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Florence: First deaths reported in North Carolina

By Nicholas Sakelaris and Danielle Haynes
Hurricane Florence strikes Carolinas
Ignacio (L) and Sylvia Bautista hold hands after checking out their property following Hurricane Florence, now tropical depression on Wednesday in Beulaville, N.C. Florence, is continuing to dump rain on North and South Carolina and the Cape Fear River Valley and other rivers will rise breaking record flood levels. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Florence claimed its first victims, including a woman and her infant child in Wilmington, N.C., hours after landfall Friday, local authorities confirmed.

The woman and baby died after a tree toppled onto a residence on Mercer Avenue at about midday.

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The Wilmington Police Department "can confirm the first two fatalities of Hurricane Florence in Wilmington," the agency tweeted. "A mother and infant were killed when a tree fell on their house. The father was transported to [New Hanover Regional Medical Center] with injuries."

The office of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper confirmed the two deaths as well as a third -- a 78-year-old man died in Lenoir County while plugging in a generator.

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"Our hearts go out to the families of those who died in this storm," Cooper said. "Hurricane Florence is going to continue its violent grind across our state for days. Be extremely careful and stay alert."

Also in Lenoir County, Emergency Services Director Roger Dail confirmed to NBC News that a 77-year-old man died when it is believed he was blown over by the wind when he went outside to check on his dogs.

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Meanwhile, Pender County Emergency Management Director Tom Collins told WWAY-TV in Wilmington a woman died after having a heart attack. He said downed trees prevented first responders from reaching the ill woman in Hampstead before she died.

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The deaths came within hours after the eye of Category 1 Hurricane Florence made landfall in southeast North Carolina at about 7:15 a.m. The National Hurricane Center said Florence weakened to a tropical storm with 70 mph winds in its 5 p.m. EDT advisory.

Friday evening Cooper signed an executive order to speed relief -- including temporary housing, generators and trucks -- to the affected parts of the state.

The slow-moving storm has dumped heavy rainfall amounts along the coast and storm surge exceeded 10 feet in New Bern, N.C., among the hardest hit locations by flooding, Accuweather reported.

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A flotilla of boats began rescuing people in New Bern, N.C., early Friday, where volunteers were using their own vessels to rescue hundreds stranded in flooded homes. The coastal town was under a mandatory evacuation order, but many chose to ride out the storm. Officials said about 200 have been rescued so far and 150 more need help.

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"We've planned for this. We knew it was coming," New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw said. "We're not going to be satisfied until the last resident is rescued and in a shelter, and then we can assess damages and go from there."

Swift water rescues were also underway in other parts of coastal North Carolina -- Fairfield, Harbour, Adams Creek and Township 7 -- but officials said some areas were too dangerous to reach, due to extreme flooding, strong winds and storm surges.

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As water levels rose, the city assured stranded residents help is coming.

"You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but we are coming to get you," the city said in a tweet.

North Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue halted all emergency responses until conditions improved enough for personnel to respond safely.

In Wrightsville Beach, N.C., where Florence made landfall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the storm set a new record, reaching 4.11 feet above high tide. The previous record was set by the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 at about 3 feet above high tide.

Cape Fear River, meanwhile, hit a record level of 8.28 feet at high tide. Its previous record was 8.17 feet during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

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Downtown New Bern, where the Trent and Neuse rivers converge, is completely underwater. A veterans cemetery near the coast is also entirely submerged. In a news conference Friday evening, Cooper said emergency workers rescued hundreds of people in the town.

Data from poweroutage.us indicate nearly 900,000 people in the Carolinas were without power as of Friday afternoon, including 756,174 in North Carolina and 128,107 in South Carolina. Up to 3 million were expected to lose power before the storm diminishes.

President Donald Trump mobilized 3,800 staffers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other departments to help in the aftermath.

"To the incredible citizens of North Carolina, South Carolina and the entire East Coast ... we have already begun mobilizing our assets to respond accordingly, and we are here for you!" Trump said in a statement Friday.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump was planning to visit the area next week.

"The president is expected to travel to areas affected by the storm early to middle of next week, once it is determined his travel will not disrupt any rescue or recovery efforts. We will keep you posted when we have details," she said.

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The U.S. Coast Guard responded with a fleet of boats and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deployed an emergency power team to North Carolina. Nationwide, more than 40,000 electric company workers were on their way to the Carolina coast to assist in restoring electricity. Emergency disaster declarations have also been declared for the region.

In South Carolina, more than 4,500 people had checked into shelters by Friday. Cooper said some 20,000 evacuees were in shelters across North Carolina, including mega shelters at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem.

"Surviving this storm will be a test of endurance, team work and common sense and patience," Cooper said Thursday. "The heavy rains and high winds are likely to spread across North Carolina and linger for days. We will survive this, and we will endure."

Wayne County officials said they learned from their experiences with Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Flooding from those storms cut the county in half. This time, officials have set up staging areas on both sides of the city.

Dam failure is another concern. North Carolina has 24 functioning high hazard dams near the coast. Of those, 18 are in unsatisfactory or poor condition, according to state records.

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