Hurricane Florence lost a little of its punch as it crept toward the Carolinas late Thursday but the worst of the slow-moving and massive system loomed just off the coast: surging seas and torrential rain that could threaten state records and lives.
The wider but weaker storm, its winds dropping to 100 mph according to a 10 p.m. update from the National Hurricane Center, spun just 50 miles south of Morehead City, N.C., sweeping the coast with steady hurricane force winds and what could be days of drenching rain.
There were already widespread early impacts. At least 60,000 people had lost power in North and South Carolina and that number was rising by the hour. Atlantic Beach, N.C., had recorded a foot of rain with way more to come. The NHC said waters were quickly rising on the western side of Pamlico Sound, a sprawling salt water lagoon dotted with picturesque towns. A government weather station at Cape Lookout, N.C., recorded sustained winds of 83 mph and a gust of 101 mph — and Florence’s strongest core still remained hours away.
The eye of the Category 2 storm was expected to make landfall sometime Friday but the massive storm won’t likely leave the Carolinas until late Sunday or Monday. At nearly 400 miles across, surging seas could flood much of the coast throughout the evening, and push water nearly two miles inland in some places.
Band after band of rain over the days could compound the deluge and lead to dangerous flash floods as the storm churns inland.
“I keep repeating this and I’ll say it again. Most of the fatalities in these tropical systems are from water,” National Hurricane Center Direct Ken Graham said.
Thursday afternoon, flooding had already made some roads and highways impassable in eastern Carolina. Conditions, forecasters said, were going to rapidly get worse. In the Neuse River, one gauge already recorded water 6 feet above normal, the NHC said. In New Bern, a small town along the river, the overflow was filling some streets
The storm’s achingly slow pace — at 10 p.m. it had slowed to 5 mph — could produce up to 40 inches of rain in some coastal areas before Florence heads inland and north across the Appalachian mountains, spreading more rain and potentially deadly flash flooding.
As the storm rolled ashore, nearly 1.7 million people had been ordered to evacuate in South and North Carolina and Virginia. Airports were shut down, schools shuttered, and highways eerily quiet. More than 17,000 had sought refuge by Thursday evening in about 160 shelters open in the Carolinas. North Carolina’s governor summoned 2,800 National Guardsmen. University students were told to go home.
“Don’t relax. Don’t get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill,” Gov. Roy Cooper said, fearful that the reduced wind speed would ease concerns. “I’ve heard some people say North Carolina is getting a break. Hear my message: we cannot underestimate this storm.”
In Washington, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long, a North Carolina native who rode out Hugo as a child at home, warned that Florence could be the worst in Carolina history.
“Storm surge is why many of you have been placed under evacuation and we’re asking citizens to please heed a warning,” he said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement vowed not to detain or arrest immigrants fleeing the storm or seeking shelter.
“Our highest priority remains preservation of life and safety,” spokesman Bryan Cox said in an email.
In the days leading up to the storm, forecasters warned that the Carolinas and parts of Virginia could get hammered by a powerful hurricane driving ashore dangerous surges. On Tuesday sustained winds climbed to Cat 4 strength of 140 mph as the storm churned west. Winds began to weaken Wednesday, but the storm also broadened, widening its dangerous reach.
Numerous rivers along the Carolina coast, including the Neuse and Pamlico that empty near the Outer Banks, make it particularly vulnerable to flooding. If surging seas arrive at high tide, water flowing down river is blocked and rivers flow backwards. Heavy rain can drive them over their banks.
In 1999, Floyd unleashed a 500-year flood in North Carolina after a 10-foot storm surge rolled ashore. Some rivers rose more than 20 feet. The storm killed 35. Ten years earlier, Hurricane Hugo slammed South Carolina as a Cat 4 storm with a 20-foot storm tied.
“If you’re going to leave,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Thursday, “you should leave now because time is running out.”
Some heeded the warning.
“I remember doing this a lot as a little kid,” Joel Sullivan, 30, said as he walked near the pier on Atlantic Beach with his three children for one last look at the arriving storm. “I just wanted them to see the power of the waves and everything.”
Sullivan planned to evacuate to Goldsboro with his 7-year-old twins and a 5-year-old later Thursday.
Others defiantly planned on staying put.
“I was born and raised here,” Gary Hamm said as he tried to feed money into a Wilmington ice machine before giving up and heading home empty-handed. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
Duke Energy, the region’s largest electric supplier, estimated that 75 percent of its customers, or 3 million, could lose power and Thursday evening announced plans to shut down two reactors at its Brunswick plant, which is required when sustained winds reach 75 mph. Tens of thousands were already in the dark before Florence has made landfall, a swath from the outer banks of North Carolina to Spartanburg, S.C. Smaller utilities in South Carolina also warned customers to expect outages and delays. Duke said it had 20,000 workers on standby, many from other states, ready to restore power once Florence passed.
Heavy rain also raised fears over potential hazards from flooded coal ash pits and hog farms where manure is flushed into large, open pits.
Nearly two dozen ash pits are located between South Carolina and Virginia, with one near the Cape Fear river in North Carolina plagued by repeated cracks. After Hurricane Matthew, the flooded Neuse River washed coal ash from the Lee Power Plant near Goldsboro. North Carolina also has more than 2,000 hog farms, the Associated Press reported. After Floyd, dozens of poop pits overflowed and spilled their sickly contents, AP said.
By Thursday evening, Florence had slowed from a crawl to a stop as its waning and waxing eye began to reorganize itself. And the longer it stalls, emergency officials worried, the worse the damage.
“It’s not until Monday and Tuesday that we finally get this system out of here,” Graham said. “The problem is in the wake, a lot of rainfall and a lot of river flooding and a lot of issues.”
This story was compiled from McClatchy papers in North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer; and in South Carolina, The State in Columbia, the Beaufort Gazette,The Island Packet in Hilton Head and The Sun News in Myrtle Beach; and supplemented with wire service reports.