WILMINGTON (North Carolina) • Coastal North Carolina felt the first bite of Hurricane Florence yesterday as winds began to rise, a prelude to the slow-moving tempest that forecasters warned would cause catastrophic flooding across a wide swathe of the US south-east.
The centre of Florence, no longer classified as a major hurricane but still posing a grave threat to life and property, was expected to hit North Carolina's southern coast today, then drift south-west before moving inland tomorrow, according to the National Hurricane Centre (NHC).
Businesses and homes in the storm's path were boarded up and thousands of people had moved to emergency shelters, officials said. They also urged anyone who remained near the coast to flee. Millions were expected to lose power, perhaps for weeks.
"There is still time to leave," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told "CBS This Morning" show yesterday. "This is an extremely dangerous situation."
Florence's maximum sustained winds were clocked yesterday at 175kmh after it was downgraded to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the NHC. The storm was about 275km east of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Tropical storm-force winds of at least 63kmh extended outward up to 315km from its centre, and Florence was expected to begin raking North Carolina's Outer Banks barrier islands before stretching over low-lying areas reaching from Georgia north into Virginia.
The rain posed a greater danger, forecasters warned, with some spots getting up to 1m of precipitation, enough to cause devastating flash floods miles from the coast.
In all, an estimated 10 million people live in areas expected to be placed under a hurricane or storm advisory, according to the US Weather Prediction Centre. More than one million people had been ordered to evacuate the coastlines of the Carolinas and Virginia.
Besides inundating the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 4m along the Carolina coast, Florence could dump 51cm-76cm of rain over much of the region. If it stalls over land, downpours and flooding would be especially severe.
The storm will be a test of President Donald Trump's administration less than two months before elections that will determine control of Congress.
"We are completely ready for hurricane Florence, as the storm gets even larger and more powerful. Be careful!" Mr Trump said on Twitter earlier yesterday.
Preparations have included activating National Guard troops, stockpiling food and setting up shelters.
Mr Trump has vowed a vigorous response after facing severe criticism for the administration's handling of last year's Hurricane Maria, which killed some 3,000 people in Puerto Rico. But he disputed that figure yesterday, saying it had been inflated as part of a plot by Democrats to make him look bad.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE