At least 12 dead, one million without power, as Florence crawls west with fierce rains and rising river

A tree rests on a newly constructed house after Hurricane Florence struck in Belville, North Carolina, on Sept 15, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA (NYTIMES) - Florence, the powerful storm that has already left at least 12 people dead and about one million without power on the United States East Coast, continued to move inland at an ominously sluggish pace on Saturday (Sept 15), 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 on 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 Centre had it crawling west at 3.2kmh with maximum sustained winds of 80kmh.

It is likely to mow a path north-west across nearly all of South Carolina, promising a brutal weekend of heavy rain and potential flooding for millions. Storm conditions could also lead to tornadoes and landslides, officials said.

The centre of the storm is expected to head west through South Carolina before turning north on Sunday.

Rainfall in North Carolina has broken a state record, according to preliminary reports from the National Weather Service. More than 76cm were recorded in Swansboro, North Carolina. The previous record of 61cm was set in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd pounded the region.

The 12 storm-related deaths include a mother and child who were killed after a tree fell on their home in Wilmington; Ms Amber Dawn Lee, 61, a mother of two who was driving in Union County, South Carolina, when her vehicle hit a tree in the road; three people in Duplin County, North Carolina, who died because of flash flooding on the roadways; and a couple who died in a house fire in Cumberland County, North Carolina.

Local, state and federal officials are rushing to rescue people stranded in half-submerged homes across the region. So are many volunteers, including Mr 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.

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 10pm to 6am.

"This storm is not yet done," said County Manager Chris Coudriet, warning of continuing rain and winds.

But after nearly three days of punishing rains and winds, people in this coastal city were desperate for food, water and petrol. When the first grocery store reopened in south Wilmington, the results were predictable.

"Everybody rushed the doors - it got crazy," said Detective Bill Ostrosky of the Wilmington Police Department.

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North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a news conference on Monday that there were at least 17 confirmed deaths from Hurricane Florence and that the danger was "still immediate" for many.

More than one 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 Mr Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He spoke during a news conference on 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 US$6.1 million (S$8.4 million) response, monitoring federal dams, helping with rescues, and deploying pumps and portable barriers.

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Small firms are assessing the damage wrought by tropical depression Florence. Insurers may have avoided the worst because floods are causing more damage than winds.

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 22cm to 30cm 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.

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