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Record flooding projected as Florence rolls slowly across the Carolinas

A bicyclist rides through a flooded South Water Street on Friday as Florence makes landfall in Wilmington, N.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti1 / 3
The National Guard builds a wall of sand bags across train tracks in Lumberton, N.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford2 / 3
Members of the National Guard and volunteers fill sand bags in Lumberton, N.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford3 / 3

LUMBERTON, N.C. - The storm known as Florence is creating a slow-motion natural disaster for the Carolinas that could prove deceptively lethal as swollen rivers and streams spill over their banks and continue to rise.

The hurricane, now downgraded to a tropical storm, was blamed by authorities for at least five deaths as of late Friday. Though Florence did not arrive with winds as violent as once feared, forecasters got the storm surge and rainfall correct.

They have made clear that this event is all about the water - which the storm has delivered in devastating quantity.

The storm made landfall in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the gloom of dawn Friday as a Category 1 hurricane. As the storm sat along the edge of the Atlantic, some stretches along the coastal Carolinas received close to 20 inches of rain.

Florence is projected to migrate at barely more than a walking pace across northern South Carolina, passing close to the city of Florence - truly - on Saturday. The great danger now, experts say, is river flooding and then, once the remnants of the tempest reach the higher terrain of the southern Appalachians, flash floods, mudslides and debris flows.

Relief will not come quickly. The National Weather Service said the floods likely will last for weeks. This is a perilous moment for the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the roads to escape the storm's fury. The rivers are in most cases several days from cresting.

The parts of the country still in the storm's path have been saturated by summer rains and cannot soak up any surplus from Florence. More than a dozen major rivers in the Carolinas and southern Virginia are forecast by the National Weather Service to reach flood stage, and some - including the Neuse, Pamlico, Lumber, Waccamaw, Northeast Cape Fear and the Pee Dee rivers - are expected to set all-time flood records.

There is really nowhere for the water to go.

"We're in God's hands," said Rick Foreman, pastor at West Lumberton Baptist Church, as the Lumber River steadily rose Friday and local residents filled sandbags. "We all know that."

The Weather Service forecast the Lumber to reach major flood stage Saturday and to keep rising through Sunday. State Sen. Danny Britt, R, put out a call on Facebook for volunteers to fill the sandbags and, with the help of 40 members of the National Guard, dam a railway channel that has been problematic during floods.

"Pretty soon I had a hundred of my closest friends out here helping us out," Britt said. "Sixty mile-per-hour winds, shingles flying off their own homes, and they're here working for everyone else."

The river swamped the town after Hurricane Matthew came through two years ago: One church parishioner drowned during that storm, more than 700 families were displaced from their homes, and two of the city's largest public housing projects were destroyed, Foreman said.

And so as a pelting rain fell Friday, residents worked in soaked T-shirts and shorts to try to stave off another disaster.

Usually hurricanes this far north deliver their punch and quickly leave town. Florence has been a strange tropical cyclone since it materialized in the distant Atlantic and took an unusual path toward the mainland United States. On Friday afternoon it was traveling at just 3 to 5 mph, still near the coast.

"There's nothing to steer it. It's all about the steering currents. We don't have any right now," said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "It's like a bubble with no wind, it just floats. You don't want slow, but that's what we have."

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, R, urged patience, emphasizing that his state has never seen "a hurricane staying on top of us for this long."

The coast has been battered, and the mountains appear to be next. The remnants of Florence are expected to hit the peaks of western North Carolina in a couple of days. National Hurricane Center meteorologist Joel Cline said the mountains will wring water out of the moist tropical air: "It's like running into a wall, and that moisture has to go somewhere, and it goes up, creates rain, and you have torrential rain in that area."

Cline said July was the wettest ever in that part of North Carolina, and the water table rose 21 inches higher than normal. Florence could add another six to 10 inches of rainfall this weekend. Flash floods can materialize within minutes of intense rain as the water rushes down hillsides.

"You evacuate from water," Cline said. "That's why we've been preaching to people that you have to get away from the water."

Appalachian State University in Boone canceled its first home football game scheduled for Saturday.

"It's not often that we have to prepare for a hurricane in the mountains, but we are doing so on our campus," Jason Marshburn, the director of safety and emergency management at the university, wrote in a letter to students and faculty.

Florence's remnants are expected to keep traveling north and then northeast, and could drop several inches of rain in eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Flash flooding is a threat in those states as well.

The Carolinas know all about hurricane-related flooding, having experienced Matthew two years ago and Floyd in 1999. Floyd, like Florence, hit Wilmington directly and dumped record amounts of rain. Rivers swelled not only with water but with the carcasses of livestock. A number of motorists died trying to drive through moving water.

Hence the refrain Friday from emergency management officials: Turn around, don't drown.

With the center of the storm still at sea early Friday, scores of residents had to be rescued from homes and the tops of cars in New Bern, North Carolina. Power outages mounted until nearly 700,000 customers were in the dark in North Carolina alone. Duke Energy said late Friday that it anticipates 1 million to 3 million outages in the Carolinas, and that full power restoration could take weeks.

"The storm is wreaking havoc on our state, and we're deeply concerned for farms, for businesses, for schools and even for whole communities that might be wiped away," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, D, said.

The eyewall of Florence struck the coast before dawn. At 5:30 a.m. a reporter in a downtown hotel here in Wilmington heard the signature hurricane sound - a low, heavy humming combined with an almost musical high note.

Eight-foot waves, a local record, ruffled the surface of the Cape Fear River. At 6 a.m. the electronics chirped for a moment as the power went out. Buildings swayed for several hours. The wind in Wilmington gusted to 105 mph, the strongest since Hurricane Helene on Sept. 27, 1958, the Weather Service said.

The winds became less violent as the eye, no longer well-formed but instead welling with rain, passed over the city after it made landfall at 7:15 a.m. Trees went down, as did power lines, and streets filled with debris. A Waffle House downtown remained open for a few hours - sandwiches only, no coffee - before closing at noon.

Metal signs and roof coverings littered the biggest commercial byway, Market Street, and trees blocked many roads. Traffic lights were out. Residents mostly heeded police commands to stay home and off the streets.

Tragedy struck one family when a tree fell on a house; a mother and child were killed.

In Kinston, a city southeast of Raleigh, two people died in the storm. A 78-year-old man connecting extension cords in the rain was electrocuted, according to Roger Dail, the Lenoir County director of emergency services. And a 77-year-old man died when he was knocked over by wind, he said.

In Pender County, officials said that a woman died of a heart attack Friday morning as emergency crews tried to reach her; they were delayed because of downed trees and debris in the road. The crews tried to move the debris with a front loader, but a tree went through the windshield, causing further delays, the officials said.

"Our hearts go out to the families of those who died in this storm," 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."

This article was written by Scott Wilson, Patricia Sullivan, Mark Berman and Joel Achenbach, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Jason Samenow and Angela Fritz in Washington and Lori Rozsa in Miami, Rachel Siegel in Jacksonville, North Carolilna, Sharon Dunten in Savannah, Georgia, Ray Glier in Atlanta, Kristine Phillips in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Sarah Kaplan in Lumberton contributed to this report.