Storm Florence weakens but epic rains still expected on U.S. east coast

WILSON, N.C., Sept 16 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Florence was likely to weaken on Sunday as it swept through the Carolinas but dozens of communities are devastated and "epic" amounts of rain could still fall, officials said.

The storm is expected to become a Tropical Depression as it trudged inland early Sunday, knocking out power and causing at least eight deaths as flood waters kept rising.

North Carolina officials have reported at least seven storm-related fatalities with unconfirmed reports of a further three deaths. South Carolina authorities reported one death.

"This is still a catastrophic, life threatening storm," said Zack Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Center's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Winds have dropped to about 40 miles per hour (65 kph) since it roared ashore along the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast on Friday as a hurricane and it is crawling west over two states at 6 mph (9 kph), the National Hurricane Center in Miami said early Sunday.

Taylor said the storm already dumped 30 inches of rain on some parts of the N.C.

"This storm is still deadly and dangerous and it's expected to turn northward later today into Virginia and the mid-Atlantic," he said.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said: "This system is unloading epic amounts of rainfall, in some places measured in feet and not inches." Rivers will continue to rise days after the rain has stopped, he said.

Around 50 stranded people were airlifted by helicopter in North Carolina, said Petty Officer Michael Himes of the U.S. Coast Guard. More than 26,000 hunkered down in shelters.

Roads were closed and authorities warned of landslides, tornadoes and flash floods, with dams and bridges in peril as rivers and creeks swelled. As of Saturday, about 676,000 homes and businesses were without power in North Carolina, along with 119,000 in South Carolina.

The White House said President Donald Trump approved making federal funding available in some affected counties.

Trump, who plans to visit the region next week and he tweeted his "deepest sympathies and warmth" to the families and friends of those who had lost their lives.

WORST YET TO COME

Florence was drifting westward over South Carolina, reaching about 25 miles southeast of Columbia S.C. at 2 a.m. Sunday, the NHC said.

Up to 40 inches (102 cm) of rain are expected along coastal areas of the Carolinas and up to 10 inches in southwestern Virginia, it said.

In Fayetteville, a North Carolina city of about 210,000 people about 90 miles inland, authorities told thousands of residents near the Cape Fear River and Little River to get out of their homes by Sunday afternoon because of the flood risk.

"If you are refusing to leave during this mandatory evacuation, you need to do things like notify your legal next of kin because the loss of life is very, very possible," Mayor Mitch Colvin said at a news conference.

"The worst is yet to come," he added.

The storm made landfall on Friday near Wilmington, a city of about 120,000 squeezed between North Carolina's Atlantic coastline and the Cape Fear River.

Near the Sutton Power Plant in Wilmington, coal ash leaked from a Duke Energy landfill. The site lost enough material to fill around two-thirds of an Olympic-sized pool, the company said in a statement, adding that it did not believe the incident posed a risk to health or the environment.

Officials had warned before the storm rains could taint waterways with murky coal ash and toxic hog waste.

Florence has already set a North Carolina record for rainfall totals, exceeding that of Hurricane Floyd, which struck in 1999 and caused 56 deaths. Floyd produced 24 inches of rain in some parts of the state, while Florence has already dumped about 30 inches in areas around Swansboro.

In New Bern, about 90 miles northeast of Wilmington at the confluence of two rivers, Florence overwhelmed the town of 30,000 and left the downtown area under water. Some area residents described a harrowing retreat as the storm hit.

"It was pitch black and I was just scared out of my mind," said Tracy Singleton, who with her family later drove through torrential rain and high winds from her home near New Bern.

South Carolina authorities said law enforcement officers were guarding against looting in evacuated areas, while Wilmington set a curfew on Saturday evening in response to looting in one area.

As the United States dealt with Florence, a super typhoon swirled towards Hong Kong and the Chinese coast on Sunday, gaining in strength over the South China Sea after hurtling through the Philippines, where it wreaked havoc that killed at least 25. (Additional reporting by Rich McKay Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)