NEW BERN, N.C. (AP) — The Marines, the Coast Guard, civilian crews and volunteers used helicopters, boats and heavy-duty vehicles Saturday to rescue hundreds of people trapped by Florence’s shoreline onslaught, even as North Carolina braced for what could be the next stage of the disaster: widespread, catastrophic flooding inland.
The death toll from the hurricane-turned-tropical storm climbed to 11.
A day after blowing ashore with 90 mph winds, Florence practically parked itself over land all day long and poured on the rain. With rivers rising toward record levels, thousands of people were ordered to evacuate for fear the next few days could bring the most destructive round of flooding in North Carolina history.
More than 2 feet of rain had fallen in places, and the drenching went on and on, with forecasters saying there could be an additional 1½ feet by the end of the weekend.
“I cannot overstate it: Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren’t watching for them, you are risking your life,” Gov. Roy Cooper said.
As of 5 p.m., Florence was centered about 60 miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, inching west at 2 mph — not even as fast as a person walking. Its winds were down to 45 mph. With half of the storm still out over the Atlantic, Florence continued to collect warm ocean water and dump it on land.
In its initial onslaught along the coast, Florence buckled buildings, deluged entire communities and knocked out power to more than 900,000 homes and businesses. But the storm was shaping up as a two-part disaster, with the second, delayed stage triggered by rainwater working its way into rivers and streams.
The flash flooding could devastate communities and endanger dams, roads and bridges.
Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile of a stretch of the Cape Fear River and the Little River, about 100 miles from the coast. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.
Officials in nearby Harnett County urged residents of about 1,100 homes to clear out because the Lower Little River was rising toward record levels.
One potential road out was blocked as flooding forced the shutdown of a 16-mile stretch of Interstate 95, the main highway along the Eastern Seaboard.
In New Bern, along the coast, homes were completely surrounded by water, and rescuers used inflatable boats to reach people.
Kevin Knox and his family were rescued from their flooded brick home with the help of Army Sgt. Johan Mackie, part of a team using a phone app to locate people in distress. Mackie rode in a boat through a flooded neighborhood, navigating through trees and past a fencepost to get to the Knox house.
“Amazing. They did awesome,” said Knox, who was stranded with seven others, including a boy who was carried out in a life vest. “If not, we’d be stuck upstairs for the next … how long? I have no idea.”
New Bern spokeswoman Colleen Roberts said 455 people in all were rescued in the town of 30,000 residents without any serious injuries or deaths. But thousands of buildings were damaged in destruction Roberts called “heart-wrenching.”
Forecasters said the storm will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a sharp rightward swing to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of the week.