Flooding began in North Carolina on Thursday, as massive Hurricane Florence slowed down and its outer bands lashed towns on the barrier islands and on some of the Tar Heel State’s rivers.
In Morehead City, the rain and surf pounded the shoreline and took aim at the few boats still in the water. In New Bern, on the Neuse River, a CNN correspondent had to keep shifting position in a park as the water kept rising. Farther south, in Carolina Beach, the northern end of the town was being swamped.
Some areas also saw the first of the hurricane-force winds that cover more than 15,000 square miles — larger than the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
The area covered by hurricane-force winds doubled Thursday — meaning far more people will get blasted with winds topping 73 mph.
“If you’re going to leave — and you should leave, if you haven’t left yet — you should leave now. … Time is running out,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Thursday afternoon.
What also makes Florence extremely dangerous are the deadly storm surges, mammoth coastal flooding and historic rainfall expected far inland.
And don’t be fooled by the fact that Florence has weakened slightly to a Category 2 hurricane. Categories only represent the speed of sustained winds, and these are still destructive.
“I don’t care if this goes down to a Category 1. We’re still going to have a Category 4 storm surge,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Even worse: Florence is expected to hover over the Carolinas, whipping hurricane-force winds and dumping relentless rain at least through Saturday.
“It’s not going to take much in a lot of these areas to saturate the soil, so trees are going to come down really easily” and knock down power lines, said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center.
• Florence is getting closer: As of 8 p.m. ET Thursday, the center of Florence was about 85 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 145 miles east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As the storm moves inland, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland will also be in peril. The storm’s forward speed had slowed to 5 mph and forecasters are concerned it might have stalled.
• When is landfall? Florence’s center will approach the North and South Carolina coasts late Thursday and Friday. The actual landfall — when the center of the eye reaches land — will be Friday afternoon at the earliest, said Neil Jacobs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
• Widespread power outages: More than 88,000 homes and businesses are without power, the North Carolina Emergency Management agency said.
• Tornadoes are possible: A few twisters are likely later Thursday through Friday in southeast North Carolina, federal forecasters predicted.
• Many flights are canceled: More than 1,300 flights along the US East Coast have been canceled through Friday.
Millions either flee or prepare for mayhem
The tropical cyclone is expected to unload 10 trillion gallons of rainfall in North Carolina, weather.us meteorologist Ryan Maue said. That’s enough to fill more than 15 million Olympic-size swimming pools.
Now, many more people and houses are set to endure hurricane-force winds, which extend 80 miles out from Florence’s center.
“It’s cumulative damage,” Myers said. When fierce winds keep up for a long time, homes are “going to start to deteriorate. So will the trees. So will the power lines, as the trees fall down.”
In the North Carolina town of Rodanthe, on Hatteras Island, Rebecca Well Hooper shot video of the pier early Thursday afternoon.
“There is some damage … but it is still standing strong. There is overwash but nothing we are not used to,” she said.
Despite days of warnings to evacuate, some residents are staying put — even if they don’t want to.
Cheryl Browning lives with her husband and son, who has terminal cancer, in Richlands, North Carolina. They also have three dogs and three parrots.
Browning’s choice to stay in the hurricane warning zone wasn’t easy, she said, but she “could not find anywhere to go.”
“Either no (hotel) rooms are available, or we are denied because the breed or size of dogs,” she said. “Many that will accept them only allow one per room. And since we have three dogs and three parrots, they’re requesting us to purchase two to six rooms.”
And there’s no way her family could afford that — or the $1,728 per room another hotel quoted. Other residents have told CNN they’re not evacuating because emergency shelters won’t accept pets.
“Since my husband retired and my health declined, we have his retirement as an income. He is the only caregiver to me and my son,” Browning said. “So since we can’t find anything within our means … we’ve opted to stay.”
Her neighbors gave her the key to their house, which is two stories and might be safer from flooding, she said. It’s a kind gesture but doesn’t alleviate Browning’s fear.
“I’m not going to lie: I’m scared,” she said. “But I think it’ll be OK.”
Thousands bunk in shelters
More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate — but the window to do so is almost over.
“Inland flooding kills a lot of people. … Please keep that in mind,” and consider leaving soon, Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said midmorning Thursday.
More than 6,700 people spent Wednesday night in 127 Red Cross and community shelters in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, Red Cross spokeswoman Stephanie Rendon said.
In North Carolina, Florence is expected to dump up to 40 inches of rain and storm surge will be high.
“Catastrophic effects will be felt outside the center of the storm due to storm surge,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday morning. “Tens of thousands of structures are expected to be flooded, and many more by rising rivers and creeks.”
In Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina, Mikey Zalloum of Uncle Mikey’s Brick Oven Pizza sweated as he worked feverishly to make pies Thursday night.
His bustling pizza restaurant is one of the few businesses open in the evacuated town.
Why is he open when the town is mostly evacuated? He said he has been through this many times in his 15 years in the Myrtle Beach area and that “nothing is going to happen.”
He said he usually doesn’t make the pizzas himself, but he was on Thursday because “everybody is scared,” including most of his staff.
Emergencies declared in several states
Officials in several states have declared states of emergency, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.
Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac is forecast to approach the Lesser Antilles Islands on Thursday. Hurricane Helene is veering toward Europe. And newly formed Subtropical Storm Joyce is not expected to threaten land soon. Those four storms are brewing at the same time that Hurricane Olivia is pounding Hawaii.