MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Florence, now a tropical storm, swirled at a near-standstill over the Carolinas on Saturday, dumping non-stop rain over areas already flooded by seawater and swelling rivers and creeks across both states.
Some towns have already been soaked by more than 2 feet (60 centimetres) of drenching rains , and forecasters warned that totals could reach 3 1/2 feet (1 metre), unleashing floods well inland through early next week. At least four people have died, a toll authorities fear will rise as the storm crawls westward across South Carolina.
At 8 a.m. Saturday, Florence stalled about 35 miles (55 kilometres) west of Myrtle Beach, moving forward at just 2 mph (4 kph), with top sustained winds of 50 mph (80 kph).
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper called Florence an “uninvited brute” that could wipe out entire communities as it grinds its way across land.
“The fact is this storm is deadly and we know we are days away from an ending,” Cooper said.
With tropical storm-force winds swirling 350 miles (560 kilometres) wide, Florence continued deluging the Carolinas on Saturday morning after pushing surging seas far ashore. Rescue crews used boats to carry more than 360 people from rising water in the river town of New Bern, North Carolina, while many of their neighbours awaited help. Dozens more were pulled from a collapsed motel.
WATCH: Officials provide updates on Tropical Storm Florence
Florence flattened trees, buckled buildings and crumpled roads. The storm knocked out power to nearly 930,000 homes and businesses, and the number could keep rising.
A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from Wilmington police. A 77-year-old man was apparently knocked down by the wind and died after going out to check on his hunting dogs, Lenoir County authorities said. The governor’s office said a man was electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain.
Storm surges – the bulge of ocean water pushed ashore by the hurricane – were as high as 10 feet (3 metres).
Shaken after seeing waves crashing on the Neuse River just outside his house in New Bern, restaurant owner and hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.
“I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth,” he said.
Florence peaked at a terrifying Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph (225 kph) over warm ocean water before making landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles (kilometres) east of Wilmington and not far from the South Carolina line. It blew ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind.
Morehead City, North Carolina, had received 23 inches (58 centimetres) of rain by Friday night, and forecasters warned Saturday morning that parts of the Carolinas could get up to 15 inches (38 centimetres) more.
WATCH: Coverage of Tropical Storm Florence
At times, Florence was moving forward no faster than a human can walk, and it has remained such a wide storm that its counter-clockwise winds keep scooping up massive amounts of moisture from the sea. The flooding began on barrier islands in North Carolina and then spread into coastal and river communities there and in South Carolina, swamping the white sands and golf courses in North Myrtle Beach.
For people living inland in the Carolinas, maximum peril could come days later as all that water drains, overflowing rivers and causing flash floods.
Authorities warned, too, of risks of mudslides and environmental disasters from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.
About 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats.
Florence could become 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 death toll was put at nearly 3,000.
The hurricane centre said the storm will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a right hook to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com calculated that Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons (68 trillion litres) of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That’s enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay, or cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches (10 centimetres) of water.
WATCH: Deaths reported as Florence’s fury arrives and makes landfall
North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons (36 trillion litres), enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches (25 centimetres).
In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door to door to pull more than 60 people out as the Triangle Motor Inn began to crumble.
In New Bern, population 29,000, flooding on the Neuse River left 500 people in peril.
“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the city tweeted during the height of the storm. “You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”
WATCH: Former Calgarian desperate to return to North Carolina home in wake of tropical storm Florence
Boat teams including volunteers rescued some 360 residents, including Sadie Marie Holt, 67, who first tried to row out of her neighbourhood during Florence’s assault.
“The wind was so hard, the waters were so hard … We got thrown into mailboxes, houses, trees,” said Holt, who had stayed at home because of a doctor’s appointment that was later cancelled. She was eventually rescued by a boat crew; 140 more awaited help.
WATCH: Storm downgraded from hurricane status
Ashley Warren and boyfriend Chris Smith managed to paddle away from their home in a boat with their two dogs, and were left shaken.
“Honestly, I grew up in Wilmington. I love hurricanes. But this one has been an experience for me,” she said. “We might leave.”