As the death toll from Florence rose and hundreds were pulled from flooded homes, North Carolina braced for the next stage of the disaster: widespread, catastrophic flooding with severe implications for residents and environmental safety.
The death toll reached at least 13. Mitch Colvin, mayor of the city of Fayetteville, told reporters: “The worst is yet to come.”
On Saturday, Duke Energy said heavy rains caused a slope to collapse at a coal ash landfill at a closed power station outside the historic port city of Wilmington. Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said about 2,000 cubic yards of ash were displaced at the Sutton Plant and contaminated storm water likely flowed into the cooling pond.
Sutton was mothballed in 2013. The ash left behind when coal is burned contains toxic heavy metals, including lead and arsenic.
After blowing ashore as a hurricane with 90mph winds, Florence parked over the Carolinas and storm surges, flash floods and winds scattered destruction widely. Marines, the coast guard, civilian crews and volunteers used helicopters, boats and heavy-duty vehicles to conduct rescues.
Florence weakened to a tropical depression early on Sunday and was crawling west at 8mph. At 5am, the storm was about 20 miles south-west of Columbia, South Carolina. Winds were down to 35mph. But in North Carolina, rivers were swelling towards record levels and thousands were ordered to evacuate. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville.
“This is not a talking point,” Colvin said. “This is not a script, but we are saying this because we are concerned with you. The worst is yet to come. If you are refusing to leave during this mandatory evacuation, you need to do things like notify your legal next of kin. The loss of life is very, very possible.”
The state’s governor, Roy Cooper, underscored the message: “I cannot overstate it: Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren’t watching for them, you are risking your life.”
Forecasts said rivers would crest on Sunday and Monday at record or near-record levels: the Little River, the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse, the Waccamaw and the Pee Dee were all projected to burst their banks.
The Lumber is considered flooded at 13ft. The National Weather Service predicted on Saturday that it would crest at 24.9ft on Sunday afternoon. Much of the south of the city was already under water on Saturday, as emergency crews battled to contain the river.
Turner Park, a trailer park, was under 2ft on Saturday evening with the water rising quickly. At 5pm the Guardian watched as water crept towards Martin Luther King Jr Drive. Residents had been told to evacuate the park, where scores of 40ft x 12ft trailers stand on low-lying land. Across the road Newport Church, a handsome white building with an impressive steeple, was under about a foot of water.
Martin Luther King Drive was almost covered. Further north, many single-storey homes were flooded. Cars struggled over roads covered with a foot of water.
Twenty-five per cent of the population of Lumberton lives below the poverty line. The city was hit hard by Hurricane Matthew just two years ago. Residents face losing property and possessions all over again. On Saturday, as people scrambled to escape the flood, many evacuation shelters in nearby Fayetteville were full by 6pm.
The dead included a mother and baby killed by a falling tree in Wilmington. Three died in one inland county, Duplin, because of water on roads and flash floods, authorities said. A husband and wife died in a storm-linked house fire, officials said, and an 81-year-old man died after falling while packing to evacuate.
South Carolina recorded its first death from the storm, officials saying a 61-year-old woman was killed when her car hit a tree that fell across a highway. On Sunday morning, authorities in the state said two more people had died, after using a generator inside their home.
Horry county chief deputy coroner Tamara Willard said 63-year-old Mark Carter King and 61-year-old Debra Collins Rion were killed by breathing in carbon monoxide.
Willard said their bodies were found in a home in Loris on Saturday afternoon, but they likely died the day before.
The White House declared a major disaster in North Carolina and said Donald Trump would visit storm-affected areas next week.
When the official toll stood lower on Saturday, Trump tweeted: “Five deaths have been recorded thus far with regard to hurricane Florence! Deepest sympathies and warmth go out to the families and friends of the victims. May God be with them!”