WILMINGTON, North Carolina–Hurricane Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm Friday night, but it had already exacted a deadly toll in the Carolinas.
A mother and her infant were killed in Wilmington when a tree smashed into their home, police said. It took emergency crews several hours to rescue the baby's father, who was seriously injured.
A woman died in Pender County of a heart attack after emergency crews were blocked from getting to her home by downed trees on the roads. And in Lenoir County, two elderly men were found dead–one from electrocution and the other from being blown over by the wind, local media reported.
The storm made landfall Friday morning and left some coastal areas submerged in waters 7 feet higher than normal. Hundreds of residents who stayed put had to be rescued, while around 150 people in the region near the city of New Bern were stranded in their homes. More than half a million homes were without power.
In New Bern, restaurant owner Tom Ballance said he wished he had evacuated.
“I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth,” he told the Associated Press.
Sadie Marie Holt, 67, tried to row out of her neighborhood and had to be rescued.
“The wind was so hard, the waters were so hard, that trying to get out we got thrown into trailers. We got thrown into mailboxes, houses, trees,” she said.
Even though Florence was downgraded, the storm still packed damaging winds and torrential rain. It was crawling west, prolonging the misery and potential for disaster.
"This is going to be a bad storm," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.
Social media was filled with dramatic photos of toppled trees and flodded streets. News 13 WNC posted astonishing footage of a gas station’s roof being torn off. Elsewhere, a fire was triggered by the storm after winds forced a transformer to blow.
But it’s the storm surges that experts fear will cause most damage in the coming days. There are multiple reports of water rapidly rising on coastal streets and into buildings—gauge in Emerald Isle has reported 7 feet of flooding, according to the hurricane center.
The agency previously warned that the combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline, with waters potentially reaching 11 feet above where they would usually be.
The water is so deep in Wilmington that dolphins have been spotted swimming through the town.
Peggy Perry, one of the people trapped in their homes, told CNN: “In a matter of seconds my house was flooded up to the waist. And we’re stuck in the attic. There’s four of us. We’ve been up here for like three or four hours. There’s a little window here that we might have to break up.”
Buddy Martinette, Wilmington’s fire chief, said: “If there is a life to be saved, we go do it. [But] when people stay back in a storm, they have to have a very low expectation that somebody is going to be able to come and help them. It is very difficult.”
Sixty-two people, including an infant and many children, were successfully rescued from a hotel in Jacksonville after a “basketball-size hole” was found in a wall as it began to collapse. Some rooms were flooded as emergency services personnel managed to relocate those needing to be rescued.
Major General Gregory Lusk said over 500 activated North Carolina Guard soldiers and airmen “are already responding to calls over the state.”
President Trump has praised rescuers, tweeting Friday morning: “Incredible job being done by FEMA, First Responders, Law Enforcement and all.”
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Emergency Management reported that 485,143 people were without power as of 7 a.m. due to the storm surges, with the main affected counties being Carteret, Craven, and Onslow.