With saturated soils and flooded roads, East Coast states were bracing for another day of dreary and possibly dangerous weather Friday as forecasters predicted more downpours and a possible added punch from powerful Hurricane Joaquin.
Two storm-related deaths have already occurred in the Carolinas, where heavy rain has fallen for days.
And the U.S. Coast Guard said it was searching for a cargo ship with 33 people aboard that went missing during the Category 4 storm.
The Coast Guard said the 735-foot (224-meter) ship named El Faro had taken on water and was listing at 15 degrees near Crooked Island, one of the islands in the Bahamas most battered by the hurricane.
Officials said they hadn't been able to re-establish communication with the vessel, which was traveling from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Coast Guard said the crew earlier reported it had been able to contain the flooding. No further details were immediately available.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Joaquin's threat to the U.S. East Coast was fading as new forecasts showed it likely to curve out into the Atlantic while moving north and weakening in coming days.
Governors declared states of emergency in at least five states as forecasters warned of flash floods from historic Charleston, South Carolina, to Washington, D.C. — regardless of whether Joaquin comes ashore or tracks farther out to sea.
“I know we like to focus on the hurricane,” said David Novak, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. But whatever track Joaquin takes, “we're becoming increasingly confident and concerned about the heavy rainfall.”
Streets and homes can still get walloped with rain and flooding associated with the hurricane even if it is 1,000 miles away, forecasters said. And because Joaquin can keep funneling tropical moisture into storm No. 1 from afar, even an out-to-sea Joaquin can worsen flooding.
The latest forecast track for the hurricane early Friday showed it was expected to stay off-shore as it moved northward over the coming days.
But the certainty of additional damaging rains and floods in coming days prompted governors to declare states of emergency in Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
The fatal unpredictability of the rain was shown when a Thursday morning downpour dumped 4 inches on Spartanburg, South Carolina, in a short time, causing flash floods that submerged several cars.
Authorities around the region have warned of saturated soil giving way to falling trees, which appears to have played a role in the death near Fayetteville, North Carolina. North Carolina Highway Patrol Lt. Jeff Gordon said the fatal crash happened on Interstate 95 about 1:30 p.m. when a tree fell across the road, hitting two vehicles.
Gordon says the passenger in one of the vehicles died, and the driver was taken to the hospital. There was no word on the survivor's condition, and the driver of the second vehicle was not hurt.
Gordon said the area has had a lot of rain in the past several days. The National Weather Service reported light rain and winds of about 10 mph around the time of the crash.
The Associated Press