WILMINGTON/SEA BREEZE, NC (Reuters): Hurricane Florence’s winds began whipping coastal North Carolina on Thursday as the slow-moving tempest began to unleash fierce rains that forecasters warned would cause catastrophic flooding across a wide swath of the US southeast.
The center of Florence is expected to hit North Carolina’s southern coast Friday, then drift southwest before moving inland on Saturday, enough time to drop as much as 40 inches (1 meter) of rain in places, according to the National Hurricane Center.
An estimated 10 million people live in the storm’s path, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center, and coastal businesses and homes were boarded up in anticipation. More than 1 million people had been ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia and thousands moved to emergency shelters, officials said.
Florence’s maximum sustained winds were clocked on Thursday at 105 miles per hour (165 kph) after it was downgraded to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the NHC. The winds had been as high as 140 mph earlier in the week when the storm had rated as a Category 4 major storm, but North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned against complacency because of the drop.
“Hurricane Florence was uninvited but she’s just about here anyway,” he said at a news conference. “My message today: Don’t relax. Don’t get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality.”
The storm’s center was about 145 miles (230 km) east of Wilmington, North Carolina, at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) but tropical storm-strength winds and heavy rains already were hitting North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands. Some 6,000 power outages had already been reported by 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).
Florence could bring wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 13 feet (4 meters) and NHC Director Ken Graham said on Facebook they could push in as far as 2 miles (3 km). Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachian mountains, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.