HOLDEN BEACH, N.C. (Reuters) – Florence, the most powerful storm to menace the U.S. mainland this year, intensified into a Category 4 hurricane as it howled closer to the Carolinas on Monday, prompting evacuations of more than 1 million people to higher ground.
Packing maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (209 kph), the storm was due to gain even greater strength before making landfall early on Thursday, bringing heavy rains with the potential to unleash widespread, severe flooding, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami.
“Florence is expected to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane through Thursday,” the NHC said in a bulletin.
Maps of the storm’s trajectory showed it likely to come ashore somewhere near the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. The governors of both states declared states of emergency.
“We do not want to risk one South Carolina life in this hurricane,” Governor Henry McMaster told a news conference.
He estimated about 1 million residents would flee the coast of his state, following earlier orders for the evacuation of more than 50,000 people from the southern-most Outer Banks barrier islands of North Carolina. An estimated 250,000 more people from the northern Outer Banks were due to be sent to higher ground starting Tuesday at midday.
“We are in the bull’s-eye,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said at a news conference. “This is going to be a statewide event.”
OFF CAPE FEAR
Florence grew into a major hurricane on Monday morning and was upgraded again to a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength at midday as its top sustained wind speeds reached 130 mph. At that point the storm was centered about 1,170 miles (1,880 km) east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, the NHC said.
The United States was hit with a series of high-powered hurricanes last year, including Hurricane Maria, which killed about 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Harvey, which killed 68 and caused an estimated $1.25 billion in damage from catastrophic flooding in Houston.
U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration was harshly criticized as being slow to respond to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, canceled a political rally planned for Friday in Jackson, Mississippi, over safety concerns related to Florence, his campaign said.
Florence could bring a deadly coastal storm surge, and inland flooding as far north as Virginia, the NHC said.
Immediately to the north of Virginia, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said his state was also was “preparing for the potential of historic, catastrophic and life-threatening flooding.”
Historically, 90 percent of fatalities from hurricanes, tropical storms and tropical depressions have been caused by water, NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Some 27 percent of the deaths have come from rain-driven flooding, sometimes hundreds of miles inland.
‘CAN’T PLAY AROUND’
In Holden Beach, North Carolina, in the storm’s path, longtime residents were boarding up homes and securing possessions.
“It’s scary to all of us. We know we can’t play around with this,” said Jennifer Oosterwyk, who owns the Sugar Britches boutique on Holden Beach and lives in nearby Wilmington.
Oosterwyk was gathering tax documents and other important papers from her store on Monday, and said she planned to drive 150 miles (240 km) inland to ride out the storm in the town of Cary.
As the storm advanced, Monday afternoon was a postcard-perfect day on Holden Beach with bright blue skies, placid puffy clouds and light breezes. By 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT), the previously calm surf began to show some chop.
The U.S. military said it was sending an advance team to Raleigh, North Carolina, to coordinate with federal and state partners. It said about 750 military personnel will be designated to provide support.
The U.S. Navy said it was sending nearly 30 ships from coastal Virginia out of port to ride out the storm.
Other military personnel, however, could find themselves directly in harm’s way.
The largest U.S. Marine Corps base on the East Coast, Camp Lejeune and its extensive beachfront northeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, lie within the NHC’s forecast “cone” for possible landfall.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Idrees Ali in Washington, D.C., Gene Cherry in Raleigh, N.C. and Rich McKay in Atlanta, writing by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott, Nick Zieminski and Bill Berkrot