Storm is generating winds of 110mph as more than 1.5m people ordered to evacuate from areas of North and South Carolina
By Erin Durkin | The Guardian | September 13, 2018
Forecasters have warned that Hurricane Florence remains a deadly weather event as wind and rain lashed North Carolina in the first signs of the storm’s arrival near land early on Thursday.
Florence was downgraded to a category 2 hurricane, from a category 4, but was still generating sustained winds of 105mph and expected to cause “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall”, according to the National Hurricane Center.
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More than 1.7 million people have been ordered to evacuate from coastal areas. Officials issued a stark warning on Thursday for those who choose to remain in their homes that emergency response units will not rescue them if they find themselves in an emergency in the height of the storm.
“We cannot underestimate this storm,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday. “Storm surge and massive flooding – both are going to be extreme. Catastrophic effects will be felt outside the center of the storm,” Cooper said. “We’re on the wrong side of this thing. This storm will bring destruction to North Carolina.”
As of 11am Thursday, the storm was located about 145 miles southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina and 195 miles east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and continued to make its way towards the east coast.
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Hurricane conditions were expected to arrive in the affected areas on Thursday night or early Friday. Tornadoes also remain a threat, particularly in areas north-east of the hurricane’s eye.
“We are completely ready for Hurricane Florence, as the storm gets even larger and more powerful. Be careful!” Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday morning.
About 10 million people live in areas covered by hurricane and tropical storm warnings, and 1.7 million were ordered to evacuate, though not all of them heeded those warnings and some insisted on staying put and riding out the storm.
Cooper said that even as wind speeds slowed, the hurricane’s breadth got wider, warning of “battering winds and relentless rain that will last for days.”
Camp Lejeune prepares to take in people fleeing Hurricane Florence in Jacksonville, North Carolina, on Wednesday. Photograph: EPA
The state has opened 108 shelters, where more than 7,000 people are currently hunkered down, and schools in 56 districts are closed, according to the governor.
He said residents should not drive during the peak of the storm and should avoid driving through flooded roads. “That puts your life in danger,” he said.
The mayor of Myrtle Beach said her city had done as much as it can to prepare for Hurricane Florence.
Brenda Bethune told NBC’s Today show on Thursday morning that public safety crews have been checking to make sure businesses were secure, and looking for anything that could become a projectile as the winds come ashore.
But the mayor said she knew many people were ignoring evacuation orders. She hoped they would stay inside once the winds, rain and floods arrive.
She warned people against going outside and taking pictures, because emergency crews would not be able to reach them in the storm.
In Wilmington, North Carolina, the Wrightsville Beach police chief, Dan House, said a handful of residents on the island had refused evacuation orders. He advised that they “better go ahead and give me your next of kin” information, because no one will rescue them at the height of the storm.
The police chief said he was not going to put his staff in harm’s way, especially for people told to evacuate. The latest forecast shows the eye of Florence could pass directly over the barrier island, pushing a huge surge of ocean water.
Florence was moving toward the coast at a speed of 10mph, and the hurricane center forecasts the center of the storm will approach the coasts of North and South Carolina later Thursday, then move near or over the coast of southern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina Thursday night and Friday. It is expected to progress slowly over eastern South Carolina Friday night through Saturday night.
Forecasters predicted storm surges up to 13ft (4 meters) in parts of coastal North Carolina, and the storm could dump 20 to 30in (50-76cm) of rain in the hardest hit areas – and even up to 40in in isolated spots.
“This rainfall would produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding,” the hurricane center said. Areas further from the coast could see six to 12in of rain.
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Power outages are expected, with Duke Energy, the main supplier in the area, warning that three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas could lose electricity. Outages could take weeks to repair, according to the company.
Florence has sparked fears of an environmental disaster, because its path is lined with hog manure pits, coal ash dumps and other industrial sites, as well as six nuclear power plants.
On North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island , a group of wild horses were left to fend for themselves as most humans evacuate the island, according to the Greenville News. Experts said that with some extra hay, they expected the 15 horses descended from Spanish mustangs could weather the storm.
The storm has also kicked up waves as high as 83ft.
Ken Graham, director of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, said areas that repeatedly get hit even with weaker winds at Florence’s edges could see heavy rainfall for hours. Storm surge flooding also could push two miles or more inland if Florence lingers for days along the coast.