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"Threat becomes a reality": Hurricane Florence's onslaught begins

Hurricane Florence fast facts:

  • Hurricane Florence, a Category 2 storm, has started lashing North Carolina, with tropical storm-force winds carrying drenching bands of rainfall onto some beach communities
  • As of 8 p.m. ET, the storm is centered about 85 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 145 miles east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, moving northwest at 5 mph with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC)
  • Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 80 miles from Florence's center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 195 miles, NHC says
  • Forecasters don't expect the storm to strengthen before it moves ashore, but they say the real problem will be water as it lingers along the coast through Saturday
  • Nearly 1,500 flights canceled through Saturday; Duke Energy in the Carolinas anticipates 1 million to 3 million homes and businesses losing power
  • 1.7 million people are under mandatory and voluntary evacuations orders, and more than 10 million people live in places currently under storm watches or warnings

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- The big slosh has begun, and the consequences could be disastrous. The leading edge of Hurricane Florence battered the Carolina coast Thursday, bending trees and shooting frothy sea water over streets on the Outer Banks, as the hulking storm closed in with 100 mph winds for a drenching siege that could last all weekend. Tens of thousands are without power. The monster storm was moving in for a prolonged and potentially catastrophic stay along the Southeast coast that could drench the homes of as many as 10 million people.

Florence's top sustained wind speeds dropped from a high of 140 mph to 100 mph early Thursday, reducing Florence from a Category 4 to a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which rates hurricanes based on sustained wind speed.

Forecasters said conditions will only get more lethal as the storm smashes ashore early Friday near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and crawls slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said he knows many people are watching the changing storm predictions and categories, and he's concerned because some are even saying that "North Carolina is getting a break."

It's not.

"Please hear my message," he said. "We cannot underestimate this storm."

"Don't relax, don't get complacent. Stay on guard," he said. "This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality."

South Carolina's most popular tourist destination, North Myrtle Beach, is like a ghost town. It was nearly empty Thursday as the first bands of Florence approached. A few locals briefly walked into the sand, but were quickly sandblasted back by stiff winds. One man tried to skimboard, but gave up after a few minutes as winds from the land cut down the waves. He called the ocean "Lake Myrtle" as he walked back to his car.

Latest Hurricane Florence advisory from the National Hurricane Center

The hurricane center said in its 8 p.m. advisory Thursday that Florence is centered about 85 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 145 miles east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The storm has maximum sustained winds of 100 mph and is moving at a speed of about 5 mph. Hurricane-force winds are blowing 80 miles from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds reached up to 195 miles from the eye.

Hurricane-force winds are moving closer to North Carolina's Outer Banks and the southeastern part of the state, the NHC said.  Florence's center will approach the coasts of North and South Carolina later Thursday. It will move near -- or over -- the coast of southern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina in the hurricane warning area Friday.

"A slow motion across portions of eastern and central South Carolina is forecast Friday night through Saturday night," the center said.

Forecasters warned that Florence is deadly because of its size and slow forward speed.

"It truly is really about the whole size of this storm," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. "The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact -- and we have that."

The NHC said life-threatening storm surge and rainfall are expected. The storm is expected to push up to 13 feet of storm surge and dump water on both North and South Carolina. 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 could be what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago: catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses, farms and industrial sites.

Tornadoes also remain a threat. The NHC said it is possible "a few tornadoes" will hit eastern North Carolina through Friday.

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.      

FEMA urged people to have multiple ways to receive local weather alerts -- through a weather radio, phone and TV. It also warned against the spread of false information and said it created a "rumor control page" for Florence that will be regularly updated.

Hurricane Florence watches, warnings & evacuations

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, the NWS said. 

The NHC said in its advisory that the following watches and warnings are in effect: 

A Storm Surge Warning is in effect for:

  • South Santee River South Carolina to Duck North Carolina 
  • Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, including the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers

A Storm Surge Watch is in effect for:

  • Edisto Beach South Carolina to South Santee River South Carolina 
  • North of Duck North Carolina to the North Carolina/Virginia border

A Hurricane Warning is in effect for:

  • South Santee River South Carolina to Duck North Carolina 
  • Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds

A Hurricane Watch is in effect for:

  • Edisto Beach South Carolina to South Santee River South Carolina

A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for:

  • North of Duck North Carolina to Cape Charles Light Virginia 
  • Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort
  • Edisto Beach South Carolina to South Santee River South Carolina

More than 1.7 million people in North and South Carolina and Virginia were warned to clear out. In South Carolina alone, more than 421,000 people have evacuated, the state's governor, Henry McMaster, said Thursday afternoon.

At a news conference just before 3 p.m. ET, he urged those in evacuation zones to leave now "because time is running out, and remember this: once these winds start blowing at that tropical-storm rate, it will be virtually impossible for the rescuers to get in to rescue you."

"So if you have not left, if you are in a place of danger, if you are in these zones, now is the time to go because that window of opportunity is closing on you very quickly," he said. 

An emergency management official in one of the most populated areas of coastal North Carolina said Thursday afternoon that winds from the storm have arrived and other impacts won't be far behind. New Hanover County Emergency Management Director Steven Still said residents who didn't evacuate should expect 60 mph winds by Thursday n ight that would eventually increase to 100 mph or more. He said residents "can expect to have that wind to the tune of 100 mph-plus stay on us for considerable period of time."

He said landfall is expected around 8 a.m. Friday in the Wrightsville Beach area, and that the area could see 20 to 30 inches of rain and beaches could get 9 to 10 to feet of storm surge.

Thursday afternoon, North Carolina Gov. Cooper said more than 1 million people have evacuated. At least 12,000 evacuees have settled at 126 shelters in the region. He also said that 2,800 National Guard troops have been activated.

President Trump took to Twitter again Thursday 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."

Power outages along the coast

Power outages in North Carolina have increased as a weakened and slower Hurricane Florence moves closer to the coast. The two major electric utilities covering the state -- Duke Energy and Dominion -- and a consortium of electric cooperatives reported more than 80,000 customers without power as of early Thursday evening. That doesn't include numbers from dozens of city-operated electricity providers.

Almost two-thirds of the reported outages originated in Carteret County, along the coast about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northeast of Wilmington, North Carolina. There were also several thousand outages each in Craven, Pamlico and Onslow counties.

The numbers are expected to soar as the storm's winds and torrential rains sweep over more land. Duke anticipates 1 million to 3 million of their 4 million customers in the Carolinas will lose power from Florence.

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."

Hurricane Florence

A spray painted message is left on a boarded up condominium as the outer bands of Hurricane Florence being to affect the coast on Thu., Sept. 13, 2018, in Atlantic Beach, N.C.

Getty

Hurricane Florence affecting flights & car travel 

Airlines canceled about 1,200 flights and counting. As of Thursday afternoon, total cancellations within, into or out of the U.S. was 603 for the day, while 650 flights were cancelled for Friday, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.

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.

Hurricane Florence

Lisa Evers and her daughter Amanda Hamilton decorate their storm shutters before evacuating ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Oak Island, N.C., on Wed., Sept. 12, 2018.

Reuters

South Carolina said 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 prepares for Hurricane Florence

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.

Four storms churning in the Atlantic

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 they are now monitoring a fourth storm that is far out in the Atlantic. That storm is Subtropical Storm Joyce. It has maximum sustained winds of 40 mph and is moving southwest near 6 mph.