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Matthew inundates North Carolina; US death toll rises to 17

Flood waters washed over many roads in North Carolina, including Highway 58 Sunday in Nashville. Flooding could continue for days, officials said.

Chris Seward/The Charlotte Observer via AP

Flood waters washed over many roads in North Carolina, including Highway 58 Sunday in Nashville. Flooding could continue for days, officials said.

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Hurricane Matthew’s torrential rains triggered severe flooding in North Carolina on Sunday as the deteriorating storm made its exit to the sea. Thousands of people had to be rescued from their homes and cars.

The US death toll from the hurricane climbed to at least 17, nearly half of them in North Carolina.

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Rescuers in Coast Guard helicopters plucked some of the trapped people from rooftops in North Carolina. They used military vehicles to reach others, including a woman who held on to a tree for three hours after her car was overrun by flood waters.

In another dramatic rescue, a woman with her small child perched on the roof of her car in Fayetteville had to be helped to safety as the waters rose around them, underscoring how quickly Matthew wreaked havoc 100 miles or more inland after sparing much of the Southeastern coast the catastrophic damage once feared.

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North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory said authorities were searching for five people and feared they may find more victims.

Even as the storm moved north from the state, the problems were expected to continue. With more than a foot of rain in places, many rivers and brooks are expected to tumble out of their banks, causing major flooding in many of the same areas devastated by a similar deluge from Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

‘‘Hurricane Matthew is off the map. But it is still with us. And it is still deadly,’’ McCrory said.

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More than a million people in South Carolina and North Carolina were without power, and at least four separate sections of Interstate 95 — the main artery linking the East Coast from Florida to Maine — were closed in North Carolina.

The rainfall totals were staggering: Nearly 15 inches in Fayetteville and 8 inches in Raleigh, N.C. McCrory warned that cities along rivers in eastern North Carolina needed to prepare for days of flooding.

Shortly before daybreak, the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm. By afternoon, it was about 150 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C., moving out to sea. It still had hurricane-force winds of 75 miles per hour.

The ferocity of the rain caught people by surprise.

‘‘The forecast said it wasn’t supposed to be anything major. Just rain and wind. Well, considering what happened weeks prior with the rain and combined with this, Mother Nature’s at its best,’’ said Lamont England, who was trying Sunday to get to his parents’ home in Fayetteville.

In Wilson County, rescuers were called when a 63-year-old woman didn’t make it home from work.

They heard her cries for help while on top of a vehicle, and when they couldn’t get her with a rope, a National Guard soldier swam to her, staying until a rescue boat arrived, Emergency Management Director Gordon Deno said.

Even animals had to be saved. WRAL-TV showed a dog swimming around floodwaters Saturday. McCrory said he and his wife were riveted by the coverage and relieved to find out from the Coast Guard that the dog managed to get into a tree.

Most of the dead were swept away by flood waters. The governor said there were rural areas that search-and-rescue teams hadn’t been able to reach.

‘‘There could be some backroads where we had people swept away. I’m praying that is not going to be,’’ McCrory said.

Elsewhere along the Atlantic coast, life was slowly returning to normal. Much of Savannah, Ga., which got 17 inches of rain, lacked electricity. About 150 people stood in line for a grocery store.

Debbie Berta said she waited more than an hour to get propane gas for her grill. She also wanted ‘‘bread, potatoes, eggs — and a piece of sanity.’’

Matthew killed hundreds of people in Haiti, with the final death toll still unknown on Sunday. It plowed into the desperately poor country at 145 miles per hour last week. The fearsome storm then sideswiped hundreds of miles of the US coastline from Florida through Georgia and the Carolinas.

The eye of the hurricane stayed far enough offshore that the damage in many places along the coast was relatively modest, consisting mostly of flooded streets, flattened trees, and blown-down signs and awnings.

A shift of just 20 miles could have meant widespread devastation nearer the ocean.

In addition to the eight deaths in North Carolina, there were four in Florida, three in Georgia, and two in South Carolina.

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