WILMINGTON, N.C. – A massive rainstorm drenched the East Coast from the Carolinas to Maine on Thursday, washing out commutes and wiping away months of dry weather.

The storm flooded parts of coastal North Carolina, driving some people from their homes, and snarled train, air and car traffic in the Northeast. Tornado watches extended from the Outer Banks to New Jersey.

The hardest rain fell in North Carolina, where Jacksonville picked up 12 inches of rain — nearly a quarter of its typical annual rainfall — in the six hours between 3:30 and 9:30 a.m.

The rain was blamed for a car crash that killed four people on U.S. 64 east of Creswell, N.C. Officials said a Jeep Cherokee carrying five people hit a patch of standing water, hydroplaned and skidded off the highway into the ditch.

In Maryland, authorities said 26 people, including high school students, were hurt after a Metro bus rear-ended another bus from the Washington-area transit system in pouring rain.

The rain was part of a system moving ahead of the remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole, which dissipated over the Straits of Florida on Wednesday.

“This is more like what you’d expect from a tropical system. But this is not a tropical system. It’s just a storm with a deep feed coming straight off the Atlantic,” said Hal Austin, a meteorologist with the Nationa Weather Service’s Newport, N.C., office.

Schools in North Carolina were closed and some farther north planned to cancel classes today so students wouldn’t have to travel on flooded roads.

Forecasters expected heavy winds to spread up the coast, possibly toppling trees and power lines made unstable by the saturated ground.

The winds were also churning up big waves that were eating away at a “living shoreline” of rocks, sand and grasses built this year on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, said Bob Gilbert from his waterfront home in Churchton, south of Annapolis.