Hurricane Florence, lashing the North Carolina coast with strong winds and blinding rain, made landfall Friday morning having already driven dangerous storm surges of several feet into beach and river towns.
The eye of the storm came ashore at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, just east of Wilmington, with winds of about 90 mph. In the riverfront city of New Bern, emergency rescue teams were trying to reach hundreds of residents trapped in cars, on roofs and in their attics as the Neuse River overflowed and flooded the city.
The storm, which was downgraded to Category 1 late Thursday, made landfall about 7:15 a.m. While the winds had weakened in intensity as the hurricane neared the coast, forecasters warned that the rains may be the real hazard from the storm, which is expected to slowly move southwest into South Carolina before turning north.
Some 200 people were rescued from flood-marooned homes overnight in New Bern, the mayor, Dana Outlaw, said. Another 150 were in need of rescue Friday morning.
About 60 people were evacuated from a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, local news media reported, after the storm’s strong winds threatened the structural integrity of the building.
The storm surge had reached 7 feet on Emerald Isle, North Carolina, and could climb as high as 11 feet elsewhere. A high tide around noon Friday could exacerbate the surge. Rainfall of up to 40 inches is expected to bring widespread inland flooding.
More than 400,000 people have lost power in North Carolina, while officials in Onslow County reported “major structural damage to homes, businesses and institutions” by midnight Friday.
Florence is proving to be a lumbering giant, crawling along the coastline as it dumps rain across the Carolinas. Anxiety is high in towns as far inland as Greenville, North Carolina, where residents braced for the one-two-punch of rain and storm surge.
More than 4,500 people had checked into shelters in South Carolina, and authorities said they had space for more than 34,000 across 64 shelters. North Carolina had opened 126 shelters for about 12,000 people, and is trying to open more.
— 200 rescued, 150 awaiting help as New Bern floods
Rescues were underway Friday morning in New Bern, North Carolina, a small city that sits at the confluence of two rivers that run into storm-swollen Pamlico Sound.
Some 200 people were rescued from flood-marooned homes overnight, said the mayor, Dana Outlaw, and another 150 were awaiting rescue. Some were in the second floors of homes, others in attics.
“New Bern has not seen a storm like this since the ‘50s,” the mayor said. “I think people just assume things like this just won’t happen.”
“It’s everything that was predicted,” he said.
New Bern officials, the mayor and aldermen had gone around low-lying neighborhoods Thursday urging people to leave and offering rides to shelters. Most did get out — the mayor estimated 70 percent — but not everyone.
“A lot of people, this is their whole lives and they had pride, and they did not want to leave,” an alderwoman, Jameesha Harris, said. “Those same individuals that I knocked on their doors had family members calling me to say they’re on their roof.”
The badly flooded areas are all around the town, not isolated to just one spot, Harris said: “Downtown is literally underwater.”
New Bern is the largest city in Craven County, which has a population of 105,000. Some calls for rescue were also coming from outlying areas of the county, said Amber Parker, a county spokeswoman.
A resident, Gray Swindell, who lives about a quarter mile south of the Trent River, said, “I have never seen this much flooding in New Bern and I have lived here 53 years.”
Five swift-water rescue teams and the volunteer Cajun Navy were responding to calls from people who were stranded, Parker said. She said many calls were for multiple people in need of help, including one from a home in the low-lying Fairfield Harbor neighborhood, with nine people who were heading to the attic.
On New Bern’s Facebook page, the Police Department warned residents whose homes were flooded not to go into the attic unless they had a way to cut through the ceiling for ventilation.
Swindell said that it started raining Thursday afternoon and had not let up. His yard, which backs up to a creek that feeds into the river, was covered by rising water that had not yet made its way into his house — and nothing like the reported 6 feet of water in downtown New Bern, he said.
“The winds were better than what we expected, but the flooding is worse than what we expected,” Swindell, 53, said by telephone.
Swindell said he stayed only because his parents refused to leave their home in New Bern. He said that he, along with his sister and brother, all pleaded with their parents to leave but their father refused.
“He kept getting mad at us,” Swindell said. “I wasn’t about to leave them here.”
— Government and military officials prepare to respond
Brock Long, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday that the federal government had staged resources and personnel in states along the Eastern Seaboard to help quickly after the storm.
FEMA workers were focused on helping state and local authorities prepare, he said. But as the storm pushes through, the agency will shift its focus to identifying infrastructure damage and work to restore services.
“The infrastructure is going to break. The power is going to go out,” Long said at a news conference. “We need people to get their mindsets right that disasters are very frustrating and that it takes time to get the infrastructure back and running. We will move as quickly as we can to get back up.”
The National Guard has readied about 4,000 soldiers and airmen, with more than 10 states mobilizing support. Air Force and Army helicopters were standing by for search-and-rescue operations and evacuations.
— Finding shelter away from home
Three years ago, Lavette Pixley and her son thought they could ride out a massive storm fed by Hurricane Joaquin as it moved through the Atlantic. Then they woke up to a flooded apartment and had to be rescued by firefighters.
As Hurricane Florence approached Thursday afternoon, hours from making landfall, Pixley and her 8-year-old son, Tayon, left their apartment for Ridge View High School, where the American Red Cross is operating a shelter. This time, Pixley said, they chose to take no chances.
“I’m scared. We have bad memories from last time,” she said. “It’s better to be somewhere dry and safe.”
By Thursday evening, Pixley, 46, was lying on a cot provided by the Red Cross, and Tayon was playing with his Spider-Man stuffed animal. They were among 85 people who had traveled from across the state to seek shelter at the school. The majority are from Richland County, which includes Columbia, but some drove from as far as Charleston, South Carolina, about 115 miles away.
Other evacuees watched television reports about the storm over breakfast Friday morning at the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in La Crosse, Virginia. The hotel was fully booked, with rental trucks parked beside cars in the parking lot.
LaVene Painter, 86, a retired shoe factory supply clerk, arrived Thursday afternoon with her friend of more than three decades, Ruby Daniel, 82. The two live about 120 miles west of Virginia Beach in Alberta, Virginia, and were concerned that large pine trees around their homes could fall and trap them. Both have chronic medical problems, with Painter having survived two heart attacks and breast cancer.
“We usually get together when we have bad thunderclouds,” Painter said. “She’ll come over and spend the night.”
This time, for the first time, the hurricane threat led them to pack up their medications and snacks and leave town. “I have been scared,” Painter said.