MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Time is running short to get out of the way of Hurricane Florence, a monster of a storm that has a region of more than 10 million people in its potentially devastating sights as it zeroes in on the Southeastern coast.
Forecasters said wind speeds have dropped from a high of 140 mph to 110 mph, reducing it from a Category 4 storm to a Category 2, and additional fluctuations and weakening were likely as it swirled toward land. But authorities warned Florence has an enormous wind field that has been growing larger, raising the risk of the ocean surging on to land and making Florence extremely dangerous.
“Do you want to get hit with a train or do you want to get hit with a cement truck?” said Jeff Byard, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The National Hurricane Center’s best guess was that Florence would blow ashore as early as Friday afternoon around the North Carolina-South Carolina line, then slog its rainy way westward with a potential for catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses and farm fields.
About 5.25 million people live in areas under hurricane warnings or watches, and 4.9 million live in places covered by tropical storm warnings or watches, the National Weather Service said.
Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said Florence eventually could strike as merely a Category 1 hurricane with winds less than 100 mph, but that’s still enough to cause at least $1 billion in damage. Water kills more people in hurricanes than wind, and he said it will still be an extremely dangerous storm for rain and storm surge.
The hurricane center is forecasting the storm to hover near the coast Saturday with winds of around 80 mph before landfall, but with rainfall in the 20 to 30 inches range and up to 13 feet of storm surge.
President Donald Trump both touted the government’s readiness and urged people to get out of the way. “Don’t play games with it. It’s a big one,” he said at the White House.
Leaving the area
It’s unclear exactly how many people fled, but more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out. Airlines had canceled nearly 1,000 flights and counting. Home Depot and Lowe’s activated emergency response centers to get generators, trash bags and bottled water to stores before and after the storm. The two hardware chains said they sent in a total of around 1,100 trucks.
Duke Energy, the nation’s No. 2 power company, said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks. Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm’s aftermath, it said.
In Virginia, where about 245,000 residents were ordered to evacuate low-lying areas, officials urged people to remain away from home despite forecast changes showing Florence’s path largely missing the state.
Their entire neighborhood evacuated in Wilmington, North Carolina, David and Janelle Garrigus planned to ride out Florence at their daughter’s one-bedroom apartment in Charlotte. Unsure of what they might find when they return home, the couple went shopping for a recreational vehicle.
“We’re just trying to plan for the future here, not having a house for an extended period of time,” David Garrigus said.