WILMINGTON, N.C. — Hurricane Florence pounded the Carolina coast Thursday, taking first aim at the seaside town of Wilmington where it threatened catastrophic flooding from heavy rain and storm surge.
With winds maxing out at 110 mph, Wilmington’s highest in six decades, the storm by Friday afternoon had already bent and busted thick-rooted canopy trees, leveled a finger pier near a yacht club and knocked out the power for tens of thousands — virtually the entire area.
Early in the evening, the Cape Fear River had slightly breached downtown. About a foot to a foot-and-a-half of water sat below Market Street along River Walk. The winds tossed the fronds of palm trees and churned currents in the river.
The worst may still be yet to come, forecasters warned, as the winds and tide shifted around noon, moving the brunt of Florence’s forces inland. That put the entire area at risk of storm surge, while Wilmington, expecting up to 40 inches of rain through the weekend, was under a flash flood warning.
At least five people in North Carolina have died during Hurricane Florence.
A woman and 8-month-old infant were killed in Wilmington on Friday after a large tree fell on a house on Mercer Avenue around the time Florence made landfall at 7:15 a.m., police said.
"It trapped the folks in there pretty severely," Wilmington Deputy Fire Chief Steve Mason said. "It fell on the house and brought a portion of the roof down as well."
It was unclear if the home was in a mandatory evacuation zone, but Mason said, "When these storms are approaching our area, it's absolutely critical that people pay attention to them."
A woman died of a heart attack in Pender County. Two men died in Lenoir County — a 78-year-old man who was attempting to plug in two electrical cords outside and a 77-year-old man who was blown over by Florence's winds, CBS News reported.
Wilmington was battered in the hurricane, the first major storm to hit the coastal city in two decades.
At the marinas west of Wrightsville Beach, by 1 p.m. the storm slightly begun to surge the bay water over the dock. Winds barreled inland over the Wrightsville Beach bridge, pummeling people’s face with rain.
Earlier in the day downtown, the Cape Fear River roared as the winds blasted overhead. By around 8 a.m. gusts peaked at 105 mph, the highest winds in Wilmington in six decades, and rain showers overnight prompted flash flooding warnings for the area.
After Florence’s initial wind strike near Wrightsville Beach as a Category 1 storm, Wilmington and its beaches were mostly spared major damage, officials said.
But downtown was a mess. Downed trees blocked entire streets. Street signs were toppled. The front window of a clothing shop was busted.
Farther north on Market Street, Florence’s winds blew the top off an industrial building. The scraps of its roof littered the intersection with North 10th Street.
The storm blasted the waters around the Oleander Drive bridge, which leveled several lengths of the finger piers near the Creekside Yacht Club and knocked the parts into the bridge’s east side.
The initial damage in Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach was limited to downed cable lines, toppled trees and some torn roofs, officials said. But as Florence's winds shift inland, along with high tide around noon, the risk of storm surge follows.
Those who tried to get some sleep Thursday night were woken up by Friday's battering winds. On the outskirts of downtown, the pouring rain seemed to fall in all directions. The skies were an overcast fog. The wind rocked tall branches of thin-rooted trees.
The conditions calmed around 10 a.m. as Florence's eye moved south. But heavy wind and rain is expected to continue through Saturday. Wilmington is projected for a deluge of up to 40 inches of rain from the slow-moving storm, inundating the area with what could be catastrophic flooding, said Steven Pfaff, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Wilmington.
"We're going to be dealing with major to record river flooding," Pfaff said.
The area could also see up to 11 feet of storm surge above ground level, according to the latest forecasts. The storm is expected to hover over the Wilmington area, pushing winds onshore, during three high tides — Friday around noon, past midnight into Saturday and another just after noon Saturday.
Those conditions threaten not just the area's beaches, but all of downtown Wilmington, which is flanked by the Cape Fear River.
"We are a county that is surrounded by water," said Jessica Loeper, a spokeswoman for New Hanover County.
By Thursday night, residents had largely left the area or taken shelter. Downtown's popular Riverwalk, which had drawn a crowd Thursday afternoon, was empty as the power started to go out Thursday night. A deli and the Waffle House on Market Street stayed open.
Wrightsville Beach, expected to perhaps see the worst of the damage, was almost entirely abandoned. As of Thursday night, less than 20 souls had stayed on the island, Town Manager Tim Owens said.
Police kept the public away from Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, blocking off the bridges to those areas.
More than 80,000 in the area are already without power, Loeper said. Damage reports overnight included a few downed trees over homes. None of the issues were life-threatening, Loeper said.