WILMINGTON, North Carolina - Hurricane Matthew’s torrential rains triggered severe flooding in North Carolina on Sunday as the deteriorating storm made its exit to the sea, and thousands of people had to be rescued from their homes and cars. The death toll in the U.S. climbed to at least 18, nearly half of them in North Carolina.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory says eight people have died after Hurricane Matthew smacked the state with torrential rains and authorities are searching for five people.

Four deaths were blamed on the storm in Florida, four in Georgia, and two in South Carolina.

While Matthew’s wind speed had dropped considerably by the time it hit the Southeast coast, the storm will still go down as one of the most potent hurricanes on record, based on such factors as wind energy and longevity, and one of the most long-lived major hurricanes, too.

It was a major hurricane - that is, with winds of at least 110 mph - for 7.25 days.

The storm, which killed more than 500 in Haiti before it pounded the East Coast for days, was stripped of hurricane status just before daybreak, but the crisis - set off by downpours of more than a foot - was far from over.

“As the sun rises in North Carolina and the blue sky returns, our state is facing major destruction and, sadly, loss of life,” McCrory said as the effects of Saturday’s deluge became clearer at daylight.

Rivers and creeks overflowed, driving people from their homes and trapping others as much as 100 miles inland. The unofficial rainfall totals were staggering: 18 inches in Wilmington, 14 inches in Fayetteville and 8 inches in Raleigh.

McCrory said police and emergency crews had made more than 880 water rescues. In the Fayetteville area alone, rescue crews saved nearly 600 people from the rapidly rising floodwaters, officials said.

The governor said that four people were missing in the Fayetteville area and that the full scale of the disaster was not yet known because the flooding continued overnight and there were many places that search teams had not yet reached.

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

Most of the deaths happened when vehicles were swept away by floodwaters.

About 100 guests and workers had to be evacuated from a Comfort Inn motel in the North Carolina coastal town of Southport after the hurricane cracked a wall and left the roof in danger of collapse, authorities said. And dramatic video showed Fayetteville police rescuing a woman and her small child from their car as rising waters swallowed it.

CBS Raleigh affiliate WNCN-TV reports the mom told her rescuers that the driver of the vehicle had abandoned her and the baby as the waters rose.

Shortly before daybreak, the hurricane was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone. As of 11 a.m. EDT, the storm was centered about 100 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, moving out to sea. It still had hurricane-force winds of 75 mph.

Forecasters said North Carolina and Virginia could get even more rain and warned of the danger of life-threatening flooding through Monday night.

“Stay home. Most of your church services have been cancelled. There’s no reason to go out. Take the day off,” Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson said.

Matthew killed more than 500 people in Haiti last week, plowing into the desperately poor country at 145 mph. The fearsome storm then sideswiped hundreds of miles of the U.S. coastline from Florida through Georgia and the Carolinas, its eye staying far enough offshore that the damage in many places was relatively modest, consisting mostly of flooded streets, flattened trees and blown-down signs and awnings.