STORM Florence has left 12 people dead and experts have warned the next few days could bring the most destructive round of flooding in North Carolina history.
The deadly storm made landfall on the east coast of the US on Friday bringing with it “biblical” flooding on what’s been described as a “thousand-year rain event”.
The slow-moving storm is heading west, but on Sunday it is due to turn north towards Ohio.
Forecasters warned that rivers are swelling to record levels and thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate.
Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile of a stretch of the Cape Fear River and the Little River, about 100 miles from the North Carolina coast.
The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.
“If you are refusing to leave during this mandatory evacuation, you need to do things like notify your legal next of kin because the loss of life is very, very possible,” Mayor Mitch Colvin said.
He added: “The worst is yet to come.”
Twelve people have died as a result of the storm, US media say. Most of the deaths came in North Carolina.
Among the dead are mum Lesha Murphy-Johnson and her seven-month-old baby Adam, who were killed when a tree fell on their home in Wilmington, North Carolina on Friday.
Authorities also confirmed a 78-year-old man’s body was found outside by family after being electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain.
Cops say a woman in Pender County, North Carolina, died after suffering a heart attack but paramedics were unable to reach her due to blocked roads.
A 77-year-old man has also died after apparently being knocked down by the wind when he went out to check on his hunting dogs, with another two deaths confirmed in Carteret County on Saturday.
The 400-mile-wide hurricane has already splintered buildings, trapped hundreds of people and swamped entire communities along the Carolina coast.
Forecasters warned that drenching rains of up to 3ft as the 90mph storm crawls westward across North and South Carolina could trigger epic flooding well inland over the next few days.
After the raging storm hit, more than 70 people had to be rescued from a Jacksonville hotel when its roof started to collapse leaving “life-threatening” structural damage.
Firefighters – who found a basketball-sized holes in the hotel wall and roof – had to force their way into flooded rooms to get to those trapped inside.
The terrified guests staying at the Triangle Motor Inn were later moved to a local hurricane safety centre to ride out the storm as parts of the ruptured hotel were sent flying through the air.
But hardest hit by the storm – described as “catastrophic” by the National Weather Service – was the besieged town of New Bern, where more than 360 pleaded for emergency crews to rescue them from the dangerous deluge.
Local officials revealed they had earlier urged residents to take shelter at the highest points of their homes, including rooftops.
Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and knocked out power to 900,000 homes and businesses, and the assault wasn’t anywhere close to being over, with the siege in the Carolinas expected to last all weekend.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper: “It’s an uninvited brute who doesn’t want to leave”, adding that Florence is a “thousand-year rain event.”
He added: “The sun rose this morning on an extremely dangerous situation and it’s getting worse.”
The hurricane was “wreaking havoc” and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its “violent grind across our state for days,” the governor said.
He said parts of North Carolina had seen storm surges the bulge of seawater pushed ashore by the hurricane as high as 10ft.
Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous told ABC News: “I see a biblical proportion flood event that’s going to occur. I see the beach communities being inundated with water and destruction that will be pretty, pretty epic in nature.”
It comes amid reports of looting in the town, as criminals seized their opportunity to break into abandoned shops and homes.
Four people were charged with breaking and entering in separate incidents, WWAY News reported.
After reaching a terrifying Category 4 peak of 140 mph earlier in the week, Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7.15am at Wrightsville Beach.
Why do violent hurricanes spawn tornadoes?
Hurricanes have all the vital ingredients needed to form tornadoes – in fact some wouldn’t happen without them.
Firstly they carry within their structure supercells – which are rotating well-organised thunderstorms.
Hurricanes also bring with them warm, moist air which causes an instability in the atmosphere.
This takes the form of a layer of warm air with slightly colder and less-moist air above it.
It becomes hugely unstable because the warm air wants to rise, since it is less dense than the cooler air.
Finally, hurricanes create abrupt changes in wind speed and direction – which form swirling air patterns, called rolls.
These vortices can then flip vertically to create their own tornadoes.
The eye of Hurricane Florence has made landfall in the US bringing merciless 90mph winds which have already left hundreds cut off.
One family told CNN how they barricaded themselves into their eastern North Carolina home as the waters steadily rose.
Annazette Riley-Cromartie held back tears describing the scene, saying: “While we were still waiting, my husband kept hearing people yelling for help.
“You just keep hearing people yelling, and you can’t do anything. It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
US President Donald Trump is expected to travel to the areas hit by Hurricane Florence next week.
The storm will be a test of his administration – less than two months before the mid-term elections.
The delay in the travel is to ensure it would not disrupt and rescue or recovery efforts, according to the White House.
The news comes as radar images have shown a half-dozen tornadoes forming in east and south east North Carolina, the National Weather Service reported.
Florence’s forward movement during the day slowed to a crawl – sometimes it was moving no faster than a human can walk and that enabled it to pile on the rain.
The town of Oriental, North Carolina, got more than 20 inches of rain just a few hours into the deluge, others got well over a foot.
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.
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.
Authorities have also warned of the threat of mudslides and the risk of an environmental disaster 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 criticised as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the death toll was put at nearly 3,000.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a right hook to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.
Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland.
That’s enough to cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches of water, he calculated.
Hurricane Florence in numbers
Giant storm: About 400 miles wide, with hurricane-force winds stretching across a 160-mile span
Heavy rains: Parts of the Carolinas could see 20 inches to 30 inches with isolated areas getting 40 inches
Storm surge: up to 13 feet (nearly 4 meters), and seawaters could push inland two miles
The intensity: Winds of 90mph below the 111mph threshold for a “major” hurricane but still very dangerous
Going dark: More than 320,000 outages, mostly in North Carolina
Populated coastline: 11 million Americans live in areas under storm watches and warnings
Grounded: Nearly 1,200 flights cancelled
Potential losses: Meteorologists estimate up to £40 BILLION in economic damages
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North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons.
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 and roof shingles were peeled off a hotel.
The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 105 mph, the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958, while airlines cancelled more than 2,400 flights through Sunday.