Death toll rises to 7 as Florence pours on the rain

Jake Head walks through heavy rain from tropical storm Florence in Wilmington, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (Matt Born/The Star-News via AP)

WILMINGTON, N.C. — North Carolina shattered a state rainfall record as barely-moving Tropical Storm Florence stalled out over the state and turned deadly.

More than 30 inches fell on the coastal area just east of Wilmington, according to preliminary reports, which would dwarf the previous state record set in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd dropped just over 24 inches.

The rain compounds the damage Florence has already wrought. The storm killed at least 10 people in North Carolina as of Saturday evening, including a woman and an infant in Wilmington who died Friday after a tree fell on a house. Three more died in South Carolina. Nearly a million homes and businesses are without power.

The morning and heavy afternoon showers swelled floodwaters in coastal areas and beyond one day after then-Hurricane Florence slammed into Wrightsville Beach with 90 mph winds. Water poured into Wilmington-area storm bunkers and left hundreds of roads impassable across the region. Dozens had to be rescued from the onslaught.

Flooding from the stalling storm also threatened roadways well inland, N.C. transportation officials said, reaching as far as Lumberton, some 80 miles from the coast.

“I have never see flash flooding like this in our state,” said Jim Trogdon, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Recovery teams were already gearing up for what’s likely to be a massive response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has more than 600 workers stationed in eastern North Carolina, including an 86-person search-and-rescue crew in New Hanover County near the coast.

The Red Cross mobilized more than 120 trailers filled with food, cots and other supplies. Even Michael Jordan pledged to help. The pro basketball legend, raised in Wilmington, said Saturday he and the team he owns, the Charlotte Hornets, would send money to relief groups.

It became clear Saturday that Wilmington was among the areas hit worst by the rain. Florence has already dumped more than 24 inches on the city, according to a preliminary gauge, and another 10-15 inches is expected.

The storm has also drenched Wrightsville Beach with more than 31 inches. The previous state rainfall record of 24.06 inches was set by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Roughy 112,000 are without power in New Hanover County near the coast, virtually all of the area’s total 127,000 customers. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said he expected 1,000 trucks from Duke Energy would arrive, once the area is safe, to help restore power.

First responders used school buses Saturday afternoon to transport more than 60 residents to a New Hanover shelter after water began pouring into a torn roof at their apartment building. Another of the county’s shelters, holding roughly 200 people, sprung a leak Friday, spurring officials to relocate evacuees.

Three distribution centers with enough food and water for 60,000 people over four days will open Monday, New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet said. More supplies are needed.

“If you can get here as a resource, we need that to come sooner rather than later,” Coudriet said.

The rain came in an early-morning drizzle Saturday before it fell like buckets with bursts of heavy wind in the afternoon. The Cape Fear River that runs along Wilmington swelled and is expected to crest Monday or Tuesday at nearly 26 feet.

Motorists who ventured out in SUVs were blocked by roughly 200 road closures caused by fallen trees, swells of water or power lines that dangled in dangerous coils.

Wilmington’s beaches remained blocked off to the public Saturday, but the property there had largely been spared, officials said.

Anticipating a destructive direct hit, it’s believed less than 20 of Wrightsville Beach’s population of 2,500 stayed on the island.

“You guys will like what you see when you get back,” Wrightsville Beach Bill Blair said.

Still, the storm eroded much of the beach — some 750,000 cubic yards of sand that had been dumped for beach renourishment in the spring was gone.

Abraham Salinas, 33, returned to his home at the Colonial Village Trailer Park in Wilmington on Saturday after staying in Charlotte during the storm. His home was mostly spared, but the storm busted windows and scraped at the roofs of his neighbor's trailers.

Many of them were apparently vacant or abandoned. A thick-rooted canopy tree toppled onto one trailer, but no one lives there, Salinas said.

“It’s not that bad,” he said from the cover of his porch roof, while the afternoon’s downpour continued. “But it’s still raining really hard.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.