Deadly Storm Drenches The Carolinas, Surges And Flooding To Continue

Updated at 4:45 p.m.

Florence has been downgraded to a tropical storm, but surges and flooding are expected to continue as it lashes South Carolina, according to the National Weather Service.

The Cape Fear River has reached an all-time high level of 8.27 feet. That beats past records from Hurricane Matthew at 8.2 feet and Hurricane Hazel.

Meanwhile, Wilmington native Michael Jordan is urging people to give to Hurricane Florence relief efforts. The former Tar Heel and NBA Hall of Famer says he and the Hornets will donate to a variety of organizations, although he did not cite an amount.

Jordan currently owns the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets have set up donation links to The American Red Cross, United Way and Second Harvest food bank on the team website. Jordan grew up in Wilmington and attended Laney High School.

The White House also said Friday afternoon that President Donald Trump is preparing to travel to areas affected by the hurricane.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says Trump will travel to the region "early to middle of next week."  Aides say the President has been monitoring the massive storm from the White House, and he has taken to Twitter to encourage those in its path to listen to their local authorities for how best to remain safe.

- David Brower, Dave DeWitt and Elizabeth Baier, WUNC

Updated at 3:27 p.m.

Hurricane Florence has claimed at least four lives in North Carolina, according to state and local officials.

“Our hearts go out to the families of those who died in this storm,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. “Hurricane Florence is going to continue its violent grind across our state for days. Be extremely careful and stay alert.”

Rain is forecast to continue through the weekend, bringing dangerous flooding conditions to many areas of the state. Forecasters are predicting that the Lumber and Cape Fear rivers will crest significantly higher than after Hurricane Matthew, and in some areas Florence will bring 1,000-year rainfall totals.

Significant flooding was being reported Friday along the Neuse, Pamlico and Pungo rivers in coastal North Carolina due to storm surge, according to officials.

Officials say more than 21,000 people have taken refuge at 157 shelters open across the state. Thirty-five shelters accept pets. As the need arises, state and local emergency management officials are working to set up even more shelters where people can stay safe during and after the storm. Other evacuees are sheltering with family and friends or in hotels.

- Elizabeth Baier and Jason deBruyn, WUNC

People survey the damage caused by Hurricane Florence on Front Street in downtown New Bern, N.C., on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.
Credit Chris Seward / AP

Updated at 1:30 p.m.

Hurricane flooding in Wilmington is forcing some New Hanover County 911 staffers to field emergency calls from Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center.

Because of widespread flooding, the backup 911 center in New Hanover County is out of commission. As a result, 19 staff members from that center traveled to Raleigh Thursday to work out of the Raleigh-Wake ECC.

A New Hanover County 911 staffer working out of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center.
Credit Courtesy of City of Raleigh

“They wanted to ensure emergency communications for their county would remain operational throughout Hurricane Florence,” said Dominick Nutter, director of the Raleigh-Wake ECC, in a statement.  

The New Hanover County 911 staffers working in Raleigh are handling overflow calls from their primary 911 center. They also are on standby to field emergency calls if the primary center is knocked out of commission because of the hurricane.

As of 1 p.m., North Carolina Emergency Management is reporting that about 604,000 customers are currently without power in North Carolina. Affected counties include Brunswick, Cumberland, Johnston, New Hanover, Onslow, and Wake Counties.

Also, flights are grounded at several airports in the Southeast as Hurricane Florence barges through the region.

By midday Friday, airlines had canceled more than 2,100 U.S. flights from the storm's approach on Wednesday through Sunday, according to tracking service FlightAware.

The region's two largest airports, in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, had more than 200 cancellations on Friday. Raleigh and one in eight at Charlotte.

That's not much compared with last year's Hurricane Harvey, which flooded runways at two major airports and caused airlines to scrub more than 11,000 flights in Houston alone.

The Federal Aviation Administration says Charleston International Airport in South Carolina isn't expected to reopen until Monday night. Wilmington International in North Carolina expects to reopen at noon Saturday.

- Associated Press; Elizabeth Baier, WUNC

Updated at 1:05 p.m.

Swift water rescue teams are continuing to rescue people from their homes in Craven County and New Bern in eastern North Carolina.  

Gov. Roy Cooper said that there’s been over 100 rescues in Craven County since Hurricane Florence began. Craven County Public Information Officer Amber Parker says they’ve received calls from people needing to be rescued from rising waters who live in Fairfield Harbor, New Bern, Adams Creek, Township 7 and River Bend.

“If people need assistance, we’re asking if the water is getting into their home, to call our emergency operations center," Parker said. "The number is 252-636-6608. We’ll get to people just as fast as they can, we ask that people get to the highest ground that they possibly can without getting themselves trapped.”

Parker says hundreds of swift water rescue crew members are on standby and ready to respond.

“We also have other teams that have come in from other areas and we’re waiting on two more swift water rescue teams to come into the area as soon as the weather conditions will permit them to get here.”

Many of the people who are rescued from their flooded homes are taken to one of five emergency shelters open in Craven County. Parker says more than 1,000 people are at the shelters, which don’t have power and are at or near maximum capacity.

- Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East
 

Updated at 12:15 p.m.

U.S. immigration officials say they won't do any active enforcement during evacuations or in shelters during Hurricane Florence.

The Trump administration has stepped up arrests of people living in the country illegally, but during this storm they say they won't enforce immigration laws unless there's a serious public safety threat.

Immigration officers have been dispatched to help with response and recovery as Florence lashes North and South Carolina with life-threatening winds, rain and floods.

But Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency says saving lives is the priority, and anyone fearing for their safety should call 911 for help. Federal officials say they don't want people to fear going to shelters.

- Associated Press; Elizabeth Baier, WUNC

Updated at 11:15 a.m.

Forecasters say the center of Hurricane Florence is hovering just inland near Cape Fear, North Carolina. It remains a Category 1 hurricane with top sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph), but stronger wind gusts have been reported.

At 11 a.m., Florence was centered about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 55 miles (90 kilometers) east-northeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was crawling west-southwest at 3 mph (6kph), lifting huge amounts of ocean moisture and dumping it far from the coast.

The area is expected to get about as much rain in three days as Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd dropped in two weeks in 1999.

Preparing for the aftermath, about 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats that could be used to pluck people from the floodwaters.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm will eventually make a right hook to the northeast over the southern Appalachians, moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England as a tropical depression by the middle of next week.

- Associated Press

Updated at 10:25 a.m. 

More than 100 rescues took place overnight in New Bern. As of this morning about 20,000 people who had evacuated are seeking shelter in more than 150 shelters across the state.

Flooding on the Neuse River compounded by storm surge trapped hundreds in New Bern overnight and into the morning.

We know this is going to be a tough couple of days with the rain, with the storm surge, with the flooding that we know will occur in the low-lying areas. - Gov. Roy Cooper

New Bern resident Sarah Rusty Davis spoke to NPR this morning from her home at a high point in her neighborhood. She stayed despite evacuation orders.

"We had pretty high flood waters up until the early morning hours and nasty tides," Davis said. "I understand from reading posts that there were people on houses and rooftops."

Governor Roy  Cooper told WUNC's Jeff Tiberii Friday morning that, so far, there have been no storm related fatalities.

"I know that we  have learned a lot from previous storms that have hit North Carolina, and  I think the planning and the strategy that has been put in place is helping  us  right now," Cooper said. "We know this is going to be a tough couple of days with the rain, with the storm surge, with the flooding that we know will occur in the low-lying areas."

Almost half a million customers are currently without power across the state, according to the North Carolina Emergency Management.

In Wrightsville Beach, just north of Wilmington, Police Chief Daniel House said the damage is not looking that bad this morning.  

"The streets were for the most part clear, there were some downed strees and some debris," House said. "But it was far better than we expected. We expected to see downed trees and roofs blown off, alot of debris and it just hasnt been that bad so far."

House said authorities are bracing for the back end of the storm. It is expected to hit throughout the rest of the day.

- Liz Schlemmer, Dave DeWitt, Jeff Tiberii, WUNC

Updated at 8:50 a.m.

Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina early Friday, pushing a life-threatening storm surge of floodwater miles inland and ripping apart buildings with screaming wind and pelting rain.

More than 60 people had to be pulled from a collapsing motel at the height of the storm, and many more who defied evacuation orders were hoping to be rescued. Pieces of buildings ripped apart by the storm flew through the air.

Most ominously, forecasters said the terrifying onslaught would last for hours and hours because Florence was barely creeping along at 6 mph (9 kph) and still drawing energy from the ocean.

Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington, as the center of its eye moved onshore, the National Hurricane Center said.

Coastal streets flowed with frothy ocean water, and more than 460,000 homes and businesses were without power, mostly in North Carolina, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks the nation's electrical grid.

Forecasters said "catastrophic" freshwater flooding was expected along waterways far from the coast of the Carolinas.

Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds reached out to 195 miles (315 kilometers).

Winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence moved in for an extended stay, with enough of its killer winds swirling overseas to maintain its power. Forecasters said the onslaught could last for days, leaving a wide area under water from both heavy downpours and rising seas.

The wind howled and sheets of rain splattered against windows of a hotel before dawn in Wilmington, where Sandie Orsa of Wilmington sat in a lobby lit by emergency lights after the power failed.

"(It's) very eerie, the wind howling, the rain blowing sideways, debris flying," said Orsa, who lives nearby and fears splintering trees will pummel her house.

The rising sea crept toward the two-story home of Tom Copeland, who lives on a spit of land surrounded by water in Swansboro. Winds knocked down trees all over.

"(Water) is as high as it's ever been and waves are breaking on my point, which is normally grass," said Copeland, a freelance photographer for The Associated Press. "Trees are blowing down in the wind. Nothing's hit the house yet, but it's still blowing."

In Jacksonville, next to Camp Lejeune, the Triangle Motor Inn was coming apart early Friday. Firefighters and police fought wind and rain going door-to-door to pull people out after the cinderblock structure began to crumble and the roof began to collapse. They formed a convoy to an emergency operations center, according to the Jacksonville Daily News.

The storm's maximum sustained winds held at about 90 mph (144 kph). A gust of 105 mph (169 kph) was recorded at Wilmington airport, surpassing the power of Hurricane Fran two decades ago.

The National Hurricane Center said a gauge north of Wilmington in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, reported 6.3 feet (1.92 meters) of inundation.

Farther up the coast, in New Bern, about 150 people were waiting to be rescued from floods on the Neuse River, WXII-TV reported. The city said two FEMA teams were working on swift-water rescues and more were on the way.

The worst of the storm's fury had yet to reach coastal South Carolina, where emergency managers said people could still leave flood-prone areas.

"There is still time, but not a lot of time," said Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management.

More than 12,000 were in shelters in North Carolina. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.

North Carolina corrections officials said more than 3,000 people were relocated from adult prisons and juvenile centers in the path of Florence, and more than 300 county prisoners were transferred to state facilities.

Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it's unclear how many did. The homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.

Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.

Forecasters said Florence's surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet (3.4 meters) of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet (0.9 meters) of rain, touching off severe flooding.

Once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 mph (225 kph), the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 1 on Thursday night.

Forecasters said that given the storm's size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.

Florence was seen as 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.

Not everyone was taking Florence too seriously: About two dozen locals gathered Thursday night behind the boarded-up windows of The Barbary Coast bar as Florence blew into Wilmington. Others were at home hoping for the best.

"This is our only home. We have two boats and all our worldly possessions," said Susan Patchkofsky, who refused her family's pleas to evacuate and stayed at Emerald Isle with her husband. "We have a safe basement and generator that comes on automatically. We chose to hunker down."

- Associated Press