Tropical storm Florence caused “catastrophic” flooding in the Carolinas Saturday even as it began to weaken, leaving multiple deaths, including a woman and her baby killed when a tree fell on their house.
Officials confirmed four deaths as American media reported a fifth with the storm wreaking havoc, lashing the US states with torrential rain and causing rivers to burst their banks.
“Gradual weakening is forecast while Florence moves farther inland during the next couple of days, and it is expected to weaken to a tropical depression by tonight,” the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on Saturday morning.
In New Bern, a riverfront city near the North Carolina coast that saw storm surges up to 3 meters, authorities were rescuing stranded residents and taking stock of damages.
“Right now we’ve rescued over 400 people. We still have about 100 that want to be rescued and we have about 1,200 in the shelters,” Mayor Dana Outlaw told CNN.
“We have 4,200 damaged homes,” he added, urging residents to not wade out into the streets because of the dangers posed by downed power lines.
The mother and her baby were killed in New Hanover County when a tree fell on their house, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told media on Friday night.
According to firefighters, the area had not been in the zone under orders to evacuate as Florence began assaulting the US east coast with torrential rains and heavy winds.
Local authorities reported a death in Pender County when downed trees prevented emergency units from reaching a woman with a medical condition. Local media said she had suffered a heart attack.
US media later said a man in Lenoir County died after heavy winds knocked him down as he tried to check on his dogs.
More than 760,000 customers in North Carolina were without power and 21,000 people were being housed in 157 shelters across the state.
The White House said President Donald Trump would visit hurricane-hit areas next week “once it is determined his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts.”
“Great job FEMA, First Responders and Law Enforcement - not easy, very dangerous, tremendous talent. America is proud of you,” Trump tweeted on Friday, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which responds to disasters in the United States.
As of 8:00 am (1200 GMT), maximum sustained winds had weakened to near 80 kilometres per hour, but the NHC warned residents of dangerous storm surges and “catastrophic flash flooding.”
The military announced Saturday morning it was deploying nearly 200 soldiers to assist in Hurricane Florence response and recovery efforts, along with 100 trucks and equipment.
Besides federal and state emergency crews, rescuers were being helped by volunteers from the “Cajun Navy” who also turned up in Houston during Hurricane Harvey to carry out water rescues.
Hurricane Florence made landfall as a Category 1 storm in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, after stalking the Carolina coast for days.
The NHC said Florence had the potential to dump historic amounts of rain on North and South Carolina, as much as 40 inches (one meter) in some places.
Tornadoes are also a threat, with the NHC saying that “a few tornadoes are possible in southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina.”
In Wilmington, near where the eye of the storm touched down, trees and power lines were felled and many windows broken. The streets were mostly deserted, some blocked by fallen trees.
About 1.7 million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders, and millions of others live in areas likely to be affected by the storm.