WILMINGTON, North Carolina — With streets under water, rivers threatening to burst their banks and the death toll rising, the storm called Florence continued its catastrophic crawl across the Carolinas for a third day.
“This storm’s like a house guest who doesn't want to leave,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said after taking an aerial survey of the region.
Cooper said it was clear that recovery from the storm was going to be a monumental task. But for the moment, much of the effort was focused on rescue with emergency workers and volunteers using boats and helicopters to take residents to safety.
Nick Cole and his son Brandon, part of the so-called Cajun Navy, a loose collection of about 50 volunteer rescuers, struggled with the heavy rain Sunday as they raced to save a family from rising floodwater.
They could barely see through the lashing downpour as they drove their white Toyota Tacoma down a washed-up road north of Wilmington.
A few minutes earlier, a mother and a father had arrived at Peace Baptist Church near Wrightsville Beach, begging for help. There was several feet of water in front of their mobile home and their three kids—ages 6 months to 9 years–were inside, along with grandparents and two dogs.
When the Coles heard kids were in danger they rushed to the mobile home–which was on high ground and looked like an island in the sea–and waded through waist-deep water. Using garbage bags for ponchos, they grabbed the children and took them to their waiting truck.
Brandon Bell said he had spent the night ferrying cats and dogs out of the Ogden area.
“The majority of people thought this was over,” Bell said. “It wasn’t.”
Florence, which was at a Category 4 storm at its peak, was steadily downgraded, to a tropical storm and then to a tropical depression, over several days. But it remained destructive, essentially parked over the region, dumping more than 30 inches of rain on some places.
The Cape Fear River and several others were on the brink of overflowing and authorities were urging people in many communities to evacuate. But it was too late for some: The death toll stood at 17 as of Sunday evening, including four new deaths in South Carolina.
Authorities in Horry County said 61-year-old Debra Collins Rion and 63-year-old Mark Carter King died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator being used in their home. In Georgetown County, 23-year-old Michael Dalton Prince was killed after the vehicle he was in lost control on a flooded roadway. A man was also killed in Kershaw County when his pickup truck went off a roadway and hit an overpass support beam. On Saturday, authorities reported that Amber Dawn Lee, 61, died after her vehicle hit a downed tree.
There were 10 more deaths reported in North Carolina: three killed in Duplin County when flash floods overtook their vehicles; a married couple killed in a house fire in Cumberland County; an elderly man electrocuted and another senior citizen killed in a fall in Lenoir County; an 81-year-old man who fell in Wayne County; a Pender County woman who died of a heart attack while emergency workers were blocked by storm debris; and a mother and her 7-month-old baby killed when a tree smashed into their home in Wilmington.
The rain has unleashed at least 8 trillion gallons of water in the area and will likely triple that number by the time it leaves the area, meteorologist Ryan Maue told Weathermodels.com.
Chaos hit local businesses, with several people arrested for looting in Wilmington. The North Carolina attorney general's office also launched an investigation into price gouging amid the storm Sunday, saying they'd received at least 500 complaints of business trying to take advantage of the dire situation.
At least 560 North Carolina roads were shut down this weekend. New Hanover County officials said Sunday all the roads leading to the coastal city are flooded.
At one point the The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, which supplies water to the area, said it was running out of fuel and might have to shut down treatment plants, although hours later said disaster had been averted.
The National Hurricane Center has warned that Florence could also trigger tornadoes in parts of both North and South Carolina, in addition to “catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding.”