Residents were warned that while the buffeting winds have calmed some, the torrential downpour will most likely continue through the weekend, producing flash floods and possible landslides, making it difficult for evacuated residents to return home and assess the damage.
New Bern, North Carolina Mayor Dana Outlaw urged residents not to return just yet.
“We have a lot of downed power lines. We’re very concerned with these energized lines and folks could get hurt. So give the city time to get out and assess our infrasture and get the roads safe for you to travel.”
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper called Florence an “uninvited brute” that could wipe out entire communities as it grinds its way across land.
“The fact is this storm is deadly and we know we are days away from an ending,” he said.
Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm Friday, but despite the dip, Florence continued deluging the area Saturday with storm-force winds swirling 350 miles wide. It is expected to weaken to a tropical depression by late Saturday, forecasters said.
Some towns have already seen 2 feet of rain from Florence, with forecasters saying the number could go as high 3 1/2 feet and trigger epic flooding inland into early next week.
Friday saw frantic rescue operations underway, as first responders pulled more than 360 trapped and stranded residents to safety.
Authorities have confirmed seven deaths and fear the number will go higher as the tropical storm crawls westward Saturday across South Carolina.
Among those killed are a mother and her 8-month baby, who were crushed when a tree fell on their house. The father was trapped inside for hours but first responders were able to get him out and take him to the hospital.
In a separate incident, a 77-year-old man was knocked down by the wind and died after going out to check on his hunting dogs, Lenoir County authorities said. The governor’s office said a fourth man was electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain.
Two more deaths were confirmed Saturday morning, first reported by the Charlotte Observer; however, details were not immediately available.
Dozens of people were also pulled from a collapsed motel in New Bern.
Since its roared ashore, Florence has flattened trees, buckled buildings and crumpled roads. The storm knocked out power to nearly 930,000 homes and businesses, and the number could keep rising.
Storm surges — the bulge of ocean water pushed ashore by the hurricane — were as high as 10 feet.
Shaken after seeing waves crashing on the Neuse River just outside his house in New Bern, restaurant owner and hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.
“I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth,” he said.
Florence peaked at a Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph over warm ocean water before making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington and not far from the South Carolina line. It blew ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
By Saturday morning, top sustained winds had weakened to 50 mph as it moved farther inland at 5 mph about 35 miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind.
Morehead City, North Carolina, had received 23 inches of rain by Friday night, and forecasters warned Saturday morning that parts of the Carolinas could get up to 15 inches more.
At times, Florence was moving forward no faster than a human can walk, and it has remained such a wide storm that its counter-clockwise winds keep scooping up massive amounts of moisture from the sea. The flooding began on barrier islands in North Carolina and then spread into coastal and river communities there and in South Carolina, swamping the white sands and golf courses in North Myrtle Beach.
For people living inland in the Carolinas, maximum peril could come days later as all that water drains, overflowing rivers and causing flash floods.
Authorities warned, too, of risks of mudslides and environmental disasters from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.
About 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats.
Florence could become a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the death toll was put at nearly 3,000.
The hurricane center said the storm will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a right hook to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the Mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue, of weathermodels.com, calculated that Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That’s enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay or cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches of water.
North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons, enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches.
In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door to door to pull more than 60 people out as the Triangle Motor Inn began to crumble.
In New Bern, population 29,000, flooding on the Neuse River left 500 people in peril.
“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city tweeted during the height of the storm. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”
Boat teams, including volunteers, rescued some 360 residents, including Sadie Marie Holt, 67, who first tried to row out of her neighborhood during Florence’s assault.
“The wind was so hard, the waters were so hard … We got thrown into mailboxes, houses, trees,” said Holt, who had stayed at home because of a doctor’s appointment that was later canceled. She was eventually rescued by a boat crew; 140 more awaited help.
Ashley Warren and boyfriend Chris Smith managed to paddle away from their home in a boat with their two dogs and were left shaken.
“Honestly, I grew up in Wilmington. I love hurricanes. But this one has been an experience for me,” she said. “We might leave.”