Updated at 10:53 a.m. ET
Hurricane Florence is blasting toward the Carolinas, carrying sustained winds of up to 130 mph and the threat of “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall,” the National Hurricane Center says.
A hurricane warning – meaning hurricane conditions are expected within 36 hours — is in effect for a long stretch of the coast, from the Santee River in South Carolina to Duck, N.C., which is part of the Outer Banks.
Hurricane conditions will likely hit the area around North Carolina’s southern coast on Friday, but tropical storm conditions will arrive on Thursday, according to the hurricane center.
“Disaster is at the doorstep and is coming in,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said. “If you are on the coast, there is still time to get out safely.”
The time to prepare for the storm is almost over, he said.
Shortly before 11 a.m. ET, Florence was 485 miles southeast of Wilmington, N.C., moving northwest at 15 mph, the National Hurricane Center says.
The threat has sparked a rush of evacuation efforts in South Carolina and North Carolina, with more than a million people urged to get out of Florence’s way. Governors of those states have already declared states of emergency, as have the governors of Virginia and Maryland.
Forecasters have adjusted Hurricane Florence’s projected path, saying that after it makes landfall, it is likely to take a more southerly route than expected. Rather than pushing up toward western Virginia, the storm’s center is now predicted to move across the middle of South Carolina.
For a swath of the North Carolina shore from Cape Fear to Cape Lookout, the storm surge could range from 9-13 feet, the NHC said. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., and nearby areas, the surge could hit 6-9 feet.
“An Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft that was in the hurricane until just after midnight” recorded a wind gust of around 150 mph, according to the hurricane center. Florence is currently heading for ocean water with surface temperatures of around 85 degrees, meaning it will likely strengthen on its way to the East Coast.
Even with some weakening that’s predicted just before it makes landfall, the storm “is expected to remain a dangerous major hurricane as it approaches the coastline,” the hurricane center said.
This incredible loop from #GOESEast shows Hurricane #Florence churning in the Atlantic. The storm is strengthening rapidly and is expected to become a major hurricane very soon. Latest: https://t.co/LdMJC4oIds pic.twitter.com/AqMr0P2Ogm
— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) September 10, 2018
Satellite images show the storm has maintained a distinct eye and is well organized. Its maximum sustained winds are expected to top 145 mph before losing some steam near the coast. Current forecasts call for Florence to be at least a Category 3 storm when it arrives at the Carolinas.
“Rather than a very narrow and intense band of winds, the winds are slightly weaker – but [they] cover a much larger area,” the NHC’s senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said on Wednesday. “So Florence is kind of spreading out, becoming a much larger, more stable hurricane.”
Florence is predicted to turn more toward the northwest by this afternoon and through Thursday — but then it’s expected to head more west-northwest, and stall a bit over the Carolinas. As the hurricane center says, “Florence is expected to slow down considerably by late Thursday into Friday, and move slowly through early Saturday.”
The slow movement, combined with the massive amount of moisture this storm holds, will bring dangerous rains — from 20 to 30 inches in coastal North Carolina, with 40 inches possible in isolated areas, the weather service says. In South Carolina and inland parts of North Carolina, 5 to 10 inches of rain could fall, with 20 inches possible in some areas.
“This rainfall would produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding,” the hurricane center says.
On Wednesday morning, Florence was extending hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 70 miles from its center, with tropical storm-force winds up to 175 miles outward. With that much size and strength, even a glancing blow from Florence could be devastating – something forecasters stressed as they noted the shift in Florence’s predicted track.
“Just because we have a landfall to your south, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods, because the winds are huge around this system,” NHC Director Ken Graham said, pointing out the wide risk of flooding.
To back up that point, Graham cited a sobering statistic: “50 percent of the fatalities in these tropical systems is the storm surge — and that’s not just along the coast. It goes well inland.”
Another 25 percent of deaths are related to rain, he said.