4 dead as Florence drenches the Carolinas

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WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Watch live coverage from Gray TV affiliate WITN out of Wilmington, N.C.

Cedar Point Wildlife access ramp / Michelle / Submitted to WITN

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said people can make donations to help with hurricane relief here: https://www.rebuild.nc.gov/

At least four people were killed. A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from Wilmington police. The deaths also included that of a person killed while plugging in a generator, the governor's office said. Details of the death of the fourth person are unclear at this time.

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The Latest on Hurricane Florence (all times local):

4:50 p.m.

Forecasters say Florence is now a tropical storm but will continue to threaten North and South Carolina with powerful winds and catastrophic freshwater flooding.

Its top sustained winds have dropped to 70 mph (110 kph), and it's at a near standstill, moving west at just 3 mph (6 kph).

At 5 p.m., Florence was centered about 50 miles (75 kilometers) west-southwest of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 25 miles (45 kilometers) northeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 175 miles (280 kilometers) from its center. The National Hurricane Center says Florence is producing tropical storm-force wind gusts in Florence, South Carolina, about 60 miles from the coast.

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4:45 p.m.

Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm; surges, flooding will continue as it lashes South Carolina.

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4:25 p.m.

South Carolina's most popular tourist destination is riding out Hurricane Florence without major problems so far.

In North Myrtle Beach, rain has been falling nearly all day and tree branches and limbs are on some roads. The power is out on the main strip, but almost no vehicles are on the six-lane highway through the center of town other than police.

North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling says three-quarters of the area's 37,000 electric customers are without power.

To the south, Myrtle Beach was faring better. Power outages were spotty, and Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea says no significant property damage has been reported.

No areas in South Carolina reported problems with surge from the ocean as winds continued from the land pushing water away.

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4:05 p.m.

President Donald Trump is preparing to travel to areas affected by Hurricane Florence next week. At least four people have died due to the storm.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says Trump will travel to the region "early to middle of next week."

She adds his trip will take place "once it is determined his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts."

Aides say Trump has been monitoring the massive storm from the White House, and he has taken to Twitter to encourage those in its path to listen to their local authorities for how best to remain safe.

The storm, blamed for at least three fatalities, has inundated parts of the Carolina coast with heavy rain and high winds.

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Blowing ashore with howling 90 mph winds, Hurricane Florence splintered buildings, trapped hundreds of people and swamped entire communities along the Carolina coast Friday in what could be just the opening act in a watery, two-part, slow-motion disaster. At least four people were killed.

Forecasters warned that drenching rains of anywhere from 1 to 3½ feet as the storm crawls westward across North and South Carolina could trigger epic flooding well inland over the next few days.

As 400-mile-wide Florence pounded away at the coast with torrential downpours and surging seas, rescue crews used boats to reach scores of people besieged by rising waters along a river. More than 60 others had to be rescued as a cinderblock motel collapsed.

Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and knocked out power to three-quarters of a million homes and businesses, and the assault wasn't anywhere close to being over, with the siege in the Carolinas expected to last all weekend.

"It's an uninvited brute who doesn't want to leave," said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.

The hurricane was "wreaking havoc" and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its "violent grind across our state for days," the governor said. He said parts of North Carolina had seen storm surges — the bulge of seawater pushed ashore by the hurricane — as high as 10 feet.

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A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on a house, according to a tweet from Wilmington police. Also, a 77-year-old man was apparently knocked down by the wind and died after going out to check on his hunting dogs, and a man was electrocuted while trying to connect extension cords in the rain, authorities said.

Shaken after seeing waves crashing on the Neuse River just outside his house in the town of New Bern, restaurant owner and hurricane veteran Tom Ballance wished he had evacuated.

"I feel like the dumbest human being who ever walked the face of the earth," he said.

After reaching a terrifying Category 4 peak of 140 mph earlier in the week, Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15 a.m. at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington and not far from the South Carolina line, coming ashore along a mostly boarded-up, emptied-out stretch of coastline.

By Friday evening, Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm, its winds weakening to 70 mph as it pushed inland. But it was clear that this was really about the water, not the wind.

Florence's forward movement during the day slowed to a crawl — sometimes it was moving no faster than a human can walk — and that enabled it to pile on the rain. The town of Oriental, North Carolina, got more than 20 inches of rain just a few hours into the deluge. Others got well over a foot.

For people living inland in the Carolinas, the moment of maximum peril from flash flooding could arrive days later, because it takes time for rainwater to drain into rivers and for those streams to crest.

Preparing for the worst, about 9,700 National Guard troops and civilians were deployed with high-water vehicles, helicopters and boats that could be used to pluck people from the floodwaters.

Authorities warned, too, of the threat of mudslides and the risk of an environmental disaster from floodwaters washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.

Florence was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the death toll was put at nearly 3,000.

The National Hurricane Center said Florence will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a right hook to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of next week.

Meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com said Florence could dump a staggering 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week on North Carolina, South Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland. That's enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay or cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches (10 centimeters) of water, he calculated.

North Carolina alone is forecast to get 9.6 trillion gallons, enough to cover the Tar Heel state to a depth of about 10 inches (25 centimeters).

On Friday, coastal streets in the Carolinas flowed with frothy ocean water, and pieces of torn-apart buildings flew through the air. The few cars out on a main street in Wilmington had to swerve to avoid fallen trees, metal debris and power lines. Traffic lights out of order because of power failures swayed in the gusty wind. Roof shingles were peeled off a hotel.

The Wilmington airport had a wind gust clocked at 105 mph (169 kph), the highest since Hurricane Helene in 1958. Airlines canceled more than 2,400 flights through Sunday.

In Jacksonville, North Carolina, next to Camp Lejeune, firefighters and police fought wind and rain as they went door-to-door to pull people out of the Triangle Motor Inn after the structure began to crumble and the roof started to collapse.

In New Bern, population 29,000, flooding on the Neuse River trapped about 200 people.

"WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU," the city of New Bern tweeted around 2 a.m. "You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU."

Boat teams rescued residents Sadie Marie Holt, 67, who first tried to row out of her neighborhood during Florence's assault.

"The wind was so hard, the waters were so hard, that trying to get out we got thrown into trailers. We got thrown into mailboxes, houses, trees," said Holt, who had stayed at home because of a doctor's appointment that was later canceled. She retreated and was eventually rescued by a boat crew.

Ashley Warren and boyfriend Chris Smith did manage to paddle away from their home in a boat with their two dogs, and the experience left her shaken.

"Honestly, I grew up in Wilmington. I love hurricanes. But this one has been an experience for me. We might leave," she said.

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Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Jeffrey Collins in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Jennifer Kay in Miami; Tamara Lush in Jacksonville, Florida; Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina; Sarah Rankin and Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Skip Foreman in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jeff Martin in Hampton, Georgia; David Koenig in Dallas; Gerry Broome at Nags Head, North Carolina; and Jay Reeves in Atlanta contributed to this report.