Hurricane Florence lumbered ashore in North Carolina with howling 90 mph winds and terrifying storm surge early Friday, splintering buildings and trapping hundreds of people in high water as it settled in for what could be a long and extraordinarily destructive drenching.
More than 60 people had to be pulled from a collapsing cinderblock motel at the height of the storm. Hundreds more had to be rescued elsewhere from rising waters. And others could only hope someone would come for them.
“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city of New Bern tweeted around 2 a.m. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”
As Florence pounded away, it unloaded heavy rain, flattened trees, chewed up roads and knocked out power to more than a half-million homes and businesses.
Ominously, forecasters said the onslaught on the North Carolina-South Carolina coast would last for hours and hours because the hurricane had come almost to a dead stop at just 3 mph (6 kph) as of midday. The town of Oriental had gotten more than 18 inches of rain just a few hours into the deluge, while Surf City had 14 inches and it was still coming down.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the hurricane was “wreaking havoc” on the coast and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its “violent grind across our state for days.” He called the rain an event that comes along only once every 1,000 years.
“Hurricane Florence is powerful, slow and relentless,” he said. “It’s an uninvited brute who doesn’t want to leave.”
There were no immediate reports of any deaths.
Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington, not far from the South Carolina line, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
Its storm surge and the prospect of 1 to 3½ feet of rain were considered a bigger threat than its winds, which had dropped off from an alarming 140 mph — Category 4 — earlier in the week. Forecasters said catastrophic freshwater flooding is expected well inland over the next few days as Florence crawls westward across the Carolinas all weekend.
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 worst, 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.
For people living inland in the Carolinas, the moment of maximum peril from flash flooding could arrive days later, because it takes time for rainwater to drain into rivers and for those streams to crest. Authorities warned, too, of the threat of mudslides and the risk of environmental havoc from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.
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, where the storm was blamed for nearly 3,000 deaths in the desperate aftermath.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence 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.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com calculated that 34 million people in the U.S. could get at least 3 inches of rain from Florence, with more than 5.7 million people probably receiving at least a foot.
Maue said Florence could dump about 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That’s enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay, he calculated.
On Friday, coastal streets in the Carolinas flowed with frothy ocean water, and pieces of torn-apart buildings flew through the air. The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines. Traffic lights out of order because of power failures swayed in the gusty wind. Roof shingles were peeled off a hotel.
At noon, the wobbly center of Florence was about 25 miles (45 kilometers) southwest of Wilmington, its winds down to 80 mph (130 kmh), forecasters said. Hurricane-force winds extended 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the center, and tropical storm-force winds reached out 195 miles (315 kilometers).
The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 105 mph (169 kph), the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958, the weather service said.
In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull people out of the Triangle Motor Inn after the structure began to crumble and the roof started to collapse.
Farther up the coast, in New Bern, population 29,000, flooding on the Neuse River trapped people. Mayor Dana Outlaw told The Charlotte Observer about 200 had been rescued by 5 a.m. Residents reached out for help through the night by phone and social media.
Tom Balance, owner of a seafood restaurant in New Bern, had decided against evacuating his home and was soon alarmed to see waves coming off the Neuse and the water getting higher and higher. Six sheriff’s officers came to his house to rescue him Friday morning, but he didn’t need to leave since the water was dropping by then.
Still, he said: “I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth.”
Sheets of rain splattered against windows of a hotel before daybreak in Wilmington, where Sandie Orsa of Wilmington sat in a lobby lit by emergency lights after the electricity went out.
“Very eerie, the wind howling, the rain blowing sideways, debris flying,” said Orsa, who lives nearby and feared splintering trees would pummel her house.
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 sea water.
The rising sea crept toward the two-story home of Tom Copeland, who lives on a spit of land surrounded by water in Swansboro.
The 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.”
The worst of the storm’s fury had yet to reach coastal South Carolina, where emergency managers said it was not too late for people to get out.
“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 people were in shelters in North Carolina and 400 in Virginia, where the forecast was less dire. Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it was unclear how many did. More than 3,000 inmates at North Carolina prisons and juvenile detention centers were moved out of the storm’s path.