WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — 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.
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.