Updated at 6:40 a.m. ET on Friday
Hurricane Florence was making landfall on the North Carolina coast, bringing with it life-threatening storm surge, heavy rain and sustained winds of 90 miles per hour. Although downgraded to a Category 1 storm, the hurricane has grown larger and slowed its march inland — factors likely to contribute to potentially catastrophic flooding.
“A storm surge of 10 feet above normal levels was reported by the National Weather Service office in Morehead City, North Carolina,” reported the National Hurricane Center, citing transportation officials in that state.
“Threat of freshwater flooding will increase over the next several days,” read the NHC announcement, which followed warnings issued earlier in the day.
“#Florence is expected to bring a life-threatening storm surge to portions of eastern North & South Carolina, and catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding are likely over portions of the Carolinas and the southern/central Appalachians,” the National Hurricane Center said in a Thursday evening tweet forecasting how potentially damaging the storm will be.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged his state’s residents to expect significant and lasting damage.
“The worst of the storm is not yet here, but these are warning signs of the days to come,” said Cooper in a news conference. “Conditions will continue to deteriorate with strong winds, heavy rainfall and extreme storm surges.”
The city of New Bern, N.C., reports that some 150 people were awaiting rescue there.
Sarah Risty-Davis, a resident of New Bern, tells NPR she had water up to the second floor in her 1920s-era home near Neuse River.
Risty-Davis said the water then started to go away and that she was now “just enjoying this moment before the water comes back.”
Meanwhile, the city of Jacksonville, N.C., says about 70 people have been rescued from a hotel whose structural integrity was threatened by the hurricane, according to The Associated Press.
After making landfall near Wilmington, Florence is expected to head west across South Carolina before making a turn toward the north over the next few days.
A rush of ocean water invaded the streets on the southern end of North Carolina’s Hatteras Island on Thursday, according to The Virginian-Pilot‘s Jeff Hampton, who said arterial roads were at risk of being impassable after water overwhelmed the dunes.
The storm’s sheer power is visible in live video from Frying Pan Tower, a onetime Coast Guard light station some 34 miles off the coast of North Carolina. The force of the wind has damaged the U.S. flag on the tower and is causing the ocean to churn.
“Little change in strength is expected before the eye of Florence reaches the coast, with weakening expected after the center moves inland or meanders near the coast,” the National Hurricane Center said.
Despite the drop in wind strength, the most dangerous threat comes from Florence’s rains and storm surge, which could bring flooding far inland.
“The larger and slower the storm is, the greater the threat and impact, and we have that here,” NHC Director Ken Graham said Thursday. He added later, “Most of the fatalities in these tropical systems is water.”
According to the hurricane center’s 6 a.m. Friday bulletin, Florence was about 10 miles east of Wilmington, N.C., and about 80 miles east-northeast of Myrtle Beach, S.C. The storm was moving west-northwest at 6 mph with sustained winds of 90 mph.
Florence’s large wind field will add to the perils as the storm grinds over beaches and inland. Hurricane-force winds extend out for 80 miles and the tropical-storm-force winds reach 195 miles out from the center.
“You’re going to have damaging winds for a longer period of time,” senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said in an update from the NHC. “So instead of maybe 120 mph winds for 30 minutes, you might end up with 90-100 mph winds for a couple of hours, or three or four hours. And that will produce a lot of damage as well as prolong the beach erosion.”
A hurricane warning is in effect for a big chunk of the Carolina coast, from the South Santee River below Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Duck, N.C. — part of the Outer Banks. The warning also includes Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, large bodies of water in North Carolina that could see significant flooding.
Despite the drop in maximum sustained winds, forecasters stress that this hurricane is not to be taken lightly. Hundreds of thousands of people have already evacuated. Officials are urging others in its path to follow suit or to prepare for the worst.
“Do not focus on the wind speed category of #Hurricane #Florence!” the National Hurricane Center said Thursday morning. “Life-threatening storm surge flooding, catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding are still expected.
Eight entire counties and portions of others in North Carolina are under mandatory evacuation orders. Gov.Cooper said he has activated 2,800 National Guard troops to help with storm relief with more personnel on reserve.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster said some 421,000 people have evacuated in his state. Virginia has also issued evacuation orders.
Vicki Moulson, who teaches at a local community college in the Outer Banks, said she was planning to ride out the hurricane because she wants to be near her home and her friends.
“We’re ready; I’ve been through probably 20 or more hurricanes living down here,” she told NPR’s Sarah McCammon. “I’ve been living down here for a really long time, so this one’s OK.”
Moulson said she initially planned to leave, but as the forecast for Florence weakened and shifted southward, she decided to stay. She said she is worried that if she evacuates, she’ll get caught up in the massive flooding that’s expected to affect the region. Emergency managers say people in evacuation zones should leave while they can.
The storm surge — often the most perilous risk to life posed by any hurricane — is expected to inundate areas along the coast with saltwater that’s 7 to 11 feet deep, from Cape Fear, N.C., to Cape Lookout, N.C. A surge of at least 4 feet is predicted for a much larger area.
Calling the storm surge prediction “incredible,” Graham said that because Florence is likely to nudge its way onto the coast, giving its hurricane winds lots of time to force water inland, he wouldn’t be surprised “to see storm surge a mile, a mile and a half inland — maybe even 2 miles or more, in some cases.”
The latest rainfall projections warn of 20 to 40 inches of rain from coastal North Carolina into northeastern South Carolina — amounts that could bring “catastrophic flash flooding,” the hurricane center said. The rest of South and North Carolina, including cities from Charlotte to Raleigh, can expect 6 to 12 inches of rain — and up to 2 feet in isolated areas, the NHC warned. That forecast area also includes part of southwestern Virginia.
In addition to the hurricane’s obvious risks, the National Weather Service says, “A few tornadoes are possible in eastern North Carolina through Friday.”