Days of flooding ahead in the Carolinas as Florence leaves at least 11 dead

Tropical Storm Florence’s relentless rain is flooding parts of the Carolinas and promises even more for days, officials said Saturday, a day after it landed as a hurricane and left at least 11 people dead — including a baby.

The issues prompted North Carolina to tell drivers coming down Interstate 95 from Virginia to go around — the entire state. The state wants motorists to go west to Tennessee and take Interstate 75 into Georgia.

“The one thing I want to prevent is thousands of people stranded on our interstates or US routes,” said state Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdan.

A 73-mile stretch of the highway closed Saturday because of flooding and an accident involving a tractor-trailer.

Officials warned the flooding was only just starting.

“The flood danger from this storm is more immediate today than when it … made landfall 24 hours ago,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Saturday morning. “We face walls of water at our coasts, along our rivers, across our farmland, in our cities and in our towns.”

The storm’s center is crawling over South Carolina, but many of its main rain bands still are over already-saturated North Carolina — setting up what may be days of flooding for some communities.

Serious flooding is expected throughout the two states, and some rivers may not crest for another three to five days.

Florence crashed ashore Friday morning in North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane, and it has wiped out power to about 796,000 customers in that state and South Carolina.

It has trapped people in flooded homes, with citizen swift-water rescue teams from out of state joining local emergency professionals to try to bring them to safety.

Key developments

• Florence’s location: By 5 p.m. Saturday, Florence’s center was 60 miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph. It was moving west at 2 mph, the National Weather Service said. The storm was expected to dump rain in the Carolinas through the weekend.

• Winds: Sustained winds of at least 39 mph can be felt as far away as 150 miles from the center of Florence.

 Looting arrest: A man was arrested for looting an Exxon gas station and convenience store in Wilmington on Saturday evening, according to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.

• No electricity: About 760,000 customers are without power in North Carolina, emergency officials said. In South Carolina, some 36,000 customers are without power, officials said.

• Trapped and rescued: In New Bern, North Carolina, officials tweeted Saturday afternoon that water rescues had been completed. In nearby Onslow County, three US Coast Guard helicopters were helping with rescue missions, officials said.

• Much flooding to come: By storm’s end, up to 40 inches of rain will have fallen in parts of North Carolina and far northeastern South Carolina, the National Hurricane Center said. Some other parts of South Carolina could see rainfall totals of up to 15 inches, forecasters said. Florence “will produce catastrophic flooding over parts of North and South Carolina for some time,” NOAA official Steve Goldstein said.

• Record rainfall: Florence has dumped more than 30 inches of rain in Swansboro, North Carolina, as of Saturday morning, breaking the record for rainfall from a tropical system in the state. The previous record of 24.06 inches was set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

‘It’s time to go’

Across the Carolinas, officials are sounding the alarm: More communities will flood as rivers collect water from upstream and spill over.

In Rocky Point, North Carolina, Susan Bostic and her family were packing to leave Saturday morning, even though Florence’s center was long gone.

The Northeast Cape Fear River flooded there after Hurricane Floyd, destroying her original home. This round of flooding is predicted to be worse — cresting at what would be a record 22.8 feet just to the north by Tuesday — and the river already was encroaching into her yard Saturday.

“We know it’s time to go,” Bostic told CNN. “We don’t (where we’re going) yet. We just know we’re getting out of here.”

Rapidly rising river

Anxiety also reigned Saturday in Lumberton, a North Carolina city that was submerged for days after 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

The water in the Lumber River was rising faster than officials expected. It went up 5 feet overnight and was close to 15 feet, two feet above flood stage. It was expected to reach 24 feet by lunchtime Sunday.

Volunteers and city workers have been filling sandbags, trying to plug a low point in the city’s levee system before the Lumber River crests.

Official predict that when the water reaches 26 feet, the barriers will be overwhelmed.

The city installed 11 pumps to help deal with the river, but Mayor John Cantey said he wants people living near it to get out.

There is no mandatory evacuation but residents in the low-lying areas that were flooding during Hurricane Matthew should leave now, city spokeswoman Emily Jones said.

In Cumberland County, which includes Fayetteville, officials ordered people within a mile of the Cape Fear River to evacuate by 3 p.m. Sunday.

In South Carolina, the worst is likely yet to come for communities such as Conway, about 15 miles inland from Myrtle Beach.

Water was rising Saturday morning in a flood plain near the Waccamaw River, lapping up against homes and pooling over at least one main road.

At least 11 have been killed

Florence has left at least 11 people dead, including a mother and her child who died after a tree fell on their house in Wilmington, North Carolina, police said. The father was hospitalized with injuries.

In Hampstead, North Carolina, emergency responders going to a call for cardiac arrest found their path blocked by downed trees. When they got to the home, the woman was dead, authorities said.

Two men were also killed in Lenoir County, North Carolina. One was electrocuted while trying to connect two extension cords and the other while checking on his dogs outside, emergency officials said.

Three people died Saturday in Duplin County, North Carolina, because of flash flooding and “swift water on roadways,” the sheriff’s office there said.

Also, officials in Cumberland County determined that a fire that killed two people Friday was storm-related.

In South Carolina’s Union County, a 61-year-old woman was killed Friday night when the car she was driving struck a downed tree, state emergency management spokesman Antonio Diggs said.

Earlier Saturday, officials in North Carolina’s Carteret County said two other people were dead as a result of the storm. They later clarified those deaths were not related to Florence.

She called 911. No one came

Those who stayed behind gave harrowing accounts of getting trapped in their homes surrounded by water.

Annazette Riley-Cromartie said she and her family thought they’d be safe in their brick house in eastern North Carolina. But the water kept rising.

She, her husband and three children escaped into the attic, but the winds howled, and the family fled to an upper floor bedroom.

As they waited for emergency workers, they heard neighbors screaming for help. Her 6-foot-2 husband went to see what he could do, but the water was above his chest, she said.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world to hear people yelling for help, and you can’t do anything,” she said.

She said she called 911, but no one came. Eventually, a volunteer rescue team from Indiana arrived with a boat and rescued them.

States of emergency

Officials have declared states of emergency in several states, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the storm will travel through upstate South Carolina, be downgraded to a tropical depression, then turn north toward the Ohio Valley.

As it moves near Ohio and West Virginia, it will become a remnant low. Then it will swing to the northeast in the middle of next week on a path to the Atlantic Ocean near Nova Scotia, where it will be an extratropical low with gale-force winds.