Florence pours rain on the Carolinas; death toll at 7

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As Hurricane Florence, now downgraded to a tropical storm, continued to chart a path of destruction across North and SC on Saturday, school gymnasiums morphed into makeshift shelters for thousands of people displaced from their homes in nearby flood-prone areas.

Duke Energy Corp, the area's biggest utility with more than 4 million customers, estimated the storm could cause between 1 million and 3 million outages.

In New Bern, a riverfront city near the North Carolina coast that saw storm surges up to 10 feet (3 meters), authorities were rescuing stranded residents and taking stock of damages. "Work will begin when conditions safely allow", the company said on its website on Saturday.

It's part of the same pattern that unfolded during Hurricane Katrina, when some 150,000 to 200,000 people remained in their homes despite federal evacuation orders, and during Hurricane Maria, which an independent study conducted by George Washington University recently revealed resulted in almost 3,000 deaths.

In New Bern, along the coast, homes were completely surrounded by water, and rescuers used inflatable boats to reach people.

Forecasters have been predicting catastrophic flash flooding. "We don't need them going back into their areas until they're cleared safe to go". The first units were expected to come online early next week in New Bern and Washington, North Carolina, according to Jack Frazier, the Baptist Men's disaster relief co-ordinator.

A mandatory evacuation order has been put in place for anyone who lives within a mile of the banks of North Carolina's Cape Fear River and Little River. More than 60 people, including many children, were evacuated from a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, after strong winds collapsed part of the roof. The city tweeted early September 14 that 150 people were awaiting rescue.

The viral video, which has more than 13.6 million views, showed Weather Channel correspondent Mike Seidel in Wilmington, North Carolina, trying to fight the heavy wind as he reported live from the storm on Friday. Cooper cited a National Weather Service forecast that said almost the entire state could be covered in several feet of water.

In a separate briefing, Steve Goldstein of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said some areas have already received two feet of rain and could expect up to 20 inches more as the system moved "slowly, almost stationary" over eastern North Carolina.

Officials in SC said a 61-year-old woman died when her auto struck a tree that had fallen across a highway near the town of Union.

Governor Cooper advised North Carolina residents inland that rivers will rise days after the rain has stopped.

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.

A mother and her eight-month-old baby were killed Friday when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from police in Wilmington, N.C. The father was transported to a hospital for treatment.

President Trump's disaster declaration for eight North Carolina counties frees up federal funding including grants for property repairs and low-priced loans to cover uninsured losses.

Florence could become a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared previous year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the death toll was put at almost 3,000.

Some local residents described a harrowing retreat as the storm hit early on Friday. "This one ended up in the middle of S. Front St!" Trump, who spoke with state and local officials on Friday, plans a visit to the region next week.

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