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(Reuters) — A mother and infant were killed in Wilmington when a tree fell on their house as Hurricane Florence crashed into North Carolina on Friday, swamping streets with torrential rain and a powerful storm surge.
Police said they were the first confirmed deaths directly related to storm, while the child's father was taken to a hospital. CNN showed the scene, a small brick house. In Pender County, North Carolina, one woman died after she suffered a heart attack and paramedics were unable to reach her due to blocked roads, authorities said.
After landfall, Florence slowed to a pace that meant it would plague the area with days of flooding. The hurricane's storm surge — the wall of water it pushed in from the Atlantic — "overwhelmed" the town of New Bern at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.
"To those in the storm's path, if you can hear me, please stay sheltered in place," he said at a news conference in Raleigh, adding that Florence would "continue its violent grind across the state for days."
No storm-related deaths or serious injuries were reported in the hours immediately after Florence hit but authorities said more than 60 people, including many children and pets, had to be evacuated from a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, after strong winds caused parts of the roof to collapse.
The center of the hurricane's eye came ashore at about 7:15 a.m. EDT near Wrightsville Beach close to Wilmington, North Carolina, with sustained winds of 90 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.
By 1:50 p.m., the winds had dropped to 75 mph and the center was moving west at a 6 mph, the NHC said, and parts of North and South Carolina would get as much as 40 inches of rain.
Gov. Cooper said Florence was set to cover almost all of North Carolina in several feet of water. As of Friday morning, Atlantic Beach, a town on the state's Outer Banks barrier islands, already had received 30 inches of rain, the U.S. Geological Service said. Twenty inches were reported by early Friday afternoon in the town of Oriental.
The NWS predicted Florence could drop up to eight months' worth of rain in two or three days.
Authorities in New Bern, a town of about 30,000 people dating to the early 18th century, said more than 100 people had to be saved from floods and that the downtown area was underwater. Calls for help kept coming in as the wind picked up and the tide arrived, said city public information officer Colleen Roberts.
"These are folks who decided to stay and ride out the storm for whatever reason, despite having a mandatory evacuation," she said. "These are folks who are maybe in one-story buildings and they’re seeing the floodwaters rise."
Video reports from several towns in the Carolinas showed emergency personnel wading through rippling thigh-high floodwaters in residential neighborhoods.
Florence also blew down trees, including one that went through the roof of Kevin DiLoreto's home in Wilmington. He said all roads leading to his neighborhood were blocked by fallen trees.
"It's insane," he said in a phone interview. "Everybody laughs at the fact that this storm got downgraded ... but I've never seen tree devastation this bad.
"Afterwards, I'm going to drink a bottle of whiskey and take a two-day nap, but right now I'm walking the neighborhood and making sure my neighbors are fine, because nobody can get in here."
More than 634,000 homes and businesses were without power in North and South Carolina early on Friday, utility officials said. Utility companies said millions were expected to lose power and restoration could take weeks.
Florence had been a Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph winds on Thursday but dropped to Category 1 before coming ashore. It is expected to move across parts of southeastern North Carolina and eastern South Carolina on Friday and Saturday, then head north over the western Carolinas and central Appalachian Mountains early next week, the NHC said. Significant weakening is expected over the weekend.
About 10 million people could be affected by the storm and more than 1 million were ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia. Some of those who stayed went to shelters while others stuck it out in their homes.
Maysie Baumgardner, 7, and her family sheltered at the Hotel Ballast in downtown Wilmington as Florence filled the streets with floodwaters.
"It looks heavy outside," she said. "I'm a little bit scared right now, but I have my iPad and I'm watching Netflix."
Florence was one of two major storms on Friday. In the Philippines, evacuations were under way with Super Typhoon Mangkhut expected to hit on Saturday in an area impacting an estimated 5.2 million people.
Hurricane Florence could generate tens of billions of dollars in insured losses for the property/casualty sector as it heads toward the United States, but the industry should be able to withstand any losses, according to analyses by ratings agencies.