Hurricane Florence set to hit U.S. East Coast as 1 million flee and mayors declare states of emergency

Hurricane Florence churned Tuesday toward the U.S. Eastern Seaboard as a storm of "staggering" size, forcing a million people to evacuate their homes along the coast. Many more were left to wonder where they might be safe if days of torrential rains unleash floods from the mountains to the sea.

"This one really scares me," U.S. National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham warned.

Florence is so wide that a life-threatening storm surge was being pushed 480 kilometres ahead of its eye, swirling clouds that could deluge states from South Carolina to Ohio and Pennsylvania as it slows and then stalls over land.

"You're going to get heavy rain, catastrophic life-threatening storm surge, and also the winds," Graham said.

U.S. President Donald Trump says the federal government is "absolutely, totally prepared" for "a storm that is going to be a very large one, far larger than we have seen in perhaps decades."

Trump plans to request recovery funds from Congress for rebuilding after the hurricane. In a briefing Tuesday, he praised the co-operation between different levels of government responding to the disaster and said the U.S. government's much criticized response to deadly hurricanes in Puerto Rico were "an incredible unsung success." 

Sustained winds were 215 km/h 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 coastal waters.

The storm is currently around 650 km south of Bermuda and is moving at 26 km/h.

'Extremely life-threatening'

The eye of the massive storm is forecast to make landfall late Thursday or early Friday along a stretch of coastline already saturated by rising seas, and then meander for days. Seven-day rainfall totals are forecast to reach 25 to 50 centimetres over much of North Carolina and Virginia, and even 75 centimetres in some places.

Jim Carter and Rob Quinn board up Lagerheads Tavern in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., as they prepare for Hurricane Florence. (Ken Blevins/The Star-News via Associated Press)

Combined with high tides, the storm surge could swell as high as 3.7 metres.

"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 [3.7 metres] (of water). That, folks, is extremely life-threatening."

Mayors of Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina have declared states of emergency.

'Get ready now'

The director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that power in areas affected by the hurricane could be off for weeks. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said his state is "in the bull's-eye" and urged people to "get ready now."

This image provided by NOAA shows Hurricane Florence, third from right, on Tuesday as it threatens the U.S. East Coast. At right is Hurricane Helene, and second from right is tropical storm Isaac. (NOAA/Associated Press)

The very centre of that bull's-eye may be Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine Corps training base, where authorities were opening emergency operation centres, 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 leave in time.

Florence could hit the Carolinas harder than any hurricane since Hazel packed 209 km/h 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.

High waves 

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 3.7 metres at high tide from Cape Fear to Cape Lookout in North Carolina. A hurricane watch was in effect for Edisto Beach, S.C., to Virginia's southern border, with the first hurricane-force winds arriving late Thursday.

Trump speaks with reporters about Hurricane Florence after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

For many people, the challenge could be finding a safe refuge: If Florence slows to a crawl, it could bring torrential rains into the Appalachian mountains, causing flash floods and mudslides across a region getting 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.

Duke Energy spokesperson Ryan Mosier said operators would begin shutting down nuclear plants at least two hours before hurricane-force winds arrive.

All signs pointed to a stronger, slower, wider and wetter hurricane in the days ahead, forecasters said.

Category 5 scenario

A warm ocean gives hurricanes their fuel, and Florence is moving over an area with water temperatures nearing 30 C, hurricane specialist Eric Blake wrote. With little wind shear to pull the storm apart, hurricane-strength winds have been expanding to 64 kilometres from the eye of the storm, and tropical-storm-force winds 240 km from the centre. Information gathered Tuesday by a hurricane-hunting aircraft suggests it will intensify again as it nears the coast, approaching the 253 km/h threshold for a worst-case Category 5 scenario.

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.

Preston Guiher carries a sheet of plywood as he prepares to board up a Wells Fargo bank in preparation for Hurricane Florence in downtown Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday. (Mic Smith/Associated Press)

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.

Liz Browning Fox was planning to ride out the storm with her mother and brother in the Outer Banks, defying evacuation orders. The 65-year-old, who lives in the village of Buxton, said her house was built in 2009, up on a ridge, and made to withstand a hurricane. But even the most secure homes could be surrounded by water, or penetrated by wind-launched debris, officials warn.

"You never know, there could be tree missiles coming from any direction," she said. "There is no way to be completely safe," but going inland might not be much safer. "I don't know where to go from here."

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