Hurricane Florence starts to hit the Carolina coast with high winds and rushing seas

Updated at 7:15 p.m. ET

Hurricane Florence’s heavy rains and tropical-storm-force winds reached North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Thursday morning, leading the way for a storm packing 100-mph winds. Florence has weakened a bit over the past 24 hours, but it has grown larger and is likely to dump torrential rain over North and South Carolina through Monday.

Before noon on Thursday, a rush of ocean water had already invaded the streets on the southern end of North Carolina’s Hatteras Island, according to The Virginian-Pilot‘s Jeff Hampton, who said arterial roads were at risk of being impassable after water overwhelmed the dunes.

The storm’s sheer power is visible in live video from Frying Pan Tower, a onetime Coast Guard light station some 34 miles off the coast of North Carolina. The force of the wind has damaged the U.S. flag on the tower and is causing the ocean to churn.

“Little change in strength is expected before the eye of Florence reaches the coast, with weakening expected after the center moves inland or meanders near the coast,” the National Hurricane Center said. Florence is currently a Category 2 storm.

Despite the drop in wind strength, the most dangerous threat comes from Florence’s rains and storm surge, which could bring flooding far inland.

“The larger and slower the storm is, the greater the threat and impact, and we have that here,” NHC Director Ken Graham said Thursday. He added later, “Most of the fatalities in these tropical systems is water.”

Florence was about 85 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, N.C., at 7 p.m. Thursday, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm was moving westnorthwest at 5 mph with sustained winds of 105 miles per hour. It is currently predicted to make landfall near Wilmington and then head west across South Carolina.

According to NHC website,

“On the forecast track, the center of Florence will approach the coasts of North and South Carolina later tonight, then move near or over the coast of southern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina in the hurricane warning area on Friday. A slow motion across portions of eastern and central South Carolina is forecast Friday night through Saturday night.”

Florence’s large wind field will add to the perils as the storm grinds over beaches and inland. Hurricane-force winds extend out for 80 miles and the tropical-storm-force winds reach 195 miles out from the center.

“You’re going to have damaging winds for a longer period of time,” senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said in an update from the NHC. “So instead of maybe 120 mph winds for 30 minutes, you might end up with 90-100 mph winds for a couple of hours, or three or four hours. And that will produce a lot of damage as well as prolong the beach erosion.”

A hurricane warning is in effect for a big chunk of the Carolina coast, from the South Santee River below Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Duck, N.C. — part of the Outer Banks. The warning also includes Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, large bodies of water in North Carolina that could see significant flooding.

Despite the drop in maximum sustained winds, forecasters stress that this hurricane is not to be taken lightly. Hundreds of thousands of people have already evacuated. Officials are urging others in its path to follow suit or to prepare for the worst.

“Do not focus on the wind speed category of #Hurricane #Florence!” the National Hurricane Center said Thursday morning. “Life-threatening storm surge flooding, catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding are still expected.”

Eight entire counties and portions of others in North Carolina are under mandatory evacuation orders. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said some 421,000 people have evacuated in his state. Virginia has also issued evacuation orders.

McMaster said the window to flee is rapidly closing. “If you have not left these evacuation zones, you should leave now,” he said. “Because time is running out. And remember this — once these winds start blowing at that tropical storm rate, it will be virtually impossible for the rescuers to get in to rescue you.”

But some residents still say they plan to tough it out.

Vicki Moulson, who teaches at a local community college in the Outer Banks, said she is planning to ride out the hurricane because she wants to be near her home and her friends.

“We’re ready; I’ve been through probably 20 or more hurricanes living down here,” she told NPR’s Sarah McCammon. “I’ve been living down here for a really long time, so this one’s OK.”

Moulson said she initially planned to leave, but as the forecast for Florence weakened and shifted southward, she decided to stay. She said she is worried that if she evacuates, she’ll get caught up in the massive flooding that’s expected to affect the region. Emergency managers say people in evacuation zones should leave while they can.

Forecasters say Florence will very likely turn to the west-northwest and slow down its forward motion — a situation that will bring even more rainfall to the area. The storm’s 12-mph forward speed Thursday morning was a marked drop from Wednesday’s 17-mph speeds.

The storm surge — often the most perilous risk to life posed by any hurricane — is expected to inundate areas along the coast with saltwater that’s 9 to 13 feet deep, from Cape Fear, N.C., to Cape Lookout, N.C. A surge of at least 4 feet is predicted for a much larger area.

Calling the storm surge prediction “incredible,” Graham said that because Florence is likely to nudge its way onto the coast, giving its hurricane winds lots of time to force water inland, he wouldn’t be surprised “to see storm surge a mile, a mile and a half inland — maybe even 2 miles or more, in some cases.”

The latest rainfall projections warn of 20 to 40 inches of rain from coastal North Carolina into northeastern South Carolina — amounts that could bring “catastrophic flash flooding,” the hurricane center said. The rest of South and North Carolina, including cities from Charlotte to Raleigh, can expect 6 to 12 inches of rain — and up to 2 feet in isolated areas, the NHC warned. That forecast area also includes part of southwestern Virginia.

In addition to the hurricane’s obvious risks, the National Weather Service says, “A few tornadoes are possible in eastern North Carolina through Friday.”

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