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Florence kills 5, including infant, in North Carolina, officials say

(CNN) — At least five people, including a mother and her infant, have died in North Carolina as Tropical Storm Florence slowly moves through the Carolinas, officials said Friday.

After coming ashore as a Category 1 hurricane, Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm Friday afternoon.

Two people died in Wilmington after a tree fell on their house, the city’s police department said.

“WPD can confirm the first two fatalities of Hurricane #Florence in Wilmington. A mother and infant were killed when a tree fell on their house,” police tweeted Friday afternoon. “The father was transported to (New Hanover Regional Medical Center) with injuries.”

The hospital said it has received three injured patients.

In the town of Hampstead, emergency responders going to a call for cardiac arrest Friday morning found their path blocked by downed trees. When they got to the home, the woman was deceased, Chad McEwen, assistant county manager for Pender County, said.

The fourth person who died was a man in Lenoir County who was hooking up a generator, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office said. Another man in the county who was checking on his dogs outside was killed in what his family thought was a wind-related death Friday morning, emergency officials said.

Florence is inching along after making landfall in North Carolina, trapping people in flooded homes and promising days of destruction and human suffering.

Storm surges, punishing winds and rain are turning some towns into rushing rivers — and the storm is expected to crawl over parts of the Carolinas into the weekend, pounding some of the same areas over and over.

“The storm is going to continue its violent grind across our state for days,” Cooper warned residents at a news conference.

In the besieged city of New Bern, rescuers had plucked more than 200 people from rising waters by midmorning, but about 150 more had to wait as conditions worsened and a storm surge reached 10 feet, officials said. That number was down to 40 later in the day.

By Friday, Florence already had:

• Sapped power to more than 717,000 homes and businesses in North and South Carolina, emergency officials said.

• Forced 26,000 people into more than 200 emergency shelters across the Carolinas.

• Pushed more than 60 people to evacuate from a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, after part of the roof collapsed, city officials said.

• Prompted 4,000 National Guard soldiers and 40,000 electric workers to mobilize in response.

• Canceled more than 1,100 flights along the East Coast on Friday and Saturday.

Follow the hurricane’s path

Key developments

• Florence’s location: By 2 p.m., Florence’s center was about 35 miles northeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and was crawling at 5 mph, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.

• Prolonged, dangerous winds: Hurricane-force winds extend 70 miles from Florence’s center. The storm is expected to lumber into far southeastern North Carolina and eastern South Carolina through Saturday, punishing the area with rain and damaging winds.

• Flooding for miles: Up to 40 inches of rain, and storm surges pushing water inland and not allowing rivers to drain, “will produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding,” the National Hurricane Center says. “You’re going to have flooding miles and miles inland,” the center’s director, Ken Graham, said.

• Areas threatened: A hurricane warning is in place for South Santee River in South Carolina to Bogue Inlet and Pamlico Sound, North Carolina. Surges of 10 feet were reported early Friday in Morehead City and elsewhere in North Carolina, the National Weather Service said.

• Record gusts: Wilmington’s airport recorded a 105-mph wind gust — the fastest measured since Hurricane Helene hit the city in 1958, the National Hurricane Center said.

• Nuclear plant shutdown: A nuclear power plant in Brunswick, North Carolina, shut down operations because of the storm, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said on Twitter. “Plant procedures call for the reactors to be shut down before the anticipated onset of hurricane-force winds,” agency spokesman Joey Ledford told CNN. Federal officials had said midweek they weren’t concerned about that facility or five other nuclear plants in the storm’s path, calling them “hardened.” Expert scientists, however, had said they were worried about Brunswick because of scant public information about its readiness.

Rescues and narrow escapes

More than 1 million people had been ordered to evacuate before the streets became inundated.

Florence’s circulation was pushing water ashore, especially north of its eye, in coastal or riverside towns such as New Bern and Belhaven, turning land to lakes.

In New Bern, where dozens awaited rescue Friday morning, Peggy Perry said rising water forced her into the upper level of her home.

“In a matter of seconds, my house was flooded up to the waist, and now it is to the chest,” said Perry, who was trapped early Friday with three relatives. “We are stuck in the attic.”

Swift-water rescue teams from out of state helped local rescuers evacuate people whenever conditions allowed. One team from Maryland helped with about 40 rescues in New Bern starting Thursday, member Mitchell Rusland said.

Craven County, where New Bern is located, had logged more than 100 service calls from residents trapped on their roofs or in their cars, county spokeswoman Amber Parker said.

In Belhaven, the Pungo River roared into town, crashing up against homes at a waist-high level and higher late Thursday and early Friday, video from Amy Johnson showed.

Morehead City resident Rebecca Marson said she decided not to evacuate because her surgeon husband wanted to remain behind with other first responders. They’re riding out the storm at their home with four children — ages 11 to 17 — a friend, four dogs, two chinchillas, a cat and a lizard.

Marson said they’d lost power and they have enough food and water to last for days.

Employees at New Bern’s WCTI-TV station fled their studio Thursday night due to rising floodwaters. A posting on social media showed a meteorologist saying on air they had to evacuate. In the footage, he leaves the studio, with radar of Florence’s rain bands playing on a loop.

Firefighters battle through hurricane winds

Just west of downtown Wilmington, firefighters spent hours Friday morning and afternoon trying to rescue two adults and a child from a house after about a 30,000-pound tree fell on it, fire officials said.

Crews lifted the tree enough to get one injured man out, and were working to lift it completely to reach the two others, who weren’t communicating with rescuers, Wilmington fire official Patrick Campbell said.

Wilmington Fire Chief Buddy Martinette praised his firefighters, who by policy are supposed to stop operating when winds pick up above 50 mph.

“We haven’t been … able to get in that policy. … ,” Marinette said. “The firefighters have basically been out here all during the hurricane,” answering rescue and fire calls.

A terrifying night

In Morehead City, Brooke Kittrell rode out the storm Thursday and Friday with her boyfriend aboard their docked boat, hoping it didn’t break loose and slam something.

She succeeded — staying awake all night, retying broken dock lines in howling winds. But there were times she thought they wouldn’t survive, she told CNN.

“I honestly cried,” Kittrell said. “I was born and raised here and been through every storm the last 30 years, but this one seems to be doing more damage than we expected.”

By Friday morning, the shore was flooded, and buildings were damaged, in video she put up on Facebook.

In Jacksonville, North Carolina, city officials posted photos of toppled gas pumps and a downed trees early Friday, warning residents to take shelter and avoid roadways.

Officials in several states have declared states of emergency, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.

Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic.