CHARLESTON, S.C.— Flooding from days of record-setting rain along the heavily populated East Coast washed out bridges and homes and forecasters warned wind gusts topping 35 mph could down trees and power lines across the Carolinas and Virginia in coming hours.
At least five weather-related deaths have been reported since rains began spreading over the Eastern Seaboard, which has appeared to dodge the full fury of Hurricane Joaquin churning hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in South Carolina and ordered federal aid to bolster state and local efforts as flood warnings remained in effect for many parts of the East Coast through Sunday.
The steady downpour drew its moisture from a slow-moving low-pressure system over the Southeast that has linked up to a finger of tropical moisture from Hurricane Joaquin. Heavy rain was expected to continue overnight in the Carolinas and parts of northern Georgia and could cause some significant river and stream flooding, the National Weather Service said.
The low-pressure system also was expected to whip up stiff northeasterly winds in the Blue Ridge mountains of the Carolinas and western Virginia with gusts up to 35 mph through Sunday, the weather service said. With tree roots already loosened in waterlogged soil, increased winds held the prospect of toppling trees onto power lines or property.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” North Carolina emergency management director Mike Sprayberry said late Saturday.
High winds toppled a tree that hit a vehicle and killed a passenger Thursday near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Three people died in separate weather-related traffic incidents in South Carolina on Friday and Saturday, the Highway Patrol said. A drowning in Spartanburg, South Carolina, also was linked to the storm.
The Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in South Carolina recorded 2.3 inches of rain Saturday, smashing the previous record of 0.77 inches set in 1961, according to John Tomko, National Weather Service meteorologist at Greenville-Spartanburg.
“This one is extraordinary in that it’s such a prolonged event,” he said.
Downtown Charleston was closed off to incoming traffic Saturday as rain flooded roads and left some motorists stranded as flood waters engulfed their cars, including a white BMW with water to the engine. At least two bridges were washed out in other parts of the state
“Where we normally are dealing with flooding for a few hours, we’re dealing with it in days here,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen told The Associated Press. “We’re seeing areas flood today that did not traditionally flood.”
Flooded roads were closed throughout the mid-Atlantic region and power companies reported scattered outages in several states.
In New Jersey, storms dislodged an entire house from its pilings in a low-lying area of Middle Township in southern Jersey. No one was in the residence. Flood watches and warnings also are in effect in Delaware and parts of New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.
The weather service issued a warning for residents living along the coast to be alert for rising water. A combination of high water and high waves could cause beach erosion and damage docks and piers.
In Ocean City, Maryland, spokeswoman Jessica Waters said moderate high tide flooding Saturday forced street closures in low-lying areas but caused no major damages or injuries.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Seaboard was spared what could have been much worse damage had Joaquin not continued on a path well off the U.S. coast. And some people found ways to enjoy the wet weather, cavorting in kayaks and canoes in some flooded areas.
Steven Capito spent the day surfing by the Ocean View Fishing Pier in Norfolk, Virginia, where two- to three-foot waves crashed ashore. Ordinarily, he said waves from the Chesapeake Bay would barely lap his ankles.
“It’s kind of a fun novelty to be out here in the bay,” said Capito, who lives in Virginia Beach. “You only get to do it a couple of times a year and it’s nice and warm.”