RALEIGH, N.C. — As Hurricane Florence churned toward an eventual Eastern Seaboard landfall, evacuations were imposed for parts of three East Coast states Tuesday and millions of Americans prepared for what could become one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to hit the region in decades.
Hurricane Florence’s size is “staggering,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned.
“We could cover several states easily with the cloud cover alone,” Graham said. “This is not just a coastal event.”
There was little change in Florence’s track during the 11 a.m. forecast from the National Hurricane Center. Sustained winds were 130 mph (215 kph) Tuesday morning, but it remains a Category 4 storm and is expected to intensify to near Category 5 status as it slows over very warm ocean water near North and South Carolina.
The storm is currently around 400 miles south of Bermuda and is moving at 16 mph (26 kph).
The center of the massive storm is forecast to make landfall along a stretch of coastline already saturated by rising seas and then meander Thursday, Friday and Saturday, inundating several states and triggering life-threatening floods.
Seven-day rainfall totals are forecast to reach 10 to 20 inches over much of North Carolina and Virginia, and even 30 inches in some places. Combined with high tides, the storm surge could swell as high as 12 feet.
“The water could overtake some of these barrier islands and keep on going. With time, the wind pushes the water into every nook and cranny you can think of,” Graham said. “All you have to do is look up at your ceiling, and think about 12 feet (of water). That, folks, is extremely life-threatening.”
President Donald Trump declared states of emergency for North and South Carolina, facilitating federal help, and canceled campaign events Thursday and Friday, citing the storm.
“Please be prepared, be careful and be SAFE!” Trump tweeted, adding: “WE are here for you.”
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said his state is “in the bullseye” and urged people to “get ready now.”
The very center of that bullseye may be Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine Corps training base, where authorities were opening emergency operation centers, staging equipment and urging families on the base to build survival kits with food and equipment needed to sustain themselves for 72 hours.
Mandatory coastal evacuations were in effect for civilians in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, but the military base posted on Facebook that different chains-of-command would decide whether to release non-essential personnel, and some relatives vented fears that they wouldn’t be able to evacuate in time.
Worse than Hazel
Florence could hit the Carolinas harder than any hurricane since Hazel packed 130 mph (209 kph) winds in 1954. That Category 4 storm destroyed 15,000 buildings and killed 19 people in North Carolina. In the six decades since then, many thousands of people have moved to the coast.
Ahead of Florence’s arrival, barrier islands were already seeing dangerous rip currents and seawater flowed over a state highway — the harbinger of a storm surge that could wipe out dunes and submerge entire communities.
Watches in effect Tuesday forecast a storm surge of up to 12 feet at high tide from Cape Fear to Cape Lookout in North Carolina. A hurricane watch was in effect for Edisto Beach, South Carolina, to Virginia’s southern border, with the first hurricane-force winds arriving late Thursday.
For many people, the challenge could be finding a safe refuge: If Florence slows to a crawl, it could bring torrential rains all the way into the Appalachian mountains and as far away as West Virginia, causing flash floods, mudslides and other dangerous conditions in places that have already experienced lots of rain recently.
“This is going to produce heavy rainfall, and it may not move very fast. The threat will be inland, so I’m afraid, based on my experience at FEMA, that the public is probably not as prepared as everybody would like,” said Craig Fugate, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Florence’s projected path includes half a dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous hog farms that store animal waste in massive open-air lagoons.
All signs pointed to a stronger, slower, wider and wetter hurricane in the days ahead, forecasters said.
Two other storms were spinning in the Atlantic as the 2018 hurricane season reaches its peak. Isaac became a tropical storm again approaching the Caribbean, while Hurricane Helene was veering northward, no threat to land.
In the Pacific, Olivia became a tropical storm again on a path to hit the Hawaiian islands early Wednesday.
Airlines, including American, Southwest, Delta and JetBlue, have begun letting affected passengers change travel plans without the usual fees.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said an estimated 1 million people would be fleeing his state’s coast, many of them using Interstate 26 on normally eastbound lanes that were reversed to accommodate the exodus. He later lifted the mandatory evacuation order for three counties along the state’s southern coast as models showed the storm coming ashore farther to the north. Gov. Ralph Northam’s evacuation order applies to about 245,000 people, including parts of the Hampton Roads area and Eastern Shore, and evacuations remained mandatory along North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Jennifer Kay in Miami; Jeffrey Collins and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.