WILMINGTON, N.C. — Hurricane Matthew weakened in wind strength but then struck North Carolina with a rain-soaking vengeance that caught some people off-guard, especially inland where the damage was lining up to be worse than at the coast.
Three people had died in the storm as of Saturday, Gov. Pat McCrory said at a news conference. Two people died in Bladen County in a submerged vehicle, and one died when a vehicle hydroplaned in Sampson County, he said.
“This is a very, very serious and deadly storm,” McCrory said. “… from Raleigh east, stay off the roads, stay in your house, watch the football games on TV and bunker up, because at this point in time, there are deadly conditions … very serious flooding, very serious winds.”
Fayetteville, where 8.5 inches of rain fell on already saturated ground in about 12 hours, was among the hard-hit areas. Roads were closed because of flooded water, and McCrory said the mayor was asking people to not even go outside.
Cumberland County, where Fayetteville is located, reported 42 water rescues from homes and cars as of Saturday afternoon. And dangerous conditions were expected to remain into early next week, when several rivers are forecast to leave their banks, McCrory said.
Some people, such as 64-year-old Carla Ortiz, sought safety in a shelter. She had just moved into an apartment after stints in a homeless shelter, and was back in a shelter again because of Matthew.
“I’m glad to be here,” Ortiz said Saturday at a Red Cross shelter near downtown Wilmington. “It’s a safe place. It’s clean. It’s orderly. It’s dry. Momma didn’t raise no fools. I know when to come out of the rain. I hate being in the rain.”
Ortiz said she got little sleep as she coped with arthritis and a condition that causes her legs to swell with fluid. She and a friend arrived Friday after hearing warnings of possible flooding.
Those frequent public warnings prompted four dozen people to gather at the shelter at Dorothy B. Johnson Elementary School. The homeless, elderly and some families with young children spent the night on folding cots in a hallway and gathered for meals at lunchroom tables.
More than 450 people had left their homes for shelters as of Saturday morning, McCrory said.
Bobby Robertson, 80, and his wife of 59 years, Shirley, 78, live in a beachfront home in Carolina Beach they feared could be crushed by hurricane winds and raging waves. Though they hoped to stay, their plans changed when the storm’s track shifted west, and harsher conditions were forecast for North Carolina’s southeast corner.
“We were hoping it wasn’t going to be as bad as it was, but then it took a turn,” Bobby Robertson said.
The National Weather Service issued a flood warning and a high wind warning with gusts of 50 mph to 60 mph for the southern Piedmont, Sandhills and southern coastal plain. The forecast called for 4 inches to 10 inches of rain with localized rainfall of 12 inches. River flooding is likely early next week, especially along the Cape Fear, Little, Black, Neuse and Tar rivers.
A Duke Energy outage map showed that 70,000 customers were without power Saturday afternoon in areas of North Carolina affected by Hurricane Matthew. About 28,000 of the outages were inland in the Fayetteville with almost 15,000 in the Wilmington area along the coast.
As Matthew raked the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, it didn’t make landfall until Saturday, just southeast of the town of McClellanville, South Carolina.
After moving through North Carolina, the storm was expected to veer out to sea and loop back around toward the Bahamas, though as a much-weakened storm. When it does, Hurricane Matthew will hit North Carolina’s coast again, hitting almost every beach area in the state, McCrory said.
That seemed to be happening in Southport, where the force of the wind built steadily Saturday afternoon along the south-facing coastal community, said Joe Luncsford, 21.
“As soon as the wind hits the trees they’re bending back and forth and just waiting to snap at any moment,” Luncsford said as he watched from the safety of his duplex near the town’s marina. Still, he was itching to check out what the storm had left behind.
“I haven’t left the house today but I’m thinking of going out and checking the town out,” he said.
In Fayetteville, Terrell Williams said that when he went out earlier Saturday to get supplies for the storm, he had to take several detours because police had blocked flooded roads in the area.
“It was raining really bad. It wasn’t too heavy of traffic. Those who were out there kept getting re-routed,” he said. “There were some areas where you could see the water starting to overtake the bridges.”
Around Williams’ apartment complex, several trees have also toppled. He lost power for about two hours earlier in the day, but it came back on. He said he feels fortunate that his apartment is on the third floor.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Drew in Durham contributed to this report. Waggoner reported from Raleigh. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/martha-waggoner. Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio.