NEW BERN, N.C. (AP) — As the death toll from Florence grew and hundreds of people were pulled from flooded homes, North Carolina braced for catastrophic, widespread river flooding that could be the next stage of a mounting disaster.
Weakened to a tropical depression early Sunday after blowing ashore as a hurricane with 90 mph (145 kph) winds on Friday, Florence was still spinning slowly atop the Carolinas as it pulled warm water from the ocean and hurled it onshore.
The storm’s death toll climbed to 14 when a man drowned after a pickup truck flipped into a drainage ditch along a flooded road in South Carolina. Earlier, authorities said two people died from inhaling carbon monoxide from a generator in their home.
About 740,000 homes and businesses remained without power in the Carolinas, and utilities said some could be out for weeks.
Radar showed parts of the sprawling storm over six states, but North and South Carolina were in the bull’s-eye.
The head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said officials were still focused on finding and rescuing people.
“We’ll get through this. It’ll be ugly, but we’ll get through it,” Long told NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
Rivers swelled toward record levels, forecasters said, and thousands of people were ordered to evacuate for fear that the next few days could bring the most destructive round of flooding in North Carolina history.
Stream gauges across the region showed water levels rising steadily, with forecasts calling for rivers to crest Sunday and Monday at or near record levels: The Little River, the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse, the Waccamaw and the Pee Dee were all projected to burst their banks, possibly flooding nearby communities.
Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile (1.6 kilometers) of a stretch of the Cape Fear River and the Little River, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the North Carolina coast. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.
The Defense Department said about 13,500 military personnel were assigned to help relief efforts, which could be massive since river forecasts showed major flooding was likely in towns as far as 250 miles inland.
John Rose owns a furniture business with stores less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the river. Rain-soaked furniture workers helped him quickly empty more than 1,000 mattresses from a warehouse in a low-lying strip mall.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had to move anything like this,” Rose said. “If the river rises to the level they say it’s going to, then this warehouse is going to be under water.”
On U.S. Route 401 nearby, rain rose in ditches and around unharvested tobacco crops along the road. Ponds had begun to overflow, and creeks passing under the highway churned with muddy, brown water. Farther along the Cape Fear River, grass and trees lining the banks were partly submerged.
Fayetteville’s city officials, meanwhile, got help from the Nebraska Task Force One search and rescue team to evacuate 140 residents of an assisted-living facility in Fayetteville to a safer location at a church.
Already, more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) of rain has fallen in places, and forecasters are saying there could be an additional 1½ feet (45 centimeters) before Sunday is out.