WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) – The big slosh has begun, and the consequences could be disastrous.
Hurricane Florence’s leading edge battered the Carolina coast Thursday, bending trees and shooting frothy sea water over streets on the Outer Banks, as the hulking storm closed in with 100 mph (155 kph) winds for a drenching siege that could last all weekend.
Forecasters said conditions will only get more lethal as the storm pushes ashore early Friday near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and makes its way slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.
Waves slam the Oceana Pier & Pier House Restaurant in Atlantic Beach, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the area. (Travis Long /The News & Observer via AP)
Florence’s winds weakened as it drew closer to land, dropping from a peak of 140 mph (225 kph) earlier in the week, and the hurricane was downgraded from a terrifying Category 4 to a 2.
But North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned: “Don’t relax, don’t get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality.”
Forecasters said that given the storm’s size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.
“It truly is really about the whole size of this storm,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. “The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact – and we have that.”
The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as sluggish and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.
As Florence drew near, President Donald Trump tweeted that FEMA and first responders are “supplied and ready,” and he disputed the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico, claiming the figure was a Democratic plot to make him look bad.
Schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia, airlines canceled about 1,200 flights and counting, and coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely emptied out.
Around midday, Spanish moss blew sideways in the trees as the winds increased in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City. Some of the few people still left in Nags Head on the Outer Banks took photos of angry waves topped with white froth. By early afternoon, utilities reported about 12,000 homes and businesses had lost power.
Wilmington resident Julie Terrell was plenty concerned after walking to breakfast past a row of shops fortified with boards, sandbags and hurricane shutters.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m probably a 7” in terms of worry, she said. “Because it’s Mother Nature. You can’t predict.”
Forecasters’ European climate model is predicting 2 trillion to 11 trillion gallons of rain will fall on North Carolina over the next week, according to meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com. That’s enough water to fill the Empire State Building nearly 40,000 times.
More than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate over the past few days, and the homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.
Homeless after losing her job at Walmart three months ago, 25-year-old Brittany Jones went to a storm shelter at a high school near Raleigh. She said a hurricane has a way of bringing everyone to the same level.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how many generators you have if you can’t get gas,” she said. “Whether you have a house or not, when the storm comes it will bring everyone together. A storm can come and wipe your house out overnight.”
Duke Energy Co. said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks. Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm’s aftermath, it said.
As of 5 p.m., Florence was centered about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Wilmington, its forward movement slowed to 5 mph (7 kph). Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles (315 kilometers).
Scientists said it is too soon to say what role, if any, global warming played in the storm. But previous research has shown that the strongest hurricanes are getting wetter, more intense and intensifying faster because of human-caused climate change.
Florence’s weakening as it neared the coast created tension between some who left home and authorities who worried that the storm could still be deadly.
Frustrated after evacuating his beach home for a storm that was later downgraded, retired nurse Frederick Fisher grumbled in the lobby of a Wilmington hotel several miles inland.
“Against my better judgment, due to emotionalism, I evacuated,” said Fisher, 74. “I’ve got four cats inside the house. If I can’t get back in a week, after a while they might turn on each other or trash the place.”
Authorities pushed back against any suggestion the storm’s threat was exaggerated.
The police chief of a barrier island in Florence’s bulls’-eye said he was asking for next-of-kin contact information from the few residents who refused to leave.
“I’m not going to put our personnel in harm’s way, especially for people that we’ve already told to evacuate,” Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said.
Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Jeffrey Collins in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Jennifer Kay in Miami; Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina; Sarah Rankin and Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Skip Foreman in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jeff Martin in Hampton, Georgia; David Koeing in Dallas; Gerry Broome at Nags Head, North Carolina; and Jay Reeves in Atlanta contributed to this report.
For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes
Michael and Polly Long walk down East Bay St. past a sign asking for Hurricane Florence to spare the Lowcountry in Charleston, S.C., as Hurricane Florence spins out in the Atlantic ocean Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
A bike rider makes her way down East Bay St. past a sign asking for Hurricane Florence to spare the Lowcountry in Charleston, S.C., as Hurricane Florence spins out in the Atlantic ocean Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
With most people off work and it looking like the Charleston, S.C., area will be spared from destructive winds many people biked to Dunleavy’s Pub, one of the few open restaurants, on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., as Hurricane Florence spins out in the Atlantic ocean Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Pedestrians pass a sign at the Harbour View Inn asking for Hurricane Florence to spare the Lowcountry in Charleston, S.C., as Hurricane Florence spins out in the Atlantic ocean Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Waves crash under the Avalon Fishing Pier in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Mostly deserted, much of downtown Charleston, S.C. is boarded up and closed on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 in advance of Hurricane Florence. (Matthew Fortner/The Post And Courier via AP)
Police patrol past boarded up shops along the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
An onlooker checks out the heavy surf at the Avalon Fishing Pier in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
New Hanover Sheriff’s Corp. N. Brothers wraps a gas pump for protection in Wilmington, N.C., as Hurricane Florence threatens the coast Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
In this Sept. 12, 2018 photo provided by NASA, Hurricane Florence churns over the Atlantic Ocean heading for the U.S. east coast as seen from the International Space Station. Astronaut Alexander Gerst, who shot the photo, tweeted: “Ever stared down the gaping eye of a category 4 hurricane? It’s chilling, even from space.” (Alexander Gerst/ESA/NASA via AP)
Allen Cahoon and Toby Bryant load a generators for a customer Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 at Big Blue Store in Kinston NC.. (Janet S. Carter/Daily Free Press via AP)
Plywood covers the doors of the Chef and the Farmer on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 as the city awaits Hurricane Florence. (Janet S. Carter/Daily Free Press via AP)
Sam Kim and Donald Walker tape up the windows Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 at Sam’s Hair and Beauty Supply in Kinston, N.C., ahead of Hurricane Florence. (Janet S. Carter/Daily Free Press via AP)
An onlooker checks out the heavy surf at the Avalon Fishing Pier in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Heavy surf crashes the dunes at high tide in Nags Head, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Police patrol past boarded up shops along the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Body surfer Andrew Vanotteren, of Savannah, Ga., crashes into waves from Hurricane Florence, Wednesday, Sept., 12, 2018, on the south beach of Tybee Island, Ga. Vanotteren and his friend Bailey Gaddis said the waves have gotten bigger and better every evening as the storm approaches. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
This enhanced satellite image made available by NOAA shows Hurricane Florence off the eastern coast of the United States on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 at 5:52 p.m. EDT. (NOAA via AP)
Filling sandbags with sand provided by the City of Tybee Island, Sib McLellan, left, and his wife, Lisa McLellan, prepare for Hurricane Florence, Wednesday, Sept., 12, 2018 on Tybee Island, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Vickie Grate, left, waits in a shelter with her son Chris, center, and his girlfriend Sarah, who only gave their first names, for Hurricane Florence to pass after evacuating from their nearby homes, in Conway, S.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Members of law enforcement work with the National Guard to direct traffic onto U.S. Highway 501 as Hurricane Florence approaches the East Coast Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, near Conway, S.C. Time is running short to get out of the way of Hurricane Florence, a monster of a storm that has a region of more than 10 million people in its potentially devastating sights. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Misty Murphrey and Jean Sugg place sand bags outside of White Allen on McLewean Street in Kinston Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 as the city awaits Hurricane Florence. (Janet S. Carter/Daily Free Press via AP)
Gwen Patterson watches as waves crash ashore at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Va., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the coast. (Jonathon Gruenke/The Daily Press via AP)
New Hanover Sheriff’s deputy J. Brown wraps a gas pump for protection in Wilmington, N.C., as Hurricane Florence threatens the coast Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Fishermen launch a boat as they attempt to recover their haul-seine fishing net, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Virginia Beach, Va., as Hurricane Florence moves towards the eastern shore. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Waves from Hurricane Florence pound the Bogue Inlet Pier in Emerald Isle N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Tom Copeland)
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