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WILMINGTON, N.C. — At least seven people were killed after Hurricane Florence crashed ashore on North Carolina’s coast Friday morning, ripping apart roofs with extreme winds, threatening massive storm surges and requiring dozens of water rescues.
Hours after Florence’s eye made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, northeast of Wilmington, the storm wobbled along the coast with a slow grind. Its lumbering pace propelled fears that flooding would worsen during high tide and force rivers to crest at record levels.
The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm on Friday evening, and the National Weather Service said early Saturday that it was “slowly weakening.” Its sustained winds had weakened to 50 mph and were expected to decrease further.
“Catastrophic flooding” of as much as five feet of water is forecast along coastal communities on Saturday, while areas further inland through southwest Virginia could see as much as 15 inches of rainfall.
The heavy rain could result in “life-threatening flash flooding” and trigger landslides, the service said. Florence is expected to weaken to a tropical depression by Saturday evening as it turns northwest.
Here’s the latest on Tropical Storm Florence:
- A mother and her 8-month-old child died in Wilmington when a tree fell on their home, police said. Another woman died in Pender County after suffering a medical condition, and two deaths occurred in Lenoir County.
- The storm made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. ET Friday. As of shortly before 11 p.m., Florence’s center moved into extreme eastern South Carolina and was about 15 miles west-northwest of Myrtle Beach and was moving west-southwest at around 5 mph.
- There were more than 788,000 power outages as of Friday night in North Carolina, according to the state department of public safety. More than 66,000 customers in South Carolina were also in the dark.
- More than 300 people were rescued in New Bern, north of Wilmington.
- About 20,000 people in North Carolina sought refuge in more than 150 shelters, officials said. In South Carolina, there were more than 6,000 people in shelters Friday afternoon.
Florence was a Category 1 storm when it made landfall but continued to carry maximum sustained winds of 65 mph and crawl along at just 5 mph Friday night. Forecasters warned of a potential storm total rainfall of up to 40 inches of rain in some parts. “This rainfall will produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding,” the National Hurricane Center said.
More than 788,000 customers were without power in North Carolina as of 10 p.m. Friday, according to emergency management officials. Social media users shared videos of snapped trees and water rushing onto coastal streets like rivers.
In Wilmington, first responders rushed to a neighborhood where a tree fell on the back of a home, trapping a father, mother and child, reported NBC News’ Lester Holt.
The unidentified woman and 8-month-old infant were killed, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said at a news conference.
The father was freed and taken to the hospital with unknown injuries, although a fire official said the victim had a “crush injury” and may have had a body part amputated, Holt reported.
In neighboring Pender County, a police spokeswoman said a woman died after suffering a medical condition. She had called for assistance, but large trees blocked roads to her home, the official added.
Two people died in Lenoir County, county Emergency Services Director Roger Dail said. A 78-year-old man was electrocuted while attempting to connect two extension cords in the rain, and a 77-year-old man was found dead Friday morning and he is believed to have been killed after being blown down by wind while going outside to check on his hunting dogs, Dail said.
Wilmington was hit with wind gusts of over 100 mph on Friday morning. Drivers weaved through streets cluttered with debris, and much of the city of about 115,000 residents remained without power Friday afternoon.
But the city was spared from widespread flooding, at least so far; authorities warned that storm surges may still swell the Cape Fear River and its tributaries, which at some points looked perilously close to overflowing Friday afternoon.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper cautioned that flooding and rising waters could inundate low-lying communities for days.
“This is an uninvited brute that just won’t leave,” Cooper said on “Today.”
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said earlier Friday that his city had gotten more than 100 emergency calls, but crews have had difficulty getting out while the storm rages ashore and there’s been “significant” inland flooding.
“I’ve been here all my life, and I’ve never seen a hurricane that’s here for two days and pretty much on top of you,” Saffo told “Today.” He said Friday afternoon that “we’ve had a tremendous amount of damage in the community,” and warned that many deaths in a hurricane happen in the storm’s aftermath.
Buddy Martinette, chief of the Wilmington Fire Department, added that crews have been unable to reach the city’s beach neighborhoods and felled trees have turned accessing roads into a “jigsaw” puzzle.
“It is dangerous out there. There are live power lines, there are trees — it is a bad situation, and the winds are still pretty strong out there, and we expect more trees to come down,” Evangelous, the Wilmington police chief, said Friday afternoon.
Officials have been most concerned about torrential rainfall and flooding as high tide approached by noon, with another high tide expected around midnight Friday. The National Hurricane Center said a gauge in Emerald Isle, about 84 miles north of Wilmington, reported 6.3 feet of inundation. More than 20 inches of rain was reported at Atlantic Beach, located on a North Carolina barrier island.
Fire and rescue officials in the riverfront city of New Bern, about 90 miles north of Wilmington, said water rescues were taking place and urged people not to take refuge in their attics unless they have a way to cut through the ceiling.
More than 360 people were rescued from flooded areas and teams had nearly 140 more people to get to, New Bern said on its website Friday evening. Mayor Dana Outlaw had said some residents remained holdouts even after crews went door to door pleading for them to seek emergency shelter.
“Be patient, we’re on the way. We will get you rescued,” Outlaw said while cautioning that first responders must be careful for their own safety.
In Jacksonville, North Carolina, more than 60 people, including one child, had to be rescued from a motel just after 12:30 a.m. ET as the storm threatened its structural integrity, Mayor Sammy Phillips told “Today.” No one was killed, but there were reports of trees and power lines and other damage elsewhere in the city.
Tropical storm warnings affected areas with a population of more than 13 million, according to data from the National Weather Service. Areas with more than 2 million people were under a storm surge warning. Days ahead of the storm, about 1.7 million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia were warned to evacuate before its outer bands reached the coast Thursday.
Among those deciding not to flee Florence was Wilmington resident Julio Martinez, who told NBC News on Thursday that he had hoarded enough water and food to last a few days.
“Everyone is evacuating and freaking out,” Martinez, 28, said, “and I tell them, ‘I’ll see you when you get back.'”
Downpours from Florence were expected to continue through the weekend into early next week, having already produced more than 10 inches as the storm moves through South Carolina and farther inland. Severe flooding is forecast from Charleston to Columbia in South Carolina and north in Charlotte, North Carolina.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at a news conference Friday afternoon that the main concern is flooding because of the slowness of the storm and the fact that rivers in the state flow from North Carolina, which is also experiencing heavy rain.
“We are not going to have electricity for a large part of the state for days and maybe even weeks,” McMaster said. “This is going to be a very trying period,” he said.
On Twitter, President Donald Trump thanked first responders and law enforcement for their “incredible job” during Florence.
Trump plans to visit areas affected by the storm in the middle of next week, once it is clear that the trip would not disrupt rescue and recovery efforts, a White House spokesperson said.
Trump received backlash for tweeting Thursday that “3,000 people did not die” in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. An independent report commissioned by the Puerto Rican government and conducted by George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health found an estimated 2,975 people died in Puerto Rico in the five months after Maria devastated the island.
The president, after tweeting praise for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, law enforcement and other first responders, returned to the topic on Twitter Friday night, claiming of the study “This method was never done with previous hurricanes because other jurisdictions know how many people were killed. FIFTY TIMES LAST ORIGINAL NUMBER – NO WAY!”
Jon Schuppe reported from Wilmington, and Erik Ortiz reported from New York.