'Disaster at the doorstep' as Hurricane Florence evacuations expand
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Hurricane Florence, growing in size despite its weakening winds, churned ever closer to the US East Coast on Wednesday as evacuations expanded south from the Carolinas into Georgia to counter the threat of deadly high seas and calamitous floods.
The centre of Florence, no longer classified as a major hurricane but still posing a grave threat to life and property, is expected to strike North Carolina's southern coast on Friday, then drift southwest along the shoreline before moving inland on Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) in Miami.
The storm's maximum sustained winds were clocked at 120 miles per hour (193 km per hour), down from a peak of 140 mph a day earlier before, before it was downgraded to a Category 3, then a Category 2, on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of wind strength.
"While Florence has weakened below major hurricane intensity, the wind field of the hurricane continues to grow in size," the NHC said in its latest bulletin.
A long stretch of the US Eastern Seaboard remained vulnerable to hurricane and tropical storm conditions, from Georgia north through the Carolinas into Virginia. And Florence remained capable of unleashing rain-fueled catastrophic flooding of rivers and low-lying areas across a wide region.
"The time to prepare is almost over," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a morning news conference. "Disaster is at the doorstep and it's coming in."
In addition to inundating the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 9 feet (2.7 metres) along the Carolina coast, Florence could dump 20 to 30 inches (51-76 cm) of rain, with up to 40 inches (1 metre) in parts of North Carolina, the NHC said.
Downpours and flooding would be especially severe, lasting for days, if the storm stalls over land.
Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachians, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Tens of thousands of homes and businesses could be flooded in North Carolina alone, Governor Cooper warned.
Hurricane and storm surge warnings for #Florence remain in effect from South Santee River, South Carolina, to Duck, North Carolina, including Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. Tropical storm force winds are likely to start along the NC coast Thursday morning. https://t.co/mQ5e78uj7a? pic.twitter.com/8m3iGPC2q5National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) 12 September 2018
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, concerned the storm would bring its devastation south, issued an emergency declaration for all 159 counties in his state. Similar declarations were made earlier in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate the coastlines of the Carolinas and Virginia. By late Wednesday, authorities in North Carolina reported nearly 7,000 evacuees staying in 71 emergency shelters throughout the state.
Millions in harm's way
An estimated 10 million people live in areas expected to be placed under a hurricane or storm advisory, according to the US Weather Prediction Center.
Emergency preparations in the region included activating 2,800 National Guard troops in North Carolina, stockpiling food, setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so major roads led away from shore, and securing 16 nuclear power reactors in the Carolinas and Virginia.
This morning, a high definition camera outside of the @Space_Station captured a stark and sobering view of #HurricaneFlorence as it churned across the Atlantic with winds of 130 miles an hour. Take a closer look: https://t.co/IWZCzy2ZLV pic.twitter.com/9gIJ8PA8ngNASA (@NASA) 12 September 2018
The US Coast Guard said it closed the ports of Wilmington and Moorehead City in North Carolina and restricted port operations in Charleston, South Carolina. All seven of North Carolina's ferry routes were shut down.
Utility officials have warned that widespread power outages are likely and that it could take weeks to restore electricity.
Wilmington, just north of where Florence appeared headed for shore, grew empty and quiet on Wednesday.
"I'm not approaching Florence from fear or panic," said Brad Corpening, 35, who planned to ride out the storm in his boarded-up delicatessen in Wilmington. "It's going to happen. We just need to figure out how to make it through."
Officials in New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington, have stockpiled enough food and water for 60,000 people for four days, along with more than 28,000 tarps.
Shelters in the city were filling and some people were being bused inland to Raleigh, even though some residents there were told they might have to evacuate because of flooding.
"It's going to be bad," said Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Commissioners. "But no matter how bad it's going to be, it will pass and our job will be to rebuild this community together, and that's what we're going to do."
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)