WILMINGTON (AFP) – Hurricane Florence on Friday claimed its first fatalities, including a mother and her baby, as the monster storm walloped the US East Coast and parked over the Carolinas, threatening days of torrential rain and severe flooding.
As rescuers battled strong winds and debris-filled floodwaters to pluck hundreds of stranded people from their homes, officials confirmed at least three deaths from the monster storm, while US media reported a fourth.
Police in Wilmington, North Carolina, near where the hurricane made landfall, said a mother and her infant were killed when a tree fell on their house. The father was taken to hospital with unspecified injuries.
Another person died in a storm-related death in Pender County, North Carolina, according to a spokesperson, when downed trees prevented emergency units from reaching a woman with a medical condition who called for help. Local media said she had suffered a heart attack.
A fourth person reportedly was killed while plugging in a generator in the state s Lenoir County, according to US media.
“This storm is going to continue its violent grind across our state for days,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said. “The storm is wreaking havoc on our state.”
Donald Trump was to visit hurricane-hit zones “early to the middle of next week,” the White House said, “once it is determined his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts.”
As of 2:00 pm (1800 GMT), maximum sustained winds had weakened to 75 mph (120 kph) but the National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned Carolina residents to be alert for life-threatening storm surges and “catastrophic freshwater flooding.”
“Flash flooding will be extreme and flood waters will come up quickly and seemingly out of nowhere,” the governor said.
“We re deeply concerned for whole communities which could be wiped away.”
Some of the worst flooding was in New Bern, North Carolina, a town of about 30,000 people at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers.
Both rivers overflowed their banks, flooding homes, stores and streets and trapping many people in their houses.
“WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU. You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU,” the authorities in New Bern said on Twitter.
Governor Cooper said there have been “several hundred” rescue operations and “there are still some people they need to get to.”
Cooper said the Neuse River had seen storm surge as high as 10 feet (three meters) and the amount of rainfall was a “1,000-year event.”
He said 20,000 people were being housed in 157 shelters across the state.
Hurricane Florence made landfall as a Category 1 storm at 7:15 am (1115 GMT) in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, after stalking the Carolina coast for days.
The NHC described Florence as a “slow mover” and said it had the potential to dump historic amounts of rainfall on North and South Carolina, as much as 40 inches (one meter) in some places.
“This is not the end of it,” said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
He said “24 to 36 hours remain for significant threats” from heavy rain, storm surge and flooding.
In New Bern, where a curfew was in place, city authorities said hundreds of people had been rescued from homes inundated with water.
Besides federal and state emergency crews, they were being helped by volunteers from the so-called “Cajun Navy” who also turned up in Houston during Hurricane Harvey to carry out water rescues.
In Wilmington, near where the eye of the hurricane touched down, trees and power lines were down and many windows had been broken. The streets were mostly deserted and some were blocked by fallen trees.
The city woke Friday to the sound of exploding electrical transformers with strong gusts throwing street signs and other debris as well as water in all directions.
Ken Graham, the NHC s director, warned the slow pace of the storm exacerbated its danger even to areas outside its immediate path. “The longer you have this hurricane wind flow, the longer you push that water well inland,” he said.
North Carolina emergency management officials said more than 600,000 customers in North Carolina were without power.
The NHC said hurricane-force winds extended outward 35 miles (55 kms) from the center of the storm and tropical storm-force winds extended nearly 170 miles (280 kms) out.
A tornado watch was also in effect for parts of North Carolina.
In Wilmington, Mason Tarr said he spent the night at a friend s house but didn t sleep well.
“And it s just a Category 1 hurricane,” Tarr said. “I wonder how it would have been with a Category 4 or 5.
“Our house is on high ground so we re not worried about the flooding,” he said. “But there are a lot of big trees around so we preferred to spend the night at a friends to be sure.
“We re out of power so we spent the first few hours of the day playing board games with candles,” he said.
About 1.7 million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders and millions of others live in areas likely to be affected by the storm.
A state of emergency was declared in five coastal states — North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia.