CONWAY, S.C. — Florence, the powerful storm that has already left at least 12 people dead and about 1 million without power on the East Coast, continued to move inland at an ominously sluggish pace Saturday, fat with rain and threatening to deliver hardship and devastation far beyond the wind-battered coasts.
A Category 1 hurricane when it plowed ashore near Wilmington, North Carolina, early Friday, Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm hours later, and the damage of the first blow along the coast was not as bad as many had feared. But an early Saturday report from the National Hurricane Center had it crawling west at 2 mph with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph. It is likely to mow a path northwest across nearly all of South Carolina, promising a brutal weekend of heavy rain and potential flooding for millions. Storm conditions could also lead to tornadoes and landslides, officials said.
The center of the storm is expected to head west through South Carolina before turning north Sunday.
Rainfall in North Carolina has broken a state record, according to preliminary reports from the National Weather Service. More than 30 inches were recorded in Swansboro, North Carolina. The previous record of 24 inches was set in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd pounded the region.
The 12 storm-related deaths include a mother and child who were killed after a tree fell on their home in Wilmington; Amber Dawn Lee, 61, a mother of two who was driving in Union County, South Carolina, when her vehicle hit a tree in the road; three people in Duplin County, North Carolina, who died because of flash flooding on the roadways; and a couple who died in a house fire in Cumberland County, North Carolina.
Local, state and federal officials are rushing to rescue people stranded in half-submerged homes across the region. So are many volunteers, including Tray Tillman, 26, a construction foreman who was part of a makeshift rescue flotilla that has plucked hundreds of stranded people from attics, second-floor bedrooms, church vestibules and crumbling decks.
Much of eastern North Carolina on Saturday was still reeling from Florence’s first powerful punch. In coastal Wilmington, driving rain continued to drench the city, wind gusts blew debris through nearly deserted streets, and power lines snaked across highways and suburban streets. Police Chief Ralph Evangelous urged residents to stay home. A curfew was in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“This storm is not yet done,” said County Manager Chris Coudriet, warning of continuing rain and winds.
But after nearly three days of punishing rains and winds, people in this coastal city were desperate for food, water and gasoline. When the first grocery store reopened in south Wilmington, the results were predictable.
“Everybody rushed the doors — it got crazy,” said Detective Bill Ostrosky of the Wilmington Police Department.
Hundreds of people sloshed through floodwaters and parked at awkward angles when word got out that a Harris-Teeter grocery had opened at midday. The store was nearly overrun before police arrived and set up an orderly line, letting new shoppers in as others exited with loaded carts.
Power was also restored to a nearby Exxon station, attracting a line of cars that stretched for half a mile. Roughly 50 other people arrived on foot in a driving rainstorm, toting red 5-gallon gasoline containers.