Hurricane Florence continues slamming Carolina coast

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(CBS News) — Hurricane Florence was making a marathon landfall in North Carolina early Friday, pushing a life-threatening storm surge of floodwaters miles inland and ripping apart buildings with screaming wind and pelting rain.

More than 60 people had to be pulled from a collapsing motel at the height of the storm, reports CBS Greenville, North Carolina affiliate WNCT-TV. Many more who defied evacuation orders were hoping to be rescued. Pieces of buildings ripped apart by the storm flew through the air.

Most ominously, forecasters said the terrifying onslaught would last for hours and hours, because Florence was barely creeping along and still drawing energy from the ocean.

Coastal streets flowed with frothy ocean water and tens of thousands lost electricity. Forecasters said “catastrophic” freshwater flooding was expected along waterways far from the coast of the Carolinas.

Winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence moved in for an extended stay, with enough of its killer winds swirling overseas to maintain its power. Forecasters said the onslaught could last for days, leaving a wide area under water from both heavy downpours and rising seas.

The National Hurricane Center said a gauge in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, reported 6.3 feet of inundation. Emerald Isle is about 84 miles north of Wilmington, North Carolina.

And about 46 miles farther up the waterfront, in New Bern, two FEMA teams were working on swift-water rescues and more were on the way.

The worst of the storm’s fury had yet to reach coastal South Carolina, where emergency managers said people could still leave flood-prone areas.

“There is still time, but not a lot of time,” said Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management.

More than 321,000 homes and businesses in North Carolina already were without power as the storm began buffeting the coast, and more than 12,000 people were in shelters. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.

North Carolina corrections officials said more than 3,000 people were relocated from adult prisons and juvenile centers in the path of Florence, and more than 300 county prisoners were transferred to state facilities.

Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it’s unclear how many did. The homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.

Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.

Forecasters said conditions will continue to deteriorate as the storm makes its way slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.

Forecasters said that given the storm’s size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.

The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.

At least 490,000 homes and businesses were without power, mostly in North Carolina, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks the nation’s electrical grid.

The numbers are expected to soar as the storm’s winds and torrential rains sweep over more land. Duke anticipates 1 million to 3 million of their 4 million customers in the Carolinas will lose power from Florence.

Hurricane Florence could inflict the hardest hurricane punch North Carolina has seen in more than 60 years. In 1954, the state was hit by a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Hazel.

“Hazel stands as a benchmark storm in North Carolina’s history,” said Jay Barnes, author of books on the hurricane histories of both North Carolina and Florida. “We had a tremendous amount of destruction all across the state.”

“The worst of the storm is not yet here but these are early warnings of the days to come,” Cooper says

Hurricane Florence already has inundated coastal streets with ocean water and left tens of thousands without power, and forecasters say conditions will only worsen as the hulking storm slogs inland.

Screaming winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence’s leading edge whipped the Carolina coast Thursday to begin an onslaught that could last for days, leaving a wide area under water from both heavy downpours and rising seas.

The storm’s intensity diminished as it neared land, with winds dropping to around 90 mph by nightfall. But that, combined with the storm’s slowing forward movement and heavy rains, had Gov. Roy Cooper warning of an impending disaster.

“The worst of the storm is not yet here but these are early warnings of the days to come,” he said. “Surviving this storm will be a test of endurance, teamwork, common sense and patience.”

Cooper requested additional federal disaster assistance in anticipation of what his office called “historic major damage” across the state.

More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm began buffeting the coast, and more than 12,000 were in shelters. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.Prisoners were affected, too. North Carolina corrections officials said more than 3,000 people were relocated from adult prisons and juvenile centers in the path of Florence, and more than 300 county prisoners were transferred to state facilities.

Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it’s unclear how many did. The homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.

Spanish moss waved in the trees as the winds picked up in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City. Ocean water flowed between homes and on to streets on the Outer Banks; waves crashed against wooden fishing piers.

Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.

Airlines canceled about 1,200 flights and counting. As of Thursday afternoon, total cancellations within, into or out of the U.S. was 603 for the day, while 650 flights were canceled for Friday, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reported this week that people living in the barrier island community of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, were bracing for a possible direct impact. Long lines formed at service stations, and some started running out of gas as far west as Raleigh, with bright yellow bags, signs or rags placed over the pumps to show they were out of order. Some store shelves were picked clean.

“There’s no water. There’s no juices. There’s no canned goods,” Kristin Harrington said as she shopped at a Wal-Mart in Wilmington.

South Carolina said it is planning to end the reversal of some interstate lanes that were switched to help move people away from the state’s coast. Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith told reporters that, starting Thursday at 6 p.m., officers will close Interstate 26 lanes that had been switched from eastbound to westbound to move people away from the Charleston area toward the center of the state.

Many officers are on the road during lane reversals, manning each exit and ensuring drivers don’t drive around barricades. The change allows agencies like Smith’s to pull back their officers when tropical storm-force winds are expected to arrive in the state.

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