The outer bands of wind and rain from a weakened but still deadly Hurricane Florence began lashing North Carolina on Thursday as the monster storm moved in for an extended stay along the Southeastern coast, promising to drench the homes of as many as 10 million people with immense amounts of rain.
Florence’s top sustained wind speeds dropped from a high of 140 mph to 110 mph early Thursday, reducing Florence from a Category 4 to a Category 2 hurricane.
Florence was downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane and is approaching North and South Carolina. Forecasters don’t expect it to strengthen before it moves ashore, but they say the real problem will be water as it lingers along the coast through Saturday.
Florence is a “large hurricane,” with hurricane-force winds extending outward up to 80 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 195 miles, National Hurricane Center (NHC) says
“It truly is really about the whole size of this storm,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham says. “The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact — and we have that.”
As of 8 a.m. ET, Florence was centered about 170 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 220 miles east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, moving northwest at about 12 mph with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph.
More than 10 million residents in North and South Carolina and Virginia are under storm watches or warnings; About 5.25 million people live in areas under hurricane warnings or watches, and 4.9 million more live in places covered by tropical storm warnings or watches, National Weather Service says
North Carolina State governor says the storm’s arrival will be an ‘extremely dangerous situation’ and urged locals to leave.
Coastal North Carolina felt the first bite of Hurricane Florence on Thursday as winds began to rise, a prelude to the slow-moving tempest that forecasters warn could cause catastrophic flooding across parts of the US southeast.
The centre of Florence is expected to hit North Carolina’s southern coast on Friday, then drift southwest before moving inland on Saturday, enough time to drop feet of rain, according to the National Hurricane Centre.
Businesses and homes in the storm’s path were boarded up and thousands of people moved to emergency shelters, officials said, urging anyone near the coast to flee. Millions were expected to lose power, perhaps for weeks.
“There is still time to leave,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told CBS This Morning on Thursday. “This is an extremely dangerous situation.”
Florence’s maximum sustained winds were clocked on Thursday at 175km/h (110mph), according to the NHC.
If it stalls over land, downpours and flooding would be especially severe. Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachians, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
The storm will be a test of President Donald Trump’s administration less than two months before elections that will determine control of Congress and after severe criticism for its handling of last year’s Hurricane Maria, which killed some 3,000 people in Puerto Rico.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of disaster response, has come under investigation over his use of government vehicles, Politico reported on Thursday.
Emergency preparations included activating more than 2,700 National Guard troops, stockpiling food, setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so major roads led away from shore, and securing 16 nuclear power reactors in the Carolinas and Virginia.
Some in Wilmington could not resist getting one last look at their downtown before the storm hit.
“We just thought we’d go out while we still can,” said Amy Baxter, on a walk near the city’s waterfront with her husband, two sons and dog.
Baxter and her family plan to ride out Florence at home with board games and playing cards. “We live in a house that’s more than 100 years old,” she said. “We feel pretty safe.”
The National Hurricane Center’s best estimate was that Florence’s eye would blow ashore as early as early Friday around the North Carolina-South Carolina line. Then, it will likely hover along the coast Saturday, pushing up to 13 feet of storm surge and dumping water on both states. The forecast calls for as much as 40 inches of rain over seven days along the coast, with the deluge continuing even as the center of the storm slogs away over the Appalachian Mountains.
The result: catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses, farm fields and industrial sites.
The forecast track throws Georgia into potential peril, as well, as Florence moves inland. On Wednesday afternoon, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency.
President Trump took to Twitter again Thursday morning to warn about Florence, urging people to be careful and saying “we are completely ready” for the storm. On Wednesday, he said, “Don’t play games with it. It’s a big one.”
We are completely ready for hurricane Florence, as the storm gets even larger and more powerful. Be careful!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
The NHC said life-threatening storm surge and rainfall are expected. Forecasters warned that Florence is deadly because of its size and slow forward speed. Water causes the most deaths during tropical storms and hurricanes, and Florence is expected to cause dangerous flooding.
Hurricane #Florence Advisory 56A: Now available on the NHC website. — National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic).
The NHC said “little change” in strength is expected before the center of the storm reaches the U.S. coast, “with weakening expected after the center moves inland.”
It is unclear exactly how many people fled, but more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out. Airlines canceled nearly 1,000 flights and counting. Home Depot and Lowe’s activated emergency response centers to get generators, trash bags and bottled water to stores before and after the storm. The two hardware chains said they sent in a total of around 1,100 trucks.
Duke Energy, the nation’s No. 2 power company, said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks. Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm’s aftermath, it said.
Boarding up his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Chris Pennington watched the forecasts and tried to decide when to leave. “In 12 or 18 hours, they may be saying different things all over again,” he said.
Hurricane Florence could inflict the hardest hurricane punch North Carolina has seen in more than 60 years. In 1954, the state was hit by a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Hazel.
“Hazel stands as a benchmark storm in North Carolina’s history,” said Jay Barnes, author of books on the hurricane histories of both North Carolina and Florida. “We had a tremendous amount of destruction all across the state.”
Flight-tracking service FlightAware said Wednesday it was starting to see airlines file cancellations for airports in Florence’s path. As of early Thursday, total cancellations within, into, or out of the U.S. was 584 for the day, while 475 flights were cancelled for Friday, it said.
CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reported this week that people living in the barrier island community of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, were bracing for a possible direct impact. Long lines formed at service stations, and some started running out of gas as far west as Raleigh, with bright yellow bags, signs or rags placed over the pumps to show they were out of order. Some store shelves were picked clean.
“There’s no water. There’s no juices. There’s no canned goods,” Kristin Harrington said as she shopped at a Wal-Mart in Wilmington.
South Carolina said Wednesday night that it is planning to end the reversal of some interstate lanes that were switched to help move people away from the state’s coast. Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith told reporters that, starting Thursday at 6 p.m., officers will close Interstate 26 lanes that had been switched from eastbound to westbound to move people away from the Charleston area toward the center of the state.
Many officers are on the road during lane reversals, manning each exit and ensuring drivers don’t drive around barricades. The change allows agencies like Smith’s to pull back their officers when tropical storm-force winds are expected to arrive in the state.
West Virginia agencies are mobilizing to respond to problems arising from the storm. The governor’s office said in a new release the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management activated its emergency operations center Wednesday. The statement said 50 National Guard members are prepared to assist in locations across the state.
Nearly 70 tractor-trailer loads of supplies have arrived at the Guard’s 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg. In June 2016, a series of thunderstorms pelted a wide swath of West Virginia. Nine inches of rain fell in 36 hours in some areas, leaving 23 dead statewide and destroying thousands of homes, businesses and infrastructure.
The NWS forecast said up to 4 inches of rain is possible in parts of the state through next week.
Florence is the most dangerous of four tropical systems in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac was expected to pass south of Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, while Hurricane Helene was moving northward away from land.
NHC announced Wednesday night that they are now monitoring a fourth storm in the Atlantic, which they have named Subtropical Storm Joyce. It is located 910 miles west-southwest from the Azores and is moving at about 6 mph with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph.
Federal officials begged residents to put together emergency kits and have a plan on where to go.
“This storm is going to knock out power days into weeks. It’s going to destroy infrastructure. It’s going to destroy homes,” said Byard, the FEMA official.