Hurricane Florence roared toward the Southeast coast early Wednesday as officials warned the more than 1 million people in its path to get out of the way or face its wrath.
“This storm is … nothing like you’ve ever seen,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said. “Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don’t bet your life on riding out a monster.”
The Category 4 hurricane is one of the strongest hurricanes on the eastern seaboard in decades, the National Weather Service said. It’ll affect more than 300 miles of coastline, and bring dangerous storm surge and rainfall to parts of the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic states.
Before it makes landfall Friday morning, it’ll pound the Carolina coasts with massive winds Thursday. More than 1 million people are under mandatory evacuations in the Carolinas and Virginia, and about 30 million across the Southeast will be affected if the current forecast holds, CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said.
The National Weather Service described “unbelievable damage” expected from wind and storm surge.
“This will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast, and that’s saying a lot given the impacts we’ve seen from Hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd and Matthew,” it said.
• Shifting focus: The hurricane’s impacts will ripple through the southeastern United States, including Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia.
• Still moving: By late Tuesday night, the storm was about 670 miles (1075 km) southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina. It had maximum sustained winds of 140 mph (220 km/h).
• Warnings and alerts: The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning from South Santee River, South Carolina, to Duck, North Carolina. Hurricane warnings are issued 36 hours before tropical storm force winds hit the areas.
• Expected landfall: The center of Florence will approach the coast of North Carolina or South Carolina in the hurricane warning area Thursday and Friday, the National Hurricane Center said.
•’Extremely dangerous’: Florence’s weakening is expected Thursday, but it’s still forecast to be “an extremely dangerous major hurricane through landfall.”
• Rain and storm surges: Life-threatening storm surges — up to 13 feet — are expected along the coasts, and up to 35 inches of rain could fall through early next week over parts of the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic states.
Residents flee as storm gets closer
As the hurricane inched closer, some residents wondered whether to stay or flee. Allison Jones said she’s not taking any chances.
Her home in Hillsborough, North Carolina, is at risk for flooding, and her family and nearby relatives will ride out the storm in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The five adults, six children, and a dog and a cat, will leave their homes Wednesday.
The adults packed irreplaceable items such as photo albums and heirlooms while the children stuffed their favorite toys, blankets and books in their bags.
“Honestly, it tears me up thinking that what if in the end of this, this is all we have left,” Jones said. “I wish I had more time to sort through and grab more of the sentimental items.”
‘My home is all my wife and I have’
Tim Terman’s house in Southport, North Carolina, is about 20 feet above sea level. He’s planning to stay put — for now.
“Once you leave, hard to get back in to check on damage,” he said. “My home is all my wife and I have, materially speaking, a lifetime of stuff.”
Residents along the coast boarded up their homes, formed long lines at gas stations and emptied shelves at supermarkets as they prepared for Florence’s arrival.
On Ocracoke Island along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Kelley Shinn and her partner packed their Jeep with clothes and other things and took a ferry to the mainland. From there, they headed to her father’s home in Ohio.
“It’s surreal to think we may have nothing to go home to,” she said. “We’ve never left for a storm before. But a storm surge of 20 feet could easily wipe this island out.”
The mayor of Carolina Beach, a small town near Wilmington with a permanent population of about 6,300, said he believes half of the community’s residents have stayed on the island.
States of emergency declared in several states
The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that storm surge watches and warnings are active for the entire North Carolina coast and parts of South Carolina. It urged residents to heed evacuation orders.
Officials in several states have declared states of emergency, including Virginia and Maryland where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.
“We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said, noting that Florence could cause catastrophic flooding in his state.
Traffic redirected away from the coast
In South Carolina, traffic in all lanes of Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia has been directed away from the coast, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said.
Traffic also has been directed away from the coast on parts of US 501, McMaster said. Some schools in inland counties will be used as shelters and some school buses used in evacuation efforts.
Families with pets were urged to board them with veterinarians, kennels or other facilities in nonvulnerable areas.
“Pets are not allowed inside Red Cross evacuation shelters,” McMaster said.
In Virginia, mandatory evacuations began Tuesday for about 245,000 residents in a portion of the Eastern Shore area.