Hurricane Florence ‘will likely be the storm of a lifetime’

Hurricane Florence is forecast to pause late this week just off North Carolina’s coast and turn left — a development that would still smash the Tar Heel State with life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds and inundating rain while putting more of South Carolina in greater danger.

“This is not going to be a glancing blow. … This is going to be a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast” from Thursday into the weekend, Federal Emergency Management Agency associate administrator Jeff Byard said Wednesday morning.

“Today is the last good day to evacuate,” he warned.

Florence, one of the strongest storms on the Eastern Seaboard in decades, is a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 125 mph. It is predicted to deliver tropical-storm-force winds by noon Thursday to North Carolina’s coast, and hurricane-force winds and dangerous storm surges by late Thursday or early Friday.

The hurricane weakened from a Category 4 Wednesday afternoon, but some fluctuations in strength are expected through Thursday, and Florence still is expected to be “an extremely dangerous major hurricane when it nears” the US coast late Thursday and Friday, the hurricane center says.

TRACK THE STORM

Forecast models predict Florence’s center will pause just off North Carolina late Friday and make a southward turn, and it may not make landfall until roughly Saturday.

“More people are involved in this now, especially even Myrtle Beach, because the storm was not (previously) forecast to turn left toward you,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said Wednesday morning.

Latest developments

Location: By 11 a.m. Wednesday, the storm was about 485 miles southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph.

FOLLOW LIVE UPDATES

The punishing pause: Florence’s predicted pause and slow southward turn off North Carolina on Friday means some coastal areas will get damaging hurricane-force winds for more than 24 hours. “If this blows at 120 mph for four hours, … you lose a shingle every two minutes, and all of the sudden, you’ve lost your whole roof after four hours,” Myers said.

Rain and storm surges: The storm’s circulation could bring life-threatening storm surges, up to 13 feet, to the front-right quadrant of storm — covering much of North Carolina’s coast — and those effects also could extend to South Carolina, if the storm stalls and turns left as predicted. Up to 40 inches of rain could fall, bringing possible catastrophic flash flooding to parts of the Carolinas through early next week, with heavy rain also likely in the Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic states, the National Hurricane Center said.

Don’t stare at the eye: “We can’t focus on the eye on this thing, because (Florence is) 150 miles wide from one side to the other,” and tropical-storm-force winds extend up to 175 miles from center, Myers said.

‘Storm of a lifetime’: Florence is expected to weaken Thursday, but it’s still forecast to be a dangerous hurricane as it reaches the coast. “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,” the National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina, said late Tuesday.

Residents flee as storm gets closer

More than 1 million people are under mandatory evacuations in the Carolinas and Virginia.

Hurricane and storm surge warnings are in place from South Santee River, South Carolina, to Duck, North Carolina. Hurricane warnings are issued 36 hours before tropical-storm-force winds hit the areas. Storm surge warnings indicate a danger of life-threatening inundation from rising water moving inland from the coastline during the coming 36 hours.

As Florence closed in, some residents weighed whether to ride it out.

In Wilmington, Richard King, 64, said Wednesday morning that he, his wife and perhaps 60 of their neighbors planned to stay. His home, built 1 mile inland in 2016, is raised 25 feet off the ground and is built to withstand 140-mph winds, he said.

“We’re a good community up there. We’re going to stay tight and check on everybody,” he said.

By contrast, 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, she said. The five adults, six children, plus a dog and a cat planned to leave their homes Wednesday.

The adults packed irreplaceable items, such as photo albums and heirlooms, while the kids stuffed their favorite toys, blankets and books into 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.”

No rescues for people who stay, mayor warns

Just south of Wilmington, the coastal town of Carolina Beach is under a mandatory evacuation — but officials there think about 100 people will try to ride out the storm there. And those leaders aren’t happy about it.

Those who stay will be on their own once water starts to rise and wind speeds reach 50 mph — long before hurricane-force winds reach the coast, Town Manager Michael Cramer said.

“Many of our emergency personnel vehicles are high-top vehicles. They have potential for rollover. We have high water here,” Cramer told CNN Wednesday morning. “I won’t send people out to risk their lives for people who didn’t heed the warnings. … They’ll be there basically all alone until that threshold is met again and we have winds under that speed.”

‘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 said. He’s staying put — for now.

“Once you leave, (it’s) 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.”

Meantime, residents along the coast boarded up their homes, lined up at gas stations and emptied supermarket shelves.

In South Carolina, Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune took note of the forecasts’ shift toward her state Wednesday and urged people to evacuate.

“We have urged our public safety, police and fire (personnel) to get some rest,” she said. “We will be asking a lot of them, I’m sure.”

Emergencies declared in several states

The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that storm surge watches and warnings are in effect Wednesday 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.

Florence’s expanse has even captured the attention of the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station, who have been tweeting pictures of the storm back to Earth.

“Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye,” German astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted. “Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you.”

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, Gov. Henry McMaster said.

Residents in hurricane evacuation zones had until noon Tuesday to evacuate. McMaster ordered the closure of schools and state government offices for nonessential personnel in affected areas.

Some schools in inland counties will be used as shelters, and officials urged families with pets to board them with veterinarians, kennels or other facilities in nonvulnerable areas.

“Pets are not allowed inside Red Cross evacuation shelters,” McMaster said.

North Carolina officials evacuated long-term care facilities and hundreds of prisoners in vulnerable areas, and also closed state parks, museums and other attractions.

In Virginia, mandatory evacuations began Tuesday for about 245,000 residents in a portion of the Eastern Shore area.

Florence could have devastating impacts in Virginia, including storm surges, inland flooding, downed trees and power outages, Gov. Ralph Northam said.