It has been downgraded to a Category 1 storm, but forecasters say Hurricane Florence is still capable of delivering a lethal punch.
“This storm will bring destruction,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. “Catastrophic effects will be felt.”
The outer bands of Hurricane Florence began battering the coast of North and South Carolina Thursday with strong winds and rain. It is forecast to make landfall near Cape Fear, North Carolina, at midday Friday.
The National Hurricane Center said late Thursday that Florence has brought a life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds to the North Carolina Coast.
The center said the threat of freshwater flooding will increase over the next several days. North Carolina will likely see eight months’ worth of rain in two to three days, said National Weather Service forecaster Brandon Locklear in a video briefing.
As of late Thursday, the hurricane center said Florence was 95 kilometers southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, with top sustained winds of 150 kilometers per hour (90 mph).
It is the storm’s movement and not its strength that has forecasters and officials worried.
Florence is moving toward land at 9 kilometers per hour (6 mph), giving it more time to churn, suck up water, batter the coast, and bring massive amounts of rain inland.
Forecasters predict as much as 101 centimeters (40 inches) of rain for some parts of North Carolina and storm surges as high as 4 meters — taller than many houses.
“This rainfall will produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding,” the hurricane center said.
Tornadoes are also possible.
At least 150,000 people were without power in North Carolina early Friday with the brunt of the storm yet to come, according to utility companies. Millions were expected to lose power from the storm and restoration could take weeks.
At least 12,000 people had taken refuge in 126 emergency shelters, Governor Cooper said, with more facilities being opened.
Ken Graham, director of the hurricane center, said on Facebook the storm surges could push in as far as 3 kilometers (2 miles). Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachian Mountains, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Some refuse to evacuate
The Pentagon has dispatched two ships and a Marine unit offshore to provide help if needed. It has also moved most ships, submarines and planes out their base at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to safety far at sea or in distant airbases.
Rescue helicopters and trucks that can navigate floodwaters are also standing by.
Officials say anyone who has not heeded mandatory evacuation orders is on his own.
“The idea of having to leave with my two cats and go somewhere for a week or more … once you leave, you don’t know how many days it will be before you can return,” a Wilmington resident named Kate tells VOA.
Another Wilmington resident said she does not want to leave because she is afraid to see what she would be coming back to.
The police chief of Wrightsville Beach suggested that those who decided to stay give him their next-of-kin contact information.
President Donald Trump has said protecting lives is his “absolute highest priority” and that the White House is standing by to offer affected states whatever help they ask for.
“We’ll handle it. We’re ready. We’re able,” he said. “We’re fully prepared. Food, medical, everything you can imagine, we are ready.”
Florence is forecast to significantly weaken as it crawls across central South Carolina Saturday. But residents inland are warned to expect life-threatening floods and should plan to be without power for days.
Parts of the Mid-Atlantic states can also expect heavy rains from what is left of Florence well into next week.
Reuters contributed to this report.