WILMINGTON (United States) • Beach communities in North and South Carolina emptied out yesterday as Hurricane Florence threatened to unleash pounding surf and potentially deadly flooding.
Hurricane Florence had maximum sustained winds of 215kmh and was on a trajectory that showed its centre is most likely to strike the southern coast of North Carolina by Friday US time, the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said.
That would make it the most powerful storm to make a direct hit on the Carolinas in decades.
Updated NHC forecasts showed the storm lingering near the coast, bringing days of heavy rain that could bring intense inland flooding from South Carolina - where some areas could see as much as 1m of rain - to Virginia.
"This storm is big and it's vicious," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on NBC's Today Show yesterday. "Flooding is a significant risk here and often when there is flooding, the people who can afford it the least get hit the most."
More than one million people have been ordered to evacuate the coastline of the three states, while university campuses, schools and factories were being shuttered.
NHC said the first tropical storm-force winds of at least 63kmh would hit the region early on Thursday US time, with the storm's centre reaching the coast tomorrow.
United States President Donald Trump warned on Twitter of the storm's dangers and praised his administration's handling of past hurricanes, rejecting criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico.
Some 3,000 people died in the aftermath of that storm.
"Hurricane Florence is looking even bigger than anticipated," Mr Trump said. "Get out of its way, don't play games with it, it's a big one, maybe as big as they've seen, and tremendous amounts of water," the President said.
"Bad things can happen when you are talking about a storm this size. It's called Mother Nature. You never know, but we know. We love you all, we want you safe.
"Get out of the storm's way."
To hasten evacuations from coastal South Carolina, officials switched traffic patterns so that all major roads led away from the shore. The last hurricane rated a Category 4 to plow directly into North Carolina was Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which killed 19 people.
This time, communities could lose electricity for weeks, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.
Farmers in North Carolina rushed to harvest corn and tobacco and stock up on pig rations as flooding threatened a state where millions of farm animals are housed.
WH Group's Smithfield Foods, the largest US pork processor, plans to shut two of its North Carolina plants, including the world's biggest hog slaughterhouse.
North Carolina is the country's leading producer of tobacco, second-biggest producer of hogs and a major poultry producer.
Its crops include corn, soya and cotton, making agriculture the state's No. 1 industry, valued at US$87 billion (S$120 billion).
Some residents were resisting governors' calls to flee but remained fearful about the threats posed by Hurricane Florence.
"I'm scared we'll get 30 inches or more of rain," said Ms Carol Trojniar, 69, a retired real estate agent who has never experienced a Category 4 hurricane."What is flooding going to do to our home, our city?"
She and her husband were packing up their belongings and planned to stack sandbags around their single-storey home in Wilmington's Landfall neighbourhood near the ocean, before checking into a hotel to ride out the storm.
"Where else can we go?" she said. "If we try to leave, we'll just get stuck in the rain."