WILMINGTON, N.C. — Hurricane Florence lumbered ashore in North Carolina with howling 90 mph winds and terrifying storm surge early Friday, splintering buildings and trapping hundreds of people in high water as it settled in for what could be a long and extraordinarily destructive drenching.
More than 60 people had to be pulled from a collapsing cinderblock motel at the height of the storm. Hundreds more had to be rescued elsewhere from rising waters. And others could only hope someone would come for them.
As Florence pounded away, it unloaded heavy rain, flattened trees, chewed away at roads and knocked out power to more than a half-million homes and businesses.
Ominously, forecasters said the onslaught on the North Carolina-South Carolina coast would last for hours because the hurricane had come almost to a dead stop at just 3 mph as of midday.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the hurricane was “wreaking havoc” on the coast and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its “violent grind across our state for days.”
He called the rain an event that comes along only once every 1,000 years.
“Hurricane Florence is powerful, slow and relentless,” he said. “It’s an uninvited brute who doesn’t want to leave.”
There were no immediate reports of any deaths.
Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. EDT at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington, not far from the South Carolina line, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
Its storm surge and the prospect of 1 to 3 1/2 feet of rain were considered a bigger threat than its winds, which had dropped off from an alarming 140 mph — Category 4 — earlier in the week.
Forecasters said catastrophic freshwater flooding is expected well inland over the next few days as Florence crawls westward across the Carolinas all weekend.
The area is expected to get about as much rain in three days as Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd dropped in two weeks in 1999.
Preparing for the worst, about 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats that could be used to pluck people from the floodwaters.
For people living inland in the Carolinas, the moment of maximum peril from flash flooding could arrive days later, because it takes time for rainwater to drain into rivers and for those streams to crest.
Authorities warned, too, of the threat of mudslides and the risk of environmental havoc from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.
Florence was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the storm was blamed for nearly 3,000 deaths in the desperate aftermath.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence will eventually make a right hook to the northeast over the southern Appalachians, moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England as a tropical depression by the middle of next week.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com calculated that 34 million people in the U.S. could get at least 3 inches of rain from Florence, with more than 5.7 million people probably receiving at least a foot.
Florence is expected to dump about 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week along its entire path.
On Friday, coastal streets in the Carolinas flowed with frothy ocean water, and pieces of torn-apart buildings flew through the air.
The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines. Traffic lights out of order because of power failures swayed in the gusty wind. Roof shingles were peeled off a hotel.
At 11 a.m., the center of Florence was about 20 miles southwest of Wilmington, its winds down to 80 mph, according to the hurricane center.
Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds reached out 195 miles.
The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 105 mph, the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958, the weather service said.
In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull people out of the Triangle Motor Inn after the structure began to crumble and the roof started to collapse.
Farther up the coast, in New Bern, flooding on the Neuse River trapped people. Mayor Dana Outlaw told The Charlotte Observer about 200 had been rescued by 5 a.m.
Sheets of rain splattered against windows of a hotel before daybreak in Wilmington, where Sandie Orsa of Wilmington sat in a lobby lit by emergency lights after the electricity went out.
“Very eerie, the wind howling, the rain blowing sideways, debris flying,” said Orsa, who lives nearby and feared splintering trees would pummel her house.
Forecasters said Florence’s surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet of sea water.
The worst of the storm’s fury had yet to reach coastal South Carolina, where emergency managers said it was not too late for people to get out.
“There is still time, but not a lot of time,” said Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management.
More than 12,000 people were in shelters in North Carolina and 400 in Virginia, where the forecast was less dire.
Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it was unclear how many did.
More than 3,000 inmates at North Carolina prisons and juvenile detention centers were moved out of the storm’s path.AlertMe