Tropical storm Florence laid siege to the eastern United States on Saturday, dropping record levels of rain and heading inland slowly as forecasters warned of tornadoes and flash floods.
Almost a million people are without power and thousands are trapped in flooded homes, even as the hurricane was downgraded to the status of tropical storm.
Hours earlier it barrelled ashore in the Carolinas, leaving at least five people dead in its wake.
Some towns have been inundated with more than 60 centimetres of rain. And with another 45 centimetres forecast by the National Hurricane Centre, the fear is days of flooding as the slow moving storm settles over the region.
Roy Cooper, the governor of North Carolina, called Florence an “uninvited brute”.
“The fact is this storm is deadly and we know we are days away from an ending,” he said.
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After enduring a storm surge of coastal waters breaching sea defences, residents and rescue workers must now brace for floods racing in the opposite direction, down swollen rivers.
The first day brought tragic stories. A mother and her baby died when a tree fell on their home in Wilmington, North Carolina. The infant’s father was taken to hospital.
Elsewhere, a woman died of a heart attack even as paramedics called to her home were blocked by fallen trees. A 78-year-old man was electrocuted when he tried to connect extension cords. Another man was killed when he was blown over by high winds while checking his hunting dogs.
Media reported two more deaths.
About 10 million people live in areas in the path of the 560 kilometre-wide storm. And although wind speeds have dropped from the 190 kilometres per hour recorded on Thursday, officials fear a lingering threat of catastrophic flooding as it crawls west at 3kph.
In all it could dump as much as 68 trillion litres of rainwater, meteorologist Ryan Maue estimated. That would be enough to cover the island of Manhattan to a depth of more than a kilometre.
The deluge has submerged New Bern, a town of 30,000 in North Carolina at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers, where some 385 people had been rescued by Saturday morning. Some streets were three metres under water.
Peggy Perry told CNN she was trapped in the attic with three relatives.
“In a matter of seconds, my house was flooded up to the waist, and now it is to the chest,” she said.
Local authorities have warned residents not to seek shelter in attics unless they have access to the roof just in case water levels cover the entire building.
Members of the Cajun Navy – a volunteer force of boat owners – were among the rescuers in Berne.
Todd Terrell, who founded the group after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, said many people had been surprised by a storm surge as they tried to drive away from danger.
It produced a tide of more than two metres, he told ABC News, and dozens of people had to be rescued from the roofs of their cars.
Rescuers sometimes had to swap air mattresses for boats as they battled brutal gusts.
“The winds were so high, we couldn't get [the boats] in there because the winds were toppling them and it was making it unsafe for us, so we had to use a couple of air mattresses and float people out,” he said.
White House officials said President Donald Trump planned to visit the affected region just as soon has his presence would not interfere with rescue efforts.
He praised rescue workers on Twitter. “America is proud of you,” he wrote. “Keep it all going – finish strong!”
He issued a disaster declaration for North Carolina on Saturday, freeing federal money to help provide temporary housing, home repairs and loans to cover uninsured property losses.
Flood warnings were posted along a string of rivers prompting mandatory evacuation orders. Among them Harnett County said it expected the Lower Little River to rise more than five metres above the level where it would burst its banks.