By Anna Mehler Paperny and Ernest Scheyder
WILSON/WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) - Deadly storm Florence drenched North Carolina with more downpours on Sunday, cutting off the coastal city of Wilmington, damaging tens of thousands of homes and threatening worse flooding as rivers fill to the bursting point.
The death toll rose to at least 16.
Florence, a onetime hurricane that weakened to a tropical depression by Sunday, dumped up to 40 inches (100 cm) of rain on parts of North Carolina since Thursday, and continued to produce widespread heavy rain over much of North Carolina and eastern South Carolina, the National Weather Service said.
"The storm has never been more dangerous than it is right now," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a news conference. Many rivers "are still rising, and are not expected to crest until later today or tomorrow."
Some rivers were not expected to crest until Monday or Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.
More than 900 people were rescued from rising floodwaters and 15,000 remained in shelters in the state, Cooper said.
South Carolina's governor issued a similar warning, urging anyone in a flood-prone area to evacuate.
"Those rivers in North Carolina that have received heavy rainfall are coming our way," Governor Henry McMaster said during a news conference. "They have not even begun (to crest). But they will. And the question is how high will the water be, and we do not know."
The storm killed at least 10 people in North Carolina, including a mother and child killed by a falling tree, state officials said. Six people died in South Carolina, including four in car accidents and two from carbon monoxide from a portable generator.
Officials urged those who had evacuated to stay away.
"Our roads are flooded, there is no access into Wilmington," New Hanover County Commission Chairman Woody White told a news conference. "We want you home, but you can't come yet."
In New Bern, a riverfront city near North Carolina's coast, the storm tore away porch steps, splintered balconies and sent a yacht plowing into a garage that shattered like kindling.
Anne Francis Coronado came back on Sunday to inspect the damage with her husband.
"There's mud all over the floor and the wood floors have buckled," she said, adding they planned to return to her brother's house because of the musty smell that pervades their home.
"We've been through hurricanes here but we've never had it come anywhere close to this," she said.
On a flooded road near New Bern, Bryan Moore and his nephew Logan decided to go swimming in the floodwaters after having spent days at home without electricity or running water.
"We were stir-crazy from being inside so long," Moore said. "Feels great. The water's really cool. ... We're just having a good old time out here, enjoying the weather."
In Leland, a low-lying city north of Wilmington, homes and businesses were engulfed by water that rose up to 10 feet (3 meters) over Highway 17, submerging stop signs in what local people called unprecedented flooding.
The sheriff's department and volunteers, including locals and some who came from Texas, rescued stranded residents by boat, extracting families, infants, the elderly and pets.
Gas stations were abandoned and fallen trees made many roads impassable. The whir of generators could be heard throughout the city, a sound not expected to dim soon as crews work to restore power.
More than 641,000 homes and businesses were without electricity in North and South Carolina and surrounding states, down from a peak of nearly 1 million.
Florence set a record in the state for rain from a hurricane, surpassing the previous record of 24 inches (61 cm) set by Hurricane Floyd, which killed 56 people in 1999, said Bryce Link, a meteorologist with private forecasting service DTN Marine Weather.
North Carolina officials warned motorists not to drive on major highways because of hazardous conditions in the southeastern part of the state.
The flooding could taint waterways with murky coal ash. But officials said the state's many lagoons of toxic hog waste had so far withstood the storm.
By Sunday afternoon, Florence's winds had dropped to about 35 miles per hour (55 kph), the National Hurricane Center said, with some weakening forecast over the next 24 hours before intensifying once again as an extratropical low-pressure center.The center of the storm was just west of Raleigh, the state capital, and moving north at 14 mph (22 kph), the hurricane center said.
It was expected to accelerate to the north on Sunday night and then turn eastward across southern New England on Tuesday.
The White House said President Donald Trump approved making federal funding available in some affected counties. Trump, who plans to visit the region this week, tweeted his condolences.
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny and Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Miami; Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York and Makini Brice in Washington; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frances Kerry, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)