Hurricane Florence, lashing the North Carolina coast with strong winds and blinding rain, made landfall Friday morning having already driven dangerous storm surges of several feet into beach and river towns.
The eye of the storm came ashore at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, just east of Wilmington, with winds of about 90 mph. In the riverfront city of New Bern, emergency rescue teams were trying to reach hundreds of residents trapped in cars, on roofs and in their attics as the Neuse River overflowed and flooded the city.
The storm, which was downgraded to Category 1 late Thursday, made landfall about 7:15 a.m. While the winds had weakened in intensity as the hurricane neared the coast, forecasters warned that the rains may be the real hazard from the storm, which is expected to slowly move southwest into South Carolina before turning north.
About 60 people were evacuated from a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, local news media reported, after the storm’s strong winds threatened the structural integrity of the building.
The storm surge had reached 7 feet on Emerald Isle, North Carolina, and could climb as high as 11 feet elsewhere, while rainfall up to 40 inches is expected to bring widespread inland flooding.
More than 400,000 people have lost power in North Carolina, while officials in Onslow County reported “major structural damage to homes, businesses and institutions” by midnight Friday.
Florence is proving to be a lumbering giant, crawling along the coastline as it dumps rain across the Carolinas. Anxiety is high in towns as far inland as Greenville, North Carolina, where residents braced for the one-two-punch of rain and storm surge.
More than 4,500 people had checked into shelters in South Carolina, and authorities said they had space for more than 34,000 across 64 shelters. North Carolina had opened 126 shelters for about 12,000 people, and is trying to open more.
150 calls for help as New Bern floods
In New Bern, city officials said emergency rescue teams were trying to reach hundreds of residents trapped in cars, on roofs and in their attics as the Neuse River overflowed and flooded the city.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the area, where the water level was measured at nearly 10 feet. Craven County, which includes New Bern, had issued a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday afternoon.
On Friday morning, five swift-water rescue teams and the volunteer Cajun Navy were responding to about 150 calls from people who were stranded, said Amber Parker, a spokeswoman for Craven County. She said many of the calls were for multiple people in need of help.
On the city’s Facebook page, the Police Department warned residents whose homes were flooded not to go into the attic unless they had a way to cut through the ceiling for ventilation. Police also put in place a 24-hour curfew until at least 7 a.m. Saturday.
New Bern is the largest city in Craven County, which has a population of 105,000. About 800 people were housed in county shelters, Parker said.
The city was the first capital of North Carolina and is now a popular tourist destination, but it sits at the intersection of the Neuse and Trent rivers, making it vulnerable to flooding during heavy storms. The Neuse flows into the Pamlico Sound, which is separated from the Atlantic by the Outer Banks.
Government and military officials prepare to respond
Brock Long, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday that the federal government had staged resources and personnel in states along the Eastern Seaboard to help quickly after the storm.
FEMA workers were focused on helping state and local authorities prepare, he said. But as the storm pushes through, the agency will shift its focus to identifying infrastructure damage and work to restore services.
“The infrastructure is going to break. The power is going to go out,” Long said at a news conference. “We need people to get their mindsets right that disasters are very frustrating and that it takes time to get the infrastructure back and running. We will move as quickly as we can to get back up.”
The National Guard has readied about 4,000 soldiers and airmen, with more than 10 states mobilizing support. Air Force and Army helicopters were standing by for search-and-rescue operations and evacuations.
A bad day for a wedding
Hurricane season coincides with wedding season, which means a lot of cancellations and thwarted plans this week in the Carolinas. Some couples, like Leah Chesney and Brandon Frick, managed to move their ceremonies up, holding their beach wedding on the Outer Banks a few days earlier than planned.
Deborah Sawyer, a veteran wedding planner and photographer in the Outer Banks, said that she always counsels couples considering a late-summer or early fall ceremony to get wedding insurance. Oceanfront homes used as event venues in the area generally offer renter’s insurance that covers storms.
Carter Loetz and Esther Walsh were relieved that they got insurance. They live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and had been planning a 130-person wedding in Charleston, South Carolina, for a year.
It was scheduled for Saturday. Now they’re considering new décor and outfits: Their new date is Nov. 30, and the summery garden party they had planned won’t quite work. They have also added a menu item.
“We will definitely be serving hurricanes as the specialty cocktail,” Loetz said.
Is this the last time we’ll get a Hurricane Florence?
We’ll never see a Hurricane Harvey again. Or an Irma, Maria or Nate, for that matter.
After last year’s hurricane season from hell, those four names were permanently scratched from the list that forecasters use to designate tropical cyclones.
Hurricane Florence, if it meets expectations, looks as if it could be a slam dunk to join the list of retired names, which happens when the World Meteorological Organization judges that “a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for reasons of sensitivity.”
The current system for naming tropical cyclones has been around since 1979. Names for storms in the Atlantic are drawn from a different list than those for storms in the Eastern Pacific. The names are selected to be “familiar to the people in each region,” according to the meteorological organization.