CONWAY, S.C. — Florence, the powerful storm that has already left at least six dead and nearly 1 million people without power on the East Coast, continued to move inland at an ominously sluggish pace Saturday, fat with rain and threatening to deliver hardship and devastation far beyond the wind-battered coasts.
A Category 1 hurricane when it plowed ashore near Wilmington, North Carolina, early Friday, Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm hours later, and the damage of the first blow along the coast was not as bad as many had feared. But an early Saturday report from the National Hurricane Center had it crawling west at 2 mph with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph. It is likely to mow a path northwest across nearly all of South Carolina, promising a brutal weekend of heavy rain and potential flooding for millions. Storm conditions could also lead to tornados and landslides, officials said.
The center of the storm is expected to head west through South Carolina before turning north Sunday.
Among the six storm-related deaths is a mother and child who were killed after a tree fell on their home in Wilmington, and Amber Dawn Lee, 61, who was driving in Union County, South Carolina, when her vehicle hit a tree in the road.
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Local, state and federal officials are rushing to rescue people stranded in half-submerged homes across the region. So are many volunteers, including Tray Tillman, 26, a construction foreman who was part of a makeshift rescue flotilla that has plucked hundreds of stranded people from attics, second-floor bedrooms, church vestibules and crumbling decks.
The downgrade to tropical storm status meant little to South Carolinians, who in October 2015 were shocked by an unnamed weather system that brought widespread flooding, fatalities and ruin to much of their state. In the coming days, many of South Carolina’s rivers are projected to break flood level records, in some cases by 2 or 3 feet, that were set by the 2015 floods, or during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 or Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
In Florence County, South Carolina, some 60 miles inland from the coast, Levi James, a spokesman for the local emergency management agency, said that the 2015 flooding “kind of caught everybody by surprise.” Not this time.
On Saturday morning, James said that 400 people were housed in five shelters in Florence County, many of them encouraged to evacuate by officials who knew where the most vulnerable low-lying spots would be after the 2015 rains and Hurricane Matthew the next year. James said the rains were light Saturday morning, but he was bracing for a more intense downpour as the storm passed later in the afternoon. “We’re not going to let our guard down,” he said.
Much of eastern North Carolina on Saturday was still reeling from Florence’s first powerful punch. In coastal Wilmington, driving rain continued to drench the city, wind gusts blew debris through nearly deserted streets, and power lines snaked across highways and suburban streets. Police Chief Ralph Evangelous urged residents to stay home. A curfew was in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“This storm is not yet done,” said county manager Chris Coudriet, warning of continuing rain and winds.
Most residents obeyed authorities and stayed inside darkened homes. Many cranked up portable generators for temporary power.
One of the few residents on the streets downtown early Saturday was Keen Grady, who was on his way with a friend to the local Waffle House restaurant under the impression that it was open even during the storm. But a felled tree blocked the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, which was closed and dark.
Asked why he had ventured outside under such conditions, Grady quipped, “We’re just spoiled Americans.”
More than 1 million power failures have been reported, according to the Department of Energy. More than 840,000 were in North Carolina — knocking out power for almost one-fifth of the state. But like their neighbors to the south, North Carolinians knew that they were likely to face days of flooding from engorged rivers long after the immediate drama of flying shingles and TV newscasters staggering in the squalls.
“There is a lot of rain to come,” said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He spoke during a news conference Saturday where a snapshot of the federal response so far emerged. The Coast Guard said 43 aircraft had rescued five people. The Army Corps of Engineers was engaging in a $6.1 million response, monitoring federal dams, helping with rescues, and deploying pumps and portable barriers.
And while officials pleaded with residents not to try to drive on flooded streets, and warned that the slow-moving storm still posed a serious threat, they also began preparing for what will most likely be a long and costly recovery.
President Donald Trump’s major disaster declaration, approved Friday, paves the way for millions of dollars in aid for storm victims. David Maurstad, chief executive of the National Flood Insurance Program, said the program was readying to address claims.
In Wilmington, the waters of the Cape Fear River were gray and roiling at daybreak. With up to 20 inches of rain forecast, roads were flooded in some low-lying areas and along stream and river banks. Emergency authorities warned that widespread flooding was still a threat from the storm’s trailing bands.
Mayor Bill Saffo said the river was expected to crest next week. Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina said the river could cause inland flooding as severe as it was during Hurricane Matthew, which flooded several eastern North Carolina towns in 2016.
Up the coast in the graceful, historic city of New Bern, officials reported that they had rescued more than 385 people by Saturday morning as water from the Neuse and Trent rivers turned neighborhoods into lakes. Colleen Roberts, a city spokeswoman, said that more than 1,200 people remained in local shelters, and 7,000 local power customers were without electricity as of Saturday morning.
Further west, in Charlotte, the National Weather Service predicted that parts of the metro area were at “high risk” of flooding; if the forecast of nine to 12 inches of rain bore out, the service warned, “significant flash flooding will be highly likely.” In South Carolina, more than 150,000 power customers were also in the dark.
In Myrtle Beach, where fears of widespread destruction ran high a couple of days ago, most of the oceanfront appeared to have weathered the hit, though officials were still assessing the damage throughout Horry County — and they were wondering if the worst was yet to come.