on her porch, her nephew darted out the front door and ran toward the playground down the street. The water there was so high that he couldn’t see the bottom end of the seesaw.

Not long after New Bern was hit by rising waters, the panicked calls began as people began seeking rescue, a plight that received national attention. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), addressing the storm’s impact on Friday morning, highlighted what had happened there, saying that “the storm surge alone has overwhelmed the city of New Bern.”

— Mark Berman in Washington and Rachel Siegel in New Bern. 

Saturday 8:14 a.m.: Florence “slowly” moving across South Carolina

Tropical Storm Florence was “moving slowly across eastern South Carolina” on Saturday morning, producing “catastrophic flooding” in the Carolinas as it dumped still more rain across the region, according to the National Hurricane Center.

According to the center’s morning bulletin, Florence is expected to drop intense rain across swaths of both North Carolina and South Carolina, with up to 30 or 40 inches forecast in some coastal areas.

“This rainfall will continue to produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding,” the center said.

By midnight Saturday, nearly two feet of rain was reported in Newport, N.C., the center reported. Even away from the most intense reach of the storm, parts of both Carolinas and Virginia could see up to 15 inches of rainfall. Storm surge also poses a continuing danger of flooding areas that would otherwise be dry, according to the bulletin.

Florence’s wind speed has decreased, causing the system to be downgraded to a tropical storm, but tropical-storm-force winds are still extending up to 175 miles from its center. Gusts of 51 mph have been reported in North Carolina, the bulletin said. The storm continues moving west at a grinding, slow pace, and that plodding movement will continue throughout Saturday, according to the hurricane center.

— Mark Berman

Saturday 6:58 a.m.: Nearly 1 million power outages in the Carolinas

As the sun rose over the Carolinas on Saturday morning, nearly a million power outages were reported across North Carolina and South Carolina, according to state officials.

These outages had occurred as the storm’s assault continued Saturday, with Florence dumping still more rain and bringing yet more lashing winds to both states. More than 951,000 power outages were logged in both states, officials said, a number that ticked up in the hours before dawn.

Most of those outages were reported in North Carolina, according to that state’s Department of Public Safety. The agency said 786,000 lacked power, with the highest concentration of outages in a handful of counties, including New Hanover, Brunswick, Onslow, Carteret, Cumberland, Robeson, Sampson and Wake.

In South Carolina, the Division of Emergency Management said early Saturday that more than 165,000 households lacked power because of the storm.

Power company officials warned this week that as many as 3 million people could lose power because of the storm, while authorities have cautioned residents to expect outages that could linger for days.

— Mark Berman

Saturday 6:35 a.m.: Hurricane evacuees face long journeys, lengthy stays in search for safety

For the people who left home because of Florence, filling shelters in the Southeast, these evacuations often mean the beginning of long, difficult journeys:

By the time Florence bore down on the Carolinas on Friday, bringing 100-mph winds, more than 10 feet of storm surge and disastrous amounts of rain, about 20,000 people had sought refuge at one of 200 Red Cross shelters across the region, said Rebecca Torriani, a regional spokeswoman for the organization. Across the Carolinas and Georgia, several other large public facilities and makeshift camps opened to serve those who had fled their homes.

Some patients had heart ailments, some were pregnant, some needed constant medication. Ages range from a days-old infant to a 100-year-old woman, said Amy Eathington, a retired nurse and Red Cross volunteer. “It’s very similar to working in an emergency room,” Eathington said.

Head here to read more.

Saturday 5:50 a.m.: Rain is picking up along North Carolina’s southeastern coast, as heavy bands of precipitation move inland off the Atlantic with Tropical Storm Florence. The National Weather Service says the heavy rainfall will add an additional 6 to 10 inches to these areas, exacerbating already serious flooding, by 11 a.m. Saturday.

“Life-threatening storm surge” is expected to continue along portions of the North Carolina coast today, and “life-threatening, catastrophic flash floods and prolonged, significant river flooding” will go on for days, threatening areas from the coast west into the central Appalachian Mountains, where landslides are also possible.

Wind is also picking up in some areas of the North and South Carolina coast, and tornado watches and warnings are in effect across several counties.

There are now 780,964 people without power in North Carolina, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety.

— Abigail Hauslohner

Saturday 4:30 a.m.: Rivers are rising and nearly a million households have lost power

Rivers are rising across North and South Carolina, with several expected to crest higher than they did two years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, leaving standing floodwater in some rural communities for weeks.

The National Weather Service has announced more flash flood emergencies in Onslow and Duplin counties in North Carolina.

More than 940,000 households are without power across North and South Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and South Carolina’s Division of Emergency Management. More than 80 percent of the outages so far are in North Carolina.

— Abigail Hauslohner

Saturday 2:30 a.m.: New daily rainfall record in Fayetteville, N.C.

The National Weather Service has reported a new daily rainfall record of 3.11 inches set at Fayetteville Regional Airport, about 100 miles inland from the coast, on the banks of the Cape Fear River. It broke the old record of 2.92 inches set in 1984.

Tropical storm Florence is now moving slowly inland at 5 miles per hour over far eastern South Carolina, as it continues to dump rain over a wide radius spanning both Carolinas in volumes that are expected soon to surpass other records set by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Florence is dropping one to three inches of rain an hour in some places, according to the National Weather Service.

— Abigail Hauslohner

Saturday 12:23 a.m.: 773,903 are without power across North Carolina

At least 773,903 households were without power, as of midnight, the North Carolina Emergency Management Agency reported. Outages have been the most concentrated in New Hanover, Brunswick, Wake, Onslow, Carteret, Pender, Robeson, Wayne counties. Updates are available here.

Most of those counties were also under curfew overnight, amid a series of flash flood emergencies.

The National Weather Service posted a map of road closures in the Morehead City area — not to alert residents to specific road closures, but “to emphasize how bad it is.”

— Abigail Hauslohner

Read more Florence coverage: 

North Carolina braces for Florence’s devastating deluge

For small-town Carolinians, the question isn’t when they’ll rebuild — but whether they will at all

‘We face walls of water’: Communities in North Carolina band together to face Florence

Tracking Florence’s deluge in real time

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