An ambulance crosses Highway 301, which is covered by flood waters caused by Hurricane Florence in Latta, South Carolina on September 17 2018. Picture: REUTERS/JASON MICZEK
An ambulance crosses Highway 301, which is covered by flood waters caused by Hurricane Florence in Latta, South Carolina on September 17 2018. Picture: REUTERS/JASON MICZEK

Wilmington/Wilson — Deadly storm Florence moved across western North Carolina early on Monday, dumping more rain that has nowhere to go except to swell rivers, flood highways and homes, and threaten more lives as it heads toward Virginia and New England.

For the water-logged Carolinas, "the worst is yet to come" as river levels rise to historic levels, said Zach Taylor, a meteorologist with the US National Weather Service.

"The soil is soaked and can’t absorb any more rain so that water has to go somewhere, unfortunately," he said. "Those rivers are going to start to crest later today and Tuesday and maybe longer."

Flash floods, landslide warnings and "prolonged significant river flooding" throughout the region will continue for the next few days, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

The coastal city of Wilmington remained cut off by high flood waters early on Monday. Tens of thousands of homes were damaged and at least 17 deaths were reported in North and South Carolina.

Rescue teams searched overnight for a one-year-old boy who was swept away outside Charlotte, North Carolina, after rushing water pushed his mother’s car off the road, the Union County Sheriff’s Office said on Facebook. The mother had driven around barricades on a stretch of road that had been closed, the post said.

Florence, which came ashore as a hurricane on Thursday before weakening to a tropical depression by Sunday, is expected to weaken again on Monday before re-intensifying on Tuesday and Wednesday, the US National Hurricane Center said.

It has dumped up to 100cm of rain on North Carolina since Thursday, the NWS said.

An additional 5cm-13cm of rain is expected with isolated areas of 20cm possible through Tuesday in the Carolinas and Virginia.

"The storm has never been more dangerous than it is right now," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said at a news conference on Sunday.

More than 900 people were rescued from rising floodwaters and 15,000 remained in shelters in the state, Cooper said.

Many rescues took place on swift boats in Wilmington, a coastal city of about 117,000 people on a peninsula between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Rescue crews negotiated downed trees and power lines to reach stranded residents, Mayor Bill Saffo told WHQR radio.

"There are no roads ... that are leading into Wilmington that are passable because of the flooding that is taking place now inland," Saffo said.

Officials urged people who had been evacuated to stay away.

"Our roads are flooded, there is no access into Wilmington," New Hanover County Commission Chairman Woody White told a news conference. "We want you home but you can’t come yet."

Unprecedented flooding

In Leland, a low-lying city north of Wilmington, homes and businesses were engulfed by water that rose up to 3m over Highway 17 in what local people called unprecedented flooding.

The sheriff’s department and volunteers rescued stranded residents by boat, extracting families, infants, the elderly and pets. Gas stations were abandoned and fallen trees made many roads impassable.

More than 641,000 homes and businesses were without electricity on Monday in North and South Carolina and surrounding states, down from a peak of nearly one-million. David Fountain, the North Carolina president of Duke Energy, told CNBC on Monday morning that it may take a week or more to restore power.

Florence set a state record for rain from a hurricane, surpassing the previous high of 61cm from Hurricane Floyd, which killed 56 people in 1999, said Bryce Link, a meteorologist with private forecasting service DTN Marine Weather.

The storm killed at least 11 people in North Carolina, including a mother and child hit by a falling tree, state officials said. Six people died in South Carolina, including four in car accidents and two from carbon monoxide from a portable generator.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster urged anyone in a flood-prone area to evacuate.

"Those rivers in North Carolina that have received heavy rainfall are coming our way," he said at a news conference.

"They have not even begun (to crest). But they will. And the question is how high will the water be, and we do not know." By 5am on Monday, Florence’s winds had dropped to about 45km/h, the NWS said, with weakening forecast over the next 24 hours before intensifying again as an extratropical low-pressure centre.

The centre of the storm was about 200km west southwest of Roanoke, Virginia and moving northeast at 20km/h, the weather service said.