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Hurricane Florence Updates: Rivers Swell as Death Toll Rises

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolinas were drenched and largely paralyzed Sunday morning as a weakened Tropical Depression Florence slowly ravaged the South, swelling the region’s rivers and leaving the authorities bracing for another day of widespread — and, they feared, potentially catastrophic — rainfall and flooding.

Even as the storm both lost some of its power and sped up, leaving less time for its steady rains to saturate the places in its path, the death toll increased to at least 14, and rivers were rising fast. Forecasters warned that flooding, already frighteningly common this weekend, was virtually certain to worsen within hours.

Scores of shelters were open Sunday, filled with people who fled ahead of the storm and some of the hundreds more evacuated from their homes by rescue workers in boats and helicopters.

And having already unleashed days of sustained torment along the coastline and in communities in the east for days, the storm system moved toward the west on Sunday, targeting Charlotte, N.C., and smaller communities in both Carolinas.

Here are the latest developments:

• The system has been downgraded to a tropical depression, meaning it has maximum sustained winds of 38 miles per 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.

• Rainfall in North Carolina has already broken a state record, according to preliminary reports from the Weather Service. By noon on Saturday, more than 30 inches had been recorded in Swansboro, N.C. The previous record of 24 inches was set in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd pounded the region.

• Two more deaths were reported in South Carolina, and the storm has killed at least 14 people in the United States so far. The deaths include a mother and child who were killed after a tree fell on their home in Wilmington; Amber Dawn Lee, 61, a mother of two who was driving in Union County, S.C., when her vehicle hit a tree in the road; three people in Duplin County, N.C., who died because of flash flooding on the roadways; and a couple who died in a house fire in Cumberland County, N.C.

• Local, state and federal officials are rushing to rescue people stranded in half-submerged homes across the region. So are many volunteers, including Tray Tillman, 26, a construction foreman who was part of a makeshift rescue flotilla that has plucked hundreds of stranded people from attics, second-floor bedrooms, church vestibules and crumbling decks.

Although more than one million power failures have been reported, according to the Department of Energy, utility companies and the state authorities reported some successes in restoring service. Most of the outages were in North Carolina, but like their neighbors to the south, North Carolinians had known they were likely to face days of flooding from engorged rivers long after the immediate drama of flying shingles and TV newscasters staggering in the squalls.

“There is a lot of rain to come,” said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Saturday. He spoke during a news conference where a snapshot of the federal response so far emerged: The Coast Guard said 43 aircraft had rescued five people, and the Army Corps of Engineers was engaging in a $6.1 million response, monitoring federal dams, helping with rescues, and deploying pumps and portable barriers.

Yet the potential crisis points were widespread on Sunday. Communities in the east braced for floodwaters that seemed just about to certain to come, towns in the North Carolina mountains feared the threat of landslides and the rains were still coming.

In the Fayetteville area, thousands of homes were being evacuated along the Cape Fear River, and the local authorities predicted that at least 2,800 homes would be emptied by Sunday afternoon.

“The loss of life is very, very possible,” said Mayor Mitch Colvin of Fayetteville, one of North Carolina’s largest cities and a community adjacent to Fort Bragg, a vast Army installation. “Please adhere to this, this is not at talking point, this is not a script.”

In Charlotte, the center of a sprawling, heavily populated area 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.

In and beyond the business district, the local authorities were urging people to stay off the region’s roads, and many shops and restaurants were closed even on Saturday evening, well before the worst of the storm system was to strike the Charlotte area. Officials announced last week that schools and city government offices would be closed Monday.

And while officials across the Carolinas pleaded with residents not to try to drive on flooded streets, and warned that the storm still posed a serious threat, they also prepared for what will most likely be a long and costly recovery.

Some who had evacuated returned home on Saturday evening to survey the damage. Tanya Caulder of Coward, S.C., found a giant tree on her front lawn after spending two nights at a shelter. Fortunately, the tree had fallen away from the house and just missed the pump house, which her family used to get water.

But Ms. Caulder, who had stayed at the shelter with 12 relatives, said she was still worried about flooding. During Hurricane Matthew, she said, the nearby Lynches River had sent water into her mobile home. All 13 members of the family would be staying at the house that night, she said, since only her place still had power.

“But if I see water come up in the backyard, I’m out of here,” Ms. Caulder said.

Tyler Pager contributed reporting from Coward, S.C., and Mihir Zaveri from New York.

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