Millions along the East Coast breathed a little easier Friday after forecasters said Hurricane Joaquin would probably veer out to sea. But a freakishly powerful rainstorm fueled in part by the hurricane threatened to bring ruinous flooding to parts of the Atlantic Seaboard over the weekend.
With the soil already soggy and roads swamped in places from days of rain, East Coast states braced for what forecasters said could be deadly and unprecedented downpours.
New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and parts of Maryland and Delaware were under states of emergency. Meteorologists said the Carolinas will probably get the worst of it, with 15 inches of rain in places and landslides possible in the mountains.
“It’s going to be enormous,” meteorologist Ryan Maue of Weather Bell Analytics said. “It’s going to be a slow-motion disaster.”
For days, authorities had feared that Joaquin would link up with the rainstorm, multiplying the disastrous effects. Various computer models showed the hurricane hitting North Carolina’s Outer Banks, New Jersey, New York’s Long Island or Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.
But on Friday, as Joaquin raked the Bahamas with winds of 130 mph, forecasters said it appeared the hurricane would pass well off the U.S. coast.
“It looks like we dodged a bullet this time,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at the Jersey shore, which nevertheless got hit with street flooding nearly three years after it was devastated by Superstorm Sandy. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
The rainstorm threatened to bring a gusty and prolonged drenching from Georgia to New England. Forecasters warned that even if Joaquin peels away from the coast, its effects will still be felt, because it will continue to supply tropical moisture to the rainstorm.
South Carolina could get more rain in three days that it normally gets during the entire fall.
“We are growing increasingly concerned about the situation in South Carolina, western North Carolina and perhaps even in northeast Georgia,” said David Novak, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center. “We’re pretty confident that some places are going to have 15 inches. A lot of places are going to have 5, 6, 7 inches of rain, particularly the whole state of South Carolina.”
Parts of Virginia and Maryland could get up to 5 inches.
The storm was already blamed for at least one death in South Carolina, where heavy rain has fallen for days. Sylvia Arteaga, 56, drowned in a flash flood under a railroad bridge in Spartanburg while driving home from the night shift.
Authorities around the region also warned that the saturated soil could cause trees to topple. They said that might have played a role in the death of a passenger whose vehicle was hit by a tree on Interstate 95 near Fayetteville, North Carolina.
By mid-morning Friday, water was flowing over South Main Street on Virginia’s Chincoteague Island.
“Every year, we kind of hold our breath, knowing that we’re due,” said Brian Shotwell, manager of a sandwich shop.
Streets were underwater at high tide in the afternoon in cities and towns up and down the coast, including Norfolk, Virginia; Atlantic City, Sea Isle City and Stone Harbor, New Jersey; and Ocean City, Maryland, which had 5 feet of water in low-lying areas.
In Poquoson, Virginia, Joy Bryant had to cancel a yard sale because her property was half-submerged and cars couldn’t get down the road. She planned to spend the evening putting sandbags in front of her garage.
“Of course, we don’t know what to expect this weekend,” she said, “but since the storm is moving out and not on the track that it was yesterday, we’re very relieved.”
Steve Stougard stood in his front yard in Norfolk, watching one motorist after another decide whether to try to drive through a flooded intersection.
“It’s convenient that we’re not getting a direct hit from a major hurricane. I consider that an answered prayer,” he said. “But we still have to deal with the rain, still have to deal with the tides.”
Meanwhile, Joaquin tore off roofs, uprooted trees and unleashed heavy flooding in the Bahamas, and the U.S. Coast Guard searched for a missing 735-foot cargo ship with 33 people aboard.
Residents of Princeville, North Carolina, couldn’t help thinking of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when muddy, swirling floodwaters wiped out 850 homes in the community of about 2,000 that is considered the oldest U.S. town chartered by blacks.
Jackie Vines and her husband wound up living in a trailer in an encampment that was dubbed FEMA City. As for the storm now threatening Princeville, Vines said: “All of that’s in God’s hands. I just pray about it.”