WILMINGTON, N.C. — Hurricane Florence already has inundated coastal streets with ocean water and left tens of thousands without power, and forecasters say conditions will only worsen as the hulking storm slogs inland.
Screaming winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence’s leading edge whipped the Carolina coast Thursday to begin an onslaught that could last for days, leaving a wide area under water from both heavy downpours and rising seas.
The storm’s intensity diminished as it neared land, with winds dropping to around 90 mph by nightfall. But that, combined with the storm’s slowing forward movement and heavy rains, had Gov. Roy Cooper warning of an impending disaster.
“The worst of the storm is not yet here but these are early warnings of the days to come,” he said. “Surviving this storm will be a test of endurance, teamwork, common sense and patience.”
Cooper requested additional federal disaster assistance in anticipation of what his office called “historic major damage” across the state.
More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm began buffeting the coast, and more than 12,000 were in shelters. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.
Prisoners were affected, too. North Carolina corrections officials said more than 3,000 people were relocated from adult prisons and juvenile centers in the path of Florence, and more than 300 county prisoners were transferred to state facilities.
Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it’s unclear how many did. The homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.
A buoy off the North Carolina coast recorded waves nearly 30 feet high as Florence churned toward shore.
Once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 mph, the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 1 on Thursday night.
Forecasters said that given the storm’s size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.
The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.