WILMINGTON, N.C.—The outer bands of wind and rain from a weakened but still lethal Hurricane Florence began lashing North Carolina today as the monster storm moved in for a prolonged and potentially catastrophic stay along the U.S. southeast coast that could drench the homes of as many as 10 million people.
Florence's winds dropped from a peak of 225 km/h to 175 km/h early today.
That reduced Florence from a Category 4 hurricane to a Category 2 but forecasters warned the widening storm—and its likelihood of lingering around the coast day after day after day—will bring ocean water surging onto land and torrential rain.
“It truly is really about the whole size of this storm,” National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham said.
“The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact—and we have that.”
As of 8 a.m. (EDT), Florence was centred about 275 km southeast of Wilmington, moving at 20 km/h.
Hurricane-force winds extended 130 km from its centreand tropical storm-force winds up to 315 km.
Forecasters said Florence's eye could come ashore early tomorrow around the North Carolina-South Carolina line.
Then it is likely to hover along the coast on Saturday, pushing up to four metres of storm surge and unloading water on both states.
The forecast calls for as much as 102 cm (40 inches) of rain over seven days along the coast, with the deluge continuing even as the centre of the storm pushes its way over the Appalachian Mountains.
The result: catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses, farm fields, and industrial sites.
The police chief of a barrier island in Florence's bulls'-eye said he was seeking next-of-kin contact information from the few residents who refused to evacuate.
“I'm not going to put our personnel in harm's way, especially for people that we've already told to evacuate,” Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged residents to remain alert despite changing forecasts.
“Don't relax, don't get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill,” he stressed.
About 5.25 million people live in areas under hurricane warnings or watches, and 4.9 million in places covered by tropical storm warnings or watches, the U.S. National Weather Service said.
Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said Florence eventually could strike as a Category 1 with winds less than 160 km/h) but that's still enough to cause at least $1 billion in damage.
Water kills more people in hurricanes than wind does.
Airlines cancelled nearly 1,000 flights and counting. Home Depot and Lowe's activated emergency response centres to get generators, trash bags, and bottled water to stores before and after the storm.
The two hardware chains said they sent in a total of around 1,100 trucks.
Duke Energy, the nation's No. 2 power company, said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its four million customers in the Carolinas—and outages could last for weeks.
Workers are being brought in from the U.S. Midwest and Florida to help in the storm's aftermath, it added.
Florence's weakening as it neared the coast created tension between some who left home and authorities who worried the storm still could be deadly.
Frustrated after evacuating his beach home for a storm that has since been downgraded, retired nurse Frederick Fisher grumbled in the lobby of a hotel in Wilmington several miles inland.
“Against my better judgment, due to emotionalism, I evacuated,” he said.
“I've got four cats inside the house," he noted. "If I can't get back in a week, after a while they might turn on each other or trash the place.”