Torrential rains that brought flooding to much of the historic peninsula district of Charleston, S.C., on Saturday lashed huge parts of the Southeast, giving the region little consolation from the fading threat of Hurricane Joaquin as it moved to the northeast away from the East Coast.
Police shut down traffic onto the low-lying area of Charleston between the Ashley and Cooper rivers where the historic downtown area is located. Abandoned cars dotted many of the roads as cars stalled out.
Retail stores along King Street, a main shopping area in the port city, lined sand bags along the sidewalk as protection from the threat of rising water.
As rain totals by early morning quickly eclipsed the 21-year-old record of 3.28 inches for Oct. 3, forecasters predicted several more inches for Saturday and extended a flash flood warning until late afternoon.
Officials warned residents to avoid driving in the afternoon during high tide. Heavy rain was forecast for the area into Sunday.
"We cannot stress the importance of not driving around police barricades," the weather service in Charleston tweeted. "Never drive into an area where water covers the road."
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen told The Associated Press that officers are going door-to-door to advise residents to voluntarily evacuate areas that are at risk, he said.
"Where we normally are dealing with flooding for a few hours, we're dealing with it in days here, so it's going to be significantly different," Mullen said. "It's impacting much more of the city. We're seeing areas flood today that did not traditionally flood."
The weather service warned of a high risk of "widespread excessive rainfall" over large portions of South Carolina, far northeastern Georgia, southwest North Carolina and far eastern Tennessee.
"Some locations may receive a foot of rain or more, which could exceed once-in-100-year rainfall averages," says AccuWeather Meteorologist Mike Doll.
The torrential rain is being generated by an unusual confluence of weather events — a stalled front near the East Coast, tropical moisture flowing from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic ocean, and the effects of the outer edge of Hurricane Joaquin.
The NWS forecast as much as 10 inches of rain in those areas, with some isolated cases of 15 inches or more. It said the threat of significant flooding in portions of South Carolina and southeast North Carolina would continue for two or three days.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned of the possibility of flash flooding in mountain and urban areas in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions through Sunday.
Elsewhere, coastal flooding remained a threat — particularly in the Virginia Beach area and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 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 result in beach erosion and damage to docks and piers.
The rain levels had the potential to be "life threatening and historic," the service said on its website.
The battering rain came along the Southeast coast even as forecasters said Hurricane Joaquin was no longer a threat to the region.
PHOTOS: The path of Hurricane Joaquin
As of 2 p.m. Joaquin had strengthened back into a Category 4 hurricane, now packing sustained winds of 155 mph — just below Category 5 strength. It was moving northeast away from the Bahamas at 18 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Hurricane conditions in the Bahamas were expected to gradually improve Saturday morning.
The center said Joaquin is expected to pass to the west of Bermuda on Sunday, but cautions that any deviation in the track would bring the core of the hurricane and stronger winds closer to the British island territory in the North Atlantic.
The hurricane center said Joaquin would begin weakening through Sunday, but would remain a hurricane in its northeastward trek.
While the hurricane is no longer forecast to make landfall in the United States, swells generated by the storm were slamming parts of the Southeast. The swells will spread northward throughout the weekend and may created life-threatening surf and rip-current conditions, the hurricane center said.
In addition, strong onshore winds are expected to result in minor to moderate coastal flooding along the East Coast, according to the National Weather Service.
Meanwhile, a missing cargo ship with 33 crewmembers aboard has yet to be located by the U.S. Coast Guard. The vessel, a 790-foot ship called El Faro, was caught in the storm Thursday, and reported flooding before losing contact. Twenty-eight of the crewmembers are American, and five are Polish nationals.
"We're going to go and try and save lives. We're going to push it to the operational limits as far as we can," Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor said in a news conference Friday afternoon.
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