WILMINGTON, North Carolina: Florence crashed into the Carolina coast on Friday (Sep 14), felling trees, dumping nearly three feet of rain on some spots and leading to the death of five people before it was downgraded to a tropical storm still capable of wreaking havoc.
The storm's first casualties included a mother and her baby, who died when a tree fell on their brick house in Wilmington, North Carolina. The child's father was injured and taken to a hospital.
In Pender County, North Carolina, a woman suffered a fatal heart attack; paramedics trying to reach her were blocked by debris.
Two people died in Lenoir County. A 78-year-old man was electrocuted attempting to connect extension cords while another man perished when he was blown down by high winds while checking on his hunting dogs, a county spokesman said.
"To those in the storm's path, if you can hear me, please stay sheltered in place," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said at a news conference in Raleigh, adding that Florence would "continue its violent grind across the state for days".
Florence had been a Category 3 hurricane with 120-mph winds as of Thursday, but dropped to Category 1 before coming ashore.
After landfall, Florence slowed to a pace that would see the system likely lingering for days. The National Hurricane Center downgraded it to a tropical storm on Friday afternoon, but warned that life-threatening storm surges - in which water is pushed by a storm over land that would normally be dry - and catastrophic freshwater flooding were still expected.
NEW BERN OVERWHELMED
Hundreds of people needed to be rescued after becoming trapped in their homes by a storm surge of up to 3m in New Bern, a town of 30,000 in North Carolina at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers.
"Into next week our rivers are going to continue to rise and there will be more significant flooding," Cooper said.
New Bern resident Dan Eudy said he and his brother were awakened on Thursday night by the sound of a boat ramming against his front porch. They ventured out in life jackets into the waste-deep water to tie the boat and another floating by to a tree.
Eudy and his family stayed home in New Bern in part to protect their house. "And we had no belief it would be as significant an event as it was,” he said. “This is a 500- or 1,000-year event.”
Eudy's family has lived in New Bern since the 1850s, he said. His mom remembers Hurricane Hazel, when the water did not rise as high as his fifth step, where it was Thursday night.
More than 680,000 customers in North Carolina were without power and 21,000 people were being housed in 157 shelters across the state.
The White House said President Donald Trump was to visit hurricane-hit areas next week "once it is determined his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts."
'WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU'
Video taken in several towns in the Carolinas showed emergency personnel wading through thigh-high water.
"Flash flooding will be extreme and flood waters will come up quickly and seemingly out of nowhere," the governor said.
"We're deeply concerned for whole communities which could be wiped away."
Some of the worst flooding was in New Bern, where authorities were enforcing a curfew.
Both the Trent and Neuse rivers overflowed their banks, flooding homes, stores and streets and trapping many people in their houses.
"WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU. You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU," the authorities in New Bern said on Twitter.
Governor Cooper said there have been "several hundred" rescue operations and "there are still some people they need to get to."
Besides federal and state emergency crews, rescuers were being helped by volunteers from the so-called "Cajun Navy" who also turned up in Houston during Hurricane Harvey to carry out water rescues.
"This is not the end of it," said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
He said "24 to 36 hours remain for significant threats" from heavy rain, storm surge and flooding.
DOWNED TREES AND POWER LINES
In Wilmington, near where the eye of the hurricane touched down, trees and power lines were felled and many windows had been broken. The streets were mostly deserted and some were blocked by fallen trees.
The city awoke Friday to the sound of exploding electrical transformers with strong gusts of wind throwing street signs and other debris as well as water in all directions.
In Wilmington, Mason Tarr said he spent the night at a friend's house but didn't sleep well.
"And it's just a Category 1 hurricane," Tarr said. "I wonder how it would have been with a Category 4 or 5.
"Our house is on high ground so we're not worried about the flooding," he said. "But there are a lot of big trees around so we preferred to spend the night at a friend's to be sure.
"We're out of power so we spent the first few hours of the day playing board games with candles," he said.
About 1.7 million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders, and millions of others live in areas likely to be affected by the storm.
A state of emergency was declared in five coastal states - North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia.
About 10 million people could be affected by the storm.
Florence was one of two major storms threatening millions of people on opposite sides of the world. Super Typhoon Mangkhut hit the Philippines on Saturday and would affect 5.2 million people.