Hurricane Florence

Tariq Zehawi/ via USA TODAY NETOWRK

Florence Downgraded, But Death Toll Rises

September 14, 2018 - 2:46 pm

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) — Hurricane Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm hours after making landfall in North Carolina Friday, but not before the storm was blamed for multiple deaths.

Florence has pushed a life-threatening storm surge of floodwater miles inland and ripping apart buildings with screaming wind and pelting rain.

Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. a few miles east of Wilmington, as the center of its eye moved onshore near Wrightsville Beach, the National Hurricane Center said. It was downgraded to a tropical storm in the late afternoon Friday.

"We are in the eye wall right now, it's extremely dangerous to be outside," CBS News Correspondent Jim Krasula told WCBS 880 as Florence made landfall. "Things are starting to fly through the air.... The wind continues to pick up, it's howling, it's whistling. At times it's whistling at such a high pitch that it actually hurts your ears. Speaking of hurting, your skin stings as this wind driven rain hits it. It's falling in sheets horizontally, looking at trees bending wildly, the street lights, the street signs above intersections are swaying wildly as well. The hotel I'm in  is being buffeted so much that the water in the toilets is actually sloshing back and forth."

Hours later in the afternoon, Krasula was in downtown Wilmington. He said on Thursday, the Cape Fear River was flowing south like it usually does – but not anymore.

“Today, it’s flowing northerly, in a northerly direction, so one of the things that’s happening now with the present position of the storm – the center of the storm – is it’s pushing water back up into these rivers and sounds in eastern North Carolina, and that’s making for even worse conditions. I’m watching floodwaters rise here throughout downtown Wilmington, especially from this Cape Fear River,” Krasula told WCBS 880’s Kevin Rincon and Michael Wallace. “I have been out and about a little bit today, this afternoon. Most streets are blocked by downed trees, debris, and high floodwaters.”

Its storm surge and the prospect of 1 to 3 1/2 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.

Kevin Wuzzardo, news director at WWAY-TV in Wilmington, said there were a few breaks in the storm on Friday – but it was still an ugly day giving way to an ugly night.

With the storm moving inland slowly at speeds as sluggish as 3 mph, there were mounting concerns about rain.

 “They’re still saying that the rain totals here in the Wilmington area could be 25, 30, 35 inches of rain. We’re hoping that doesn’t happen. Again, those breaks have helped us out a little bit; let us keep those levels down. The storm surges continue to be an issue, with high tide being affected, and as the storm moves, it will push water back up the Cape Fear River toward Wilmington,” Wuzzardo said.

Duke Energy and some other local power companies said their infrastructure was already damaged by Friday night – and some companies had turned off their power as a precaution.

WWAY-TV was on a gas generator and had not had any problems, but Wuzzardo said power outages were widespread.

“Power – we’re more amazed when we see – we look at the outage maps and there are supposedly people in each of our counties with power. We want to know who they are. We want to go over to their house tonight and be comfortable. But I have a feeling that there probably aren’t really any – they just haven’t reported them yet,” he said.

The water system remained functional Friday night, though cases of bottled water have been stacked up at the TV station.

“We told everybody, ‘Don’t touch them until we have to,’ you know? So as long as the municipal water system works, we’ll keep on going with that, and hopefully, that’s not going to be a problem,” he said. “But again, the bigger effects from the storm may still be days away. We’ve got to get this storm out of here and all the rain, and then we have to see what comes down the river.”

President Donald Trump said he is preparing to travel to areas affected by Hurricane Florence next week. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump will travel to the region "early to middle of next week."

She said his trip will take place "once it is determined his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts."

Aides said Trump has been monitoring the massive storm from the White House.

As the storm made landfall, more than 60 people had to be pulled from a collapsing cinderblock motel at the height of the storm, and many more who defied evacuation orders were hoping to be rescued. Pieces of buildings ripped apart by the storm flew through the air.

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."

Coastal streets flowed with frothy ocean water and hundreds of thousands lost electricity. Forecasters said "catastrophic" freshwater flooding was expected along waterways far from the coast of the Carolinas. 

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 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."

The first deaths connected with Florence were reported Friday afternoon. A mother and an infant died in Wilmington when a tree fell on their home. The father was injured and transported to a nearby hospital, The Wilmington Police Department said.

Images showed firefighters responding to the scene and kneeling to pray. The firefighters were shaken up by what they witnessed at the scene, WWAY reports.

Two people were killed in Kinston as a result of the hurricane, Roger Dail of Lenoir County Emergency Services. A 78-year-old male was electrocuted at a residence Friday morning when he attempted to connect two extension cords outside in the rain, Dail said. His body was discovered by family members.

The body of a 77-year-old male was discovered by his family Friday morning at his residence. His death is believed to be caused by being blown down by the wind as he checked on his hunting dogs, Dail said.

Another death was reported in Pender County. Emergency crews were using a front-end loader to clear a path to reach to a woman having a heart attack at the height of the storm, Pender County spokesperson Tammy Proctor said. However, operations were stopped when a tree branch fell and shattered the windshield of their front-end loader. They were unable to reach her in time, Proctor said.

Authorities said one person was killed while plugging in a generator in Lenoir County.

"Our hearts go out to the families of those who died in this storm," Gov. Cooper said in a statement. "Hurricane Florence is going to continue its violent grind across our state for days. Be extremely careful and stay alert."

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.

Florence was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the storm was blamed for nearly 3,000 deaths in the desperate aftermath.

The National Hurricane Center said Florence will eventually make a right hook to the northeast over the southern Appalachians, moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England as a tropical depression by the middle of next week.

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of calculated that 34 million people in the U.S. could get at least 3 inches of rain from Florence, with more than 5.7 million people probably receiving at least a foot.

Maue said Florence could dump about 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland. That's enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay, he calculated.

On Friday, coastal streets in the Carolinas flowed with frothy ocean water, and pieces of torn-apart buildings flew through the air. The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines. Traffic lights out of order because of power failures swayed in the gusty wind. Roof shingles were peeled off a hotel.

At noon, the wobbly center of Florence was about 25 miles southwest of Wilmington, its winds down to 80 mph, forecasters said. Hurricane-force winds extended 70 miles from the center, and tropical storm-force winds reached out 195 miles.

The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 105 mph, the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958, the weather service said.

In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull people out of the Triangle Motor Inn after the structure began to crumble and the roof started to collapse.

Farther up the coast, in New Bern, population 29,000, flooding on the Neuse River trapped people. Mayor Dana Outlaw told The Charlotte Observer about 200 had been rescued by 5 a.m. Residents reached out for help through the night by phone and social media.

"It is a very critical situation here so much so that the city has told people to get to the second floor of their homes but also ominous warnings like if you're going into your attic be able to cut ventilation holes in the roof cause it's gonna take some time to get to everybody out. The city of New Bern is telling folks though that they will get to them," CBS News Correspondent Kris Van Cleave told WCBS 880. "It is a dicey situation in New Bern."

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.

The worst of the storm's fury had yet to reach coastal South Carolina, where emergency managers said people could still leave flood-prone areas.

"There is still time, but not a lot of time," said Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management.

More than 12,000 people were in shelters in North Carolina and 400 in Virginia, where the forecast was less dire. Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it was unclear how many did. More than 3,000 inmates at North Carolina prisons and juvenile detention centers were moved out of the storm's path.

Spanish moss waved in the trees as the winds picked up in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City. Ocean water flowed between homes and on to streets on the Outer Banks; waves crashed against wooden fishing piers.

Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.

Forecasters said conditions will continue to deteriorate as the storm makes its way slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.

Forecasters said that given the storm's size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.

Not everyone was taking Florence too seriously: About two dozen locals gathered Thursday night behind the boarded-up windows of The Barbary Coast bar as Florence blew into Wilmington. Others were at home hoping for the best.

"This is our only home. We have two boats and all our worldly possessions," said Susan Patchkofsky, who refused her family's pleas to evacuate and stayed at Emerald Isle with her husband. "We have a safe basement and generator that comes on automatically. We chose to hunker down."

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)