MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. Florence weakened into a tropical depression Sunday morning as it slogged inland over the mid-Atlantic states, but the slow-moving storm, which has killed at least 15 people, remains a major threat to the regions millions of waterlogged residents.
The biggest problem now for residents in Virginia and the Carolinas isnt high winds and ocean storm surge, but rain and flooding. Florence is expected to unload an additional 7 to 10 inches of rain over central North Carolina after dumping more than 32 inches over parts of the states southeast.
Heavy rains are also expected to spread into southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia, where officials warned of potential landslides in the Appalachian mountains.
By the time Florence weakens as it turns toward New England, forecasting officials expect, some parts of North Carolina which has borne the brunt of the storm will get the kind of weekly rainfall totals statistically expected once every thousand years.
On Sunday morning, Sunday, Wilmington, N.C., with a heavy assist from Florence, reported receiving 86.79 inches of rain so far this year, breaking a record set in 1877.
All that rain has to go somewhere. Much of it will eventually end up dumping into the Atlantic Ocean. But to get there, storm water will have to pass through the regions coastal river networks, and thats where officials expect new perils in the days to come.
Rivers across North Carolina, South Carolina and southern Virginia have been pushed past their limits and hit major flood stages, in which the flooding of buildings and roads require significant evacuations.
Catastrophic flooding is expected on the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville, N.C., where the river is expected to crest to its highest level since 1945, National Weather Service forecasters said.
Transportation officials said hundreds of roads, including some key freeways, remained flooded or blocked, primarily in southeast North Carolina, where the storm knocked out nearly half of the cell towers in some areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
GPS services are sending unwitting drivers onto flooded roads, said North Carolina state officials, who asked out-of-state drivers to avoid North Carolina entirely. State troopers reported responding to 48 collisions and 128 calls for service overnight.
More than 700,000 customers about 14 percent of the states consumers have lost power in North Carolina, energy officials reported. Fewer than 55,000 customers remained without power in South Carolina on Sunday morning, down from a high of 167,000 customers a day earlier, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Evacuees started to return to coastal South Carolina even as local officials warned of catastrophic river flooding.
In northeastern Horry County, S.C., where two people died during the storm, National Guard troops attempted to divert water from the swollen Waccamaw River.
The river drains into an area the size of Rhode Island, parallel to the coast near Myrtle Beach. If it rises as expected, 12 feet by Wednesday, it could wash 200,000 tons of toxic coal ash into neighborhoods from a shuttered Santee Cooper power plant in Conway.
Officials were also rushing to construct temporary dams on the Pee Dee and Lynches rivers to prevent flooding that could cut off coastal Myrtle Beach and portions of surrounding Georgetown County from the mainland.
Even as flood preparations accelerated, South Carolinas governor lifted an evacuation order for Georgetown and Horry counties.
In Myrtle Beach, residents ventured out on foot to grab a bite at beachfront restaurants or buy groceries at the reopened Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion supermarkets.
Ned and Anna Marie King decided to stay in their waterfront home facing the Intracoastal on Riverside Drive, which is marked by a flood zone sign. So did their neighbors.
They sandbagged the doors, removed area rugs and propped wood blocks under the furniture as they kept an eye on a dock across the churning channel to monitor the water level.
Theyd propped their house up when they moved in two years ago. I wish we had gone up two more blocks, said Ned King, referring to the foundation they raised by five cinderblocks. It takes a long time for it to rise and a long time for it to go away. Its just miserable.
Their son, who had left before the storm, called from Orlando, Fla. They were not sure when he would be able to return, given the flooding expected inland.
Even though the evacuation has been lifted, Anna Marie King said, the biggest concern is people trying to get back in.
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