Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina on Friday, battering the state with a powerful combination of wind and rain. At least five deaths have been linked to the storm, according to officials. Some areas are grappling with intense flooding, while many in the city of New Bern required rescue in the early hours of the day.
The dangerous storm, which was downgraded to a tropical storm Friday afternoon, is expected to keep lashing parts of North and South Carolina into the weekend.
The National Hurricane Center said in a bulletin that Florence has been downgraded to a tropical storm, with maximum sustained wind speeds having decreased to near 70 mph. Florence's winds are expected to keep gradually weakening tonight and then significantly over the weekend.
Hurricane Florence continued sweeping across part of the southeastern United States on Friday, most notably in North Carolina with its powerful winds along with forecasts warning of "life-threatening" storm surge and rainfall.
Police in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Friday afternoon said that a woman and an infant were killed in that city when a tree fell on their home. The police department also said in a statement online that a third person - the father - was injured and taken to a hospital.
Collapsed roofs and other structures were reported Friday morning in the Morehead City and New Bern areas of North Carolina. New Bern was particularly hard hit, with reports of more than 100 people stranded in their homes or cars in need of rescue. The large and dangerous storm is expected to keep battering parts of North and South Carolina on Friday.
"These slow and large systems are definitely our nemesis," Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said. "It's the rainfall. The slow movement has been the story the entire time."
Graham said Florence, moving at 6 mph, is still predicted to bring 20 to 30 inches of rain to parts of North and South Carolina, and as much as 10 inches far inland, including parts of Virginia. Graham said that 25 percent of deaths in tropical storms comes from inland flooding, and that flooding has barely started away from the coast.
The high rains may reach as far west as Kentucky, Graham said Friday afternoon.
"It won't be until Sunday until we kick Florence out," Graham said. "And then even after it's gone, back behind it in its wake there's going to be dangerous flooding."
Graham said of Florence: "There's nothing to steer it. It's all about the steering currents, we don't have any right now. It's like a bubble with no wind, it just floats. You don't want slow, but that's what we have."
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, D, said the state was facing "an extremely dangerous situation, and it's getting worse" as the hurricane continued its assault.
"Hurricane Florence is powerful, slow and relentless," Cooper said at a briefing. "It's an uninvited brute who doesn't want to leave."
Cooper highlighted in particular the plight of New Bern, a city that faced intense flooding overnight.
"The storm surge alone has overwhelmed the city of New Bern," Cooper said. More 100 swift-water rescues were carried out there overnight, he said, "and we expect more."
Other cities and counties were also facing intense rains and wind, which Cooper said would create challenges "over the next few days and weeks." Among other things, Cooper said authorities expect to see significant flooding in multiple rivers across the state.
The storm has already had an impact on scores of residents, Cooper said. Half a million people lacked power Friday. About 20,000 people sought sanctuary in 157 shelters.
Cooper also cautioned that it would take time to know the storm's ultimate impact, though he said it would likely touch every corner of the state.
"You're going to have a hard time finding a North Carolinian who is not going to be affected by this storm in some way," Cooper said. "We don't know the magnitude yet of this storm, because it has just come ashore and it's going to be here a long time, and it's going to cut a wide swath across our state."
Florence is slowly weakening as it hugs the coast of southeastern North Carolina, its top winds down to 80 mph. But it has already dumped up 10 to 18 inches of rain from the Outer Banks to the southeast coast. Wrightsville Beach, where the storm made landfall at 7:15 a.m., has posted the highest total so far: 18.53 inches.
While winds are slowly waning, peak gusts earlier Friday topped 80 mph in numerous locations, with a pair of 105 mph gusts in Wilmington and Fort Macon, near Atlantic Beach.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam, D, on Friday morning lifted mandatory evacuation orders in coastal Virginia. In a statement, his office said the orders were lifted at 10:45 a.m. after the National Hurricane Center lifted the tropical storm warning for that part of the state.
"The imminent threat of coastal flooding and high winds have passed for our coastal communities as Hurricane Florence has made landfall in the Carolinas and we believe it is safe for Virginians to begin returning home," Northam said in a statement. "We are shifting our focus to the expected inland flooding and damage to Southwest Virginia as Florence turns north this weekend."