Ferocious Hurricane Florence marched relentlessy toward the U.S. East Coast on Tuesday, a massive storm threatening record rains and historic flooding as more than 1 million people flee the anticipated devastation.
“This storm is a monster. It’s big and it’s vicious,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday. “The time to hope Hurricane Florence away is gone.”
The first rain bands could reach the Carolinas and Virginia on Wednesday, forecasters said. Hurricane-force winds could reach the mainland by Thursday evening. North Carolina was the most likely target for landfall, but states of emergency were also declared in South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
An ominous 2 p.m. update from the National Hurricane Center reported that Florence was driving maximum sustained winds of almost 130 mph, a Category 4 storm out of a possible Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. The update warned that the storm would strengthen and be an “extremely dangerous, major hurricane” through Thursday.
“This storm is not going to be a glancing blow,” FEMA Associate Administrator for Response and Recovery Jeff Byard said Tuesday. “This storm is going to be a direct hit.”
A “major” hurricane is one with sustained winds of more than 110 mph. Any Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane is classified as a major hurricane.
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Florence is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 15 to 20 inches in some areas and possibly 30 inches in isolated locations along the storm’s track, the hurricane center said.
The storm was less than 850 miles east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, heading west-northwest at 17 mph. Florence was forecast to roll across the southwestern Atlantic between Bermuda and the Bahamas through Wednesday before approaching the coast of North Carolina or South Carolina on Thursday or Friday.
If Florence stalls, some areas could see record storm rainfalls. Record flooding could reach into Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, forecaster said.
“It doesn’t matter if it hits as a Category 3 or Category 4 storm, it’s going to be a huge storm with major flooding, major storm surge,” AccuWeather lead hurricane forecaster Dan Kottlowski said. “Major hurricanes cause major damage.”
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Hurricane storm-surge watches were issued from Edisto Beach, South Carolina, to the North Carolina-Virginia border.
In North Carolina, officials in coastal Dare and Hyde counties ordered a mandatory evacuation for everyone, tourists and residents. The exodus slowed to a crawl in some areas amid heavy traffic and roads awash with early storm surge.
Donnie Shumate, Hyde County’s public information officer, warned residents to get off the barrier island of Ocracoke as soon as possible.
“Ocracoke hasn’t seen anything in recent memory like the amount of storm surge this storm could bring,” she said. “And Ocracoke has been through a lot of hurricanes.”
The University of North Carolina and North Carolina State were among schools shutting down in advance of the storm.
“All students are strongly encouraged to leave the Chapel Hill area before the storm hits,” UNC said on its website. “Anyone who is traveling out of the path of the storm should do so no later than Wednesday evening.”
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster rolled back mandatory evacuation orders as computer models nudged landfall into North Carolina. Still, hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists were fleeing coastal areas. In Myrtle Beach, Mayor Brenda Bethune urged residents to heed the evacuation call.
“I realize this is a huge inconvenience,” she said. “But I also ask you to take this storm seriously. No life is worth taking a risk.”
At a gas station in North Myrtle Beach, Sandra Dews said she was staying in her neighborhood because she was scared she would not be able to get back in after the storm. Dews is a survivor of Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall in the state two years ago as a Category 1 storm.
“I rode out Matthew,” she said. “It will be a little worse.”
Concerns about the monster storm extended into Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a mandatory evacuation to begin Tuesday for 245,000 people in parts of the Hampton Roads area and the eastern shore.
Late Sunday and early Monday, the hurricane roared from a Category 1 (90 mph) to a Category 4 (130 mph) in just 13 hours, an extremely quick intensification, Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach said. That’s the most rapid hurricane intensification since Hurricane Humberto in 2007, he said.
The hurricane center’s description of a Category 4 hurricane begins with “catastrophic damage will occur.” The center warns that such storms will snap or uproot most trees and down power poles. Power can be out in some areas for weeks or months.
In addition to Florence, Tropical Storm Isaac and Hurricane Helene are also spinning far out in the Atlantic Ocean. While Helene is forecast to slide out to sea, Isaac should barrel into the Caribbean by Friday.
Yet another tropical system is also gathering strength in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico and could threaten Texas later in the week.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Tropical Storm Olivia is forecast to hit Hawaii on Wednesday, where tropical storm warnings are in effect.
Contributing: Ledyard King, USA TODAY; Nikie Mayo and Daniel Gross, THE USA TODAY NETWORK