WILMINGTON, N.C. — North Carolina confronted a spiraling statewide crisis on Sunday as Tropical Depression Florence slowly ravaged the region, flooding cities, endangering communities from the coastline to the rugged mountains, and requiring well more than 1,000 rescues.
Sunday, it seemed, was when the storm system that had stalked the South for days — first as a hurricane, then as a tropical storm and eventually as a tropical depression — showed its full power with staggering scope. The death toll from the storm rose to at least 16 in North and South Carolina, where roads were treacherous and even the most stately trees were falling.
“It’s horrible,” said Mitch Colvin, the mayor of Fayetteville, N.C., in the eastern part of the state, where the rising Cape Fear River was expected to swamp bridges and cut his city in two in the next few days. “Things are deteriorating,” he said.
The perils stretched across North Carolina’s more than 500-mile width. Weary, drenched coastal cities were scenes of daring rescues. Waterways swelled throughout the eastern and central parts of the state, testing dams and menacing towns with floodwaters that had no place to go but up. Inch after inch of rain fell on Charlotte and its suburbs, and communities in North Carolina’s western mountains feared landslides.
The storm has “never been more dangerous than it is right now,” Gov. Roy Cooper said at a news conference. “Wherever you live in North Carolina, be alert for sudden flooding.”
All 100 counties in North Carolina had at least one type of National Weather Service alert, from a flash-flood warning to a hazardous weather outlook, in effect for Sunday or the days ahead. Rain was expected to continue in parts of the state until Tuesday, but flooding on some rivers would last longer, and may not ease until the end of the week.
South Carolina faced its own set of troubles, with its death toll rising Sunday and the storm’s rains still unspooling havoc. Although Gov. Henry McMaster said flooding might continue in his state, he said he expected that South Carolina had “seen the end of the hurricane and most of the storm.”
Even before Florence could fully steer its way out of the Carolinas, it was leaving behind a waterlogged landscape of tragedies, worries and restlessness.
In places like Wilmington, N.C., which has been battered for days, exhausted rescuers who spent two days and nights plucking more than 450 stranded people from the floodwaters tried to gather strength in a church parking lot on Sunday morning, knowing there were many more missions to come.
“The water got so high, I couldn’t believe it,” said Brett Neely, a firefighter from Pennsylvania who estimated that he had helped rescue 40 to 50 people, from a newborn to a 75-year-old.
[See scenes from a night of waist-high water and rescues with the Cajun Navy.]
Another volunteer, who located people in need by posting his personal cellphone number on an internet yard-sale message board, said he could not keep up with all of the calls. With the Cape Fear River’s expected crest still hours away, the volunteer rescuers knew things would probably get worse.
Here are the latest developments:
• The system that was once Hurricane Florence, and which has killed at least 10 people in North Carolina and six in South Carolina, has been downgraded to a tropical depression, with maximum sustained winds of 35 miles an hour.
• The center of the depression is over central South Carolina and moving west. Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, is expected to see significant rainfall, and a flash-flood watch is in effect through Monday.
• More evacuations were ordered across inland parts of North Carolina, even as some evacuation orders were lifted across South Carolina, including areas along the coast, and residents began to make their way home to assess damage. About 15,000 people were in shelters across North Carolina by Sunday afternoon, while the number had fallen to about 1,200 in South Carolina.
• North Carolina’s rainfall record from a tropical system already has been broken, with more than 30 inches of rain falling on Swansboro, N.C., which surpassed the previous record set during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. But Mr. Cooper said Florence’s strongest bands of rain were still pouring 2 or 3 inches an hour into some areas.
• Pastors and parishioners across the Carolinas prayed and participated in relief efforts on Sunday as the heavens opened for the fifth straight day. Read about how churches provided a spiritual refuge from the storm.
• View photos of the storm and its effects across the Carolinas.
• Want to help relief efforts for Florence’s victims? Here’s how.
Although more than one million utility customers were reported to be without power in the region on Saturday, according to the Department of Energy, officials said there had been some successes in restoring service on Sunday.
“We still continue to see heavy rainfalls in both states,” Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said of North and South Carolina. “We want citizens to follow state and local warnings. There is a tremendous amount of flooding.”
The authorities at all levels of government set into motion a vast response plan that included thousands of National Guard soldiers and scores of aircraft. The Army Corps of Engineers was monitoring federal dams, helping with rescues, and deploying pumps and portable barriers. Specialized search-and-rescue teams from places as far as Nevada and New York were deployed throughout the region.
Yet the potential crisis points were widespread on Sunday, and emergency workers could only try to keep up in places like Fayetteville, one of North Carolina’s largest cities, where torrential rains fell Sunday.
As farm fields and riverside neighborhoods filled up with water, residents braced for what they predicted would be nightmare flooding over the next two days, and city officials urged people in about 2,800 homes along the Cape Fear River to evacuate.
The river, swollen with fallen trees, had already risen to 38 feet by Sunday and was expected to crest at 62 feet or more, enough to send its waters sweeping through downtown Fayetteville and over its bridges.
The river crested at 58 feet during Hurricane Matthew two years ago. As monsoon-like rains poured on the city all afternoon, people said they worried this would be far worse.
“It’s imminent danger,” said Gina Hawkins, the city’s police chief.
From the second-floor balcony of the Red Roof Inn, Lisa Fenn could almost see the treetops of the rapidly disappearing neighborhood where she had lived for the past four years in an old farmhouse.
Ms. Fenn, a tattoo artist, had so recently repaired the flood damage from Hurricane Matthew that she still had drywall boards lying on her floor when her family was forced to flee Florence’s rising waters. It was too dangerous on Sunday afternoon to go back to check on her house, but she imagined their land filling up like a saucer. She has no flood insurance.
“It’s not going to be worth fixing,” she said. “I’m going to have to walk away.”
In nearby Hope Mills, N.C., water began rushing over the top of a dam early Sunday, prompting fears, once again, of a breach. Dams in the same location have failed twice in the last two decades, in 2003 and again in 2010. The latest dam is less than two years old.
Jackie Warner, the mayor of Hope Mills, said she had spoken with engineers who expected the dam to hold this time. Still, the water kept coming — higher, she said, than anyone had thought.
“We don’t have any control over this amount of water,” Mayor Warner said. Between 300 and 500 people live below the dam, she said, but most had already been evacuated.
As residents fled flooding towns and line workers tried to restore power in wide areas of North Carolina, the utility company Duke Energy said it was coping with a coal ash spill, apparently caused by the storm’s rains, at a facility in Wilmington. The company said the spill displaced 2,000 cubic yards of the hazardous material, or enough to fill about two-thirds of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Wilmington, on the coast, was effectively cut off, with access roads flooded and the authorities asking people who had evacuated not to return yet. A public water utility in the area warned that it was in critical need of fuel.
“If we do not get the needed fuel within the next 48 hours, we will not be able to continue water service for public health and safety, such as fire suppression and other life-sustaining activities,” the water utility said. “Also, our customers will be without drinking water.”
The utility said customers should fill up bathtubs and water jugs in preparation.
Conditions were worrisome, but far less dire, in Charlotte, the center of a sprawling, highly populated area that was at a virtual standstill on Sunday as heavier rains approached. Clouds wrapped around the crown of the Bank of America Corporate Center — the state’s tallest building, at 871 feet — and uptown streets, typically quiet on weekends, were almost entirely deserted.
The authorities reported a train derailment in Anson County, southeast of Charlotte, late Sunday, and local media said some residents had been evacuated. It was not immediately clear whether the episode was connected to the storm.
Farther west, the United States Forest Service said there was “increased potential for landslides on steep mountain slopes,” and it warned that parts of North Carolina that saw such incidents in May were "susceptible” to new trouble.
The emergency response in the Carolinas was coupled with scattered political tensions about how best to handle a storm’s onslaught. In an emergency meeting on Sunday, the City Council in Conway, S.C., voted to pursue an injunction against county and state authorities to halt construction of a five-foot temporary barrier along a key highway leading to Myrtle Beach.
Councilors were concerned that the barrier, while allowing traffic to reach the South Carolina coast, would drastically increase flooding behind it, endangering as many as 940 homes that might not have otherwise flooded. The injunction they are seeking would stop any more building until “sufficient scientific modeling” is conducted to show that the barriers would not worsen the flooding in Conway.
But while the authorities pleaded with residents to heed their warnings and wrestled with the complex riddles of an increasingly urgent response, they also prepared for what will most likely be a long and costly recovery. North Carolina officials believe tens of thousands of homes in the state have been damaged so far, with days of problems still in the offing.
In many places, recovery was a distant notion on Sunday. Some residents who had already been displaced were facing another move.
One of them was Nancy Tillery, who woke up on Sunday, her 60th birthday, at the Red Carpet Inn and Suites in Kinston, N.C., where she had gone after her New Bern home filled with about five feet of water and a tree fell into her living room.
Just after 9 a.m., police officers knocked on the family’s hotel room door and handed them a slip of paper reading: “It is probable that this area will flood and may be cut off from emergency access.” The hotel is a few yards from the banks of a river that had risen about 16 feet since Wednesday. It was already swamping outlying parts of the town.
About an hour after receiving the notice, Ms. Tillery and her husband were packing up her son’s car and debating where to go next. With many routes already flooded, they were leaning toward taking back roads home to New Bern. A friend had offered them a trailer.
Around the same time, New Bern’s mayor appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He warned that he feared more flooding.