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SPRINGFIELD — Emergency responders from Illinois were among those on Saturday who headed to rescue hundreds of people trapped by Florence's shoreline onslaught, even as North Carolina braced for what could be the next stage of the disaster: widespread, catastrophic flooding inland.

The death toll from the hurricane-turned-tropical storm climbed to 11 as Marines, the Coast Guard, civilian crews and volunteers used helicopters, boats and heavy-duty vehicles in the relief efforts. 

A 13-person search team trained in water rescues left Springfield for the region on Friday evening, Gov. Bruce Rauner's office said. Members come from fire departments throughout Illinois. The deployment is expected to last 10 days.

"Florence's relentless rain, storm surges and hurricane force winds have resulted in hundreds of water rescues in extremely dangerous conditions," Rauner said in a statement. "Our Illinois crews have trained year-round for these types of rescues and will be a valuable resource for the Tar Heel state."

The Illinois National Guard on Thursday sent two helicopters, one large enough to carry needed supplies and one to help with rescues in areas that ground units can't reach. The helicopters contained 10 soldiers and flew out of Kankakee and Peoria on Thursday. 

For those not trained in rescue assistance, Lutheran Early Response Team disaster coordinator Stephen Born advises staying home and donating cash or gift cards. Born communicates with 850 volunteers from 51 Central Illinois counties.

Along with volunteers taking away potential resources such as food or water, and hotel space that could go to displaced families, Born said they want to do everything they can to stay out of the way of emergency responders like the National Guard who are trying to offer immediate assistance.

“The best thing that someone can do is give cash or a gift card,” he said. “That’s the best thing they can give to a survivor.”

A day after blowing ashore with 90 mph winds, Florence practically parked itself over land all day long and poured on the rain. With rivers rising toward record levels, thousands of people were ordered to evacuate for fear the next few days could bring the most destructive round of flooding in North Carolina history.

More than 2 feet of rain had fallen in places, and the drenching went on and on, with forecasters saying there could be an additional 1½ feet by the end of the weekend.

"I cannot overstate it: Floodwaters are rising, and if you aren't watching for them, you are risking your life," Gov. Roy Cooper said.

As of 5 p.m., Florence was centered about 60 miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, inching west at 2 mph — not even as fast as a person walking. Its winds were down to 45 mph. With half of the storm still out over the Atlantic, Florence continued to collect warm ocean water and dump it on land.

In its initial onslaught along the coast, Florence buckled buildings, deluged entire communities and knocked out power to more than 900,000 homes and businesses. But the storm was shaping up as a two-part disaster, with the second, delayed stage triggered by rainwater working its way into rivers and streams.

The flash flooding could devastate communities and endanger dams, roads and bridges.

Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of up to 7,500 people living within a mile of a stretch of the Cape Fear River and the Little River, about 100 miles from the coast. The evacuation zone included part of the city of Fayetteville, population 200,000.

Coast Guard helicopters were taking off across the street to rescue stranded people from rooftops and swamped cars. Coast Guard members said choppers had made about 50 rescues in and around New Bern and Jacksonville as of noon.

Marines rescued about 20 civilians from floodwaters near Camp Lejeune, using Humvees and amphibious assault vehicles, the base reported.

In Lumberton, about 80 miles inland, Jackie and Quinton Washington watched water filling both their front and back yards near the Lumber River. Hurricane Matthew sent more than 5 feet of water into their home in 2016, and the couple feared Florence would run them out again.

"If it goes up to my front step, I have to get out," Quinton Washington said.

The dead included a mother and baby killed when a tree fell on a house in Wilmington, North Carolina. South Carolina recorded its first death from the storm, with officials saying a 61-year-old woman was killed when her car hit a tree that had fallen across a highway.

Three died in one inland county, Duplin, because of water on roads and flash floods, the sheriff's office said. A husband and wife died in a house fire linked to the storm, officials said, and an 81-year-old man died after falling and hitting his head while packing to evacuate.

The National Hurricane Center said Florence broke a North Carolina rainfall record that had stood for almost 20 years: Preliminary reports showed Swansboro got more than 30 inches and counting, obliterating the mark set in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd dropped just over 24 inches on the state.

As of noon, Emerald Isle had more than 23 inches of rain, and Wilmington and Goldsboro had about a foot. North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, had around 7 inches.

Stream gauges across the region showed water levels rising steadily, with forecasts calling for rivers to crest Sunday and Monday at or near record levels. The Little River, the Cape Fear, the Lumber, the Neuse, the Waccamaw and the Pee Dee were all projected to rise over their banks, flooding cities and towns.

Forecasters said the storm will eventually break up over the southern Appalachians and make a sharp rightward swing to the northeast, its rainy remnants moving into the mid-Atlantic states and New England by the middle of the week.

Once the storm calms down, Born said they will send an “assessment team” to meet with local residents and pastors to determine the best way volunteers can help with the recovery. Those who want to help, Born said, can donate to a charitable organization of their choice. Groups such as the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and other religious organizations have already begun accepting donations for the recovery effort.

While used clothes are a popular donation to give in an emergency, Born said for those thinking of doing that to think of the time and effort it takes volunteers to sort through it all and divide the clothes between age and gender.

“There’s nothing worse than having nothing, and wearing used clothes that you don’t even like,” Born said. “So we say to find a good organization where you can donate a gift card. It doesn’t even have to be a lot, but if someone has a few $25 gift cards, it can mean a lot.”

The State Journal-Register contributed to this story. 


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Contact Ryan Voyles at (217) 421-7985. Follow him on Twitter: @RVVoyles


Macon County Reporter

Macon County reporter for the Herald & Review.

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