WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Hurricane Florence lumbered ashore in North Carolina with howling 90 mph winds and terrifying storm surge early Friday, ripping apart buildings and knocking out power to a half-million homes and businesses as it settled in for what could be a long and extraordinarily destructive drenching.
More than 60 people had to be pulled from a collapsing motel at the height of the storm, and many more who defied evacuation orders were hoping to be rescued. Pieces of ripped-apart buildings flew through the air.
More ominously, forecasters said the onslaught would last for hours and hours because Florence was barely creeping along at 6 mph (9 kph) and still drawing energy from the ocean.
There were no immediate reports of any deaths.
Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington, not far from the South Carolina line, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.
Its storm surge and the prospect of 1 to 3 feet of rain were considered an even bigger threat than its winds, which dropped way down from a terrifying 140 mph — Category 4 — earlier in the week. Forecasters said catastrophic freshwater flooding is expected well inland over the next few days as Florence crawls across the Carolinas.
Coastal streets flowed with frothy ocean water, and at least 490,000 homes and businesses were without power, mostly in North Carolina, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks the nation’s electrical grid.
At 8 a.m., the center of Florence was 10 miles (15 kilometers) south of Wilmington. Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds reached out to 195 miles (315 kilometers).
The wind howled and sheets of rain splattered against windows of a hotel before daybreak in Wilmington, where Sandie Orsa of Wilmington sat in a lobby lit by emergency lights after the power failed.
“Very eerie, the wind howling, the rain blowing sideways, debris flying,” said Orsa, who lives nearby and feared splintering trees would pummel her house.
Forecasters said Florence’s surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet (3.4 meters) of ocean water.
The rising sea crept toward the two-story home of Tom Copeland, who lives on a spit of land surrounded by water in Swansboro.
The water “is as high as it’s ever been, and waves are breaking on my point, which is normally grass,” said Copeland, a freelance photographer for The Associated Press. “Trees are blowing down in the wind. Nothing’s hit the house yet, but it’s still blowing.”
In Jacksonville, next to Camp Lejeune, the Triangle Motor Inn started coming apart. Firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull people out after the cinderblock structure began to crumble and the roof started to collapse. They formed a convoy to an emergency operations center, according to the Jacksonville Daily News.
A gust of 105 mph (169 kph) was recorded at the Wilmington airport, surpassing the power of Hurricane Fran two decades ago.
Farther up the coast, in New Bern, about 150 people waited to be rescued from floods on the Neuse River, WXII-TV reported. The city said two Federal Emergency Management Agency teams were working on swift-water rescues, and more were on the way.
The worst of the storm’s fury had yet to reach coastal South Carolina, where emergency managers said it was not too late for people to get out.
“There is still time, but not a lot of time,” said Derrec Becker of the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management.
More than 12,000 were in shelters in North Carolina and 400 people in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.
North Carolina corrections officials said more than 3,000 people were relocated from prisons and juvenile detention centers in the path of Florence, and more than 300 county prisoners were transferred to state facilities.
Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it was unclear how many did.
Forecasters said that given the storm’s size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.
Florence was seen as a major test for FEMA, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which was blamed for nearly 3,000 deaths.
Not everyone was taking Florence seriously: About two dozen locals gathered Thursday night behind the boarded-up windows of The Barbary Coast bar as Florence blew into Wilmington. Others were at home hoping for the best.
“This is our only home. We have two boats and all our worldly possessions,” said Susan Patchkofsky, who refused her family’s pleas to evacuate and stayed at Emerald Isle with her husband. “We have a safe basement and generator that comes on automatically. We chose to hunker down.”