Published 10:48 AM EDT Sep 13, 2018
KITTY HAWK, N.C. – The wind whipped, the ocean swelled onto beaches and rain began falling Thursday on the breathtaking but mostly deserted barrier islands off North and South Carolina.
A big, fat and very dangerous Hurricane Florence lumbered near the edge of the coast, diminished to Category 2 strength but still sufficiently powerful to soon sock the Carolinas with brutal wind, rain and storm surge as it makes its way west.
The storm was about 160 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and 205 miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Thursday as of 8 a.m. EST. But with tropical force winds extending almost 200 miles from the center, Florence was a poised to bring havoc well before making landfall.
That could happen sometime Friday, probably along the states' border. FEMA administrator Brock Long urged people in mandatory evacuation areas to get out. And he warned that the storm cleanup will take time and patience.
"We call them disasters because they break things," said FEMA associate director Jeff Byard said. "The infrastructure is going to break."
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More than 1 million people were evacuated from coastal areas, and 10 million live within areas of hurricane or tropical storm warnings and watches. Storm surge forecasts alone clearly reflect that "this is a life-threatening situation," the National Hurricane Center said.
"We want to continue to send the message that this monster of a storm is not one to ride out," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.
Donny King was unmoved, literally. King and his wife Heather had the chance to use their fortified hurricane room at their Nags Head home. The owners of Ocean Boulevard Bistro and Martini Bar said they would rather face Hurricane Florence’s fierce winds, rain and storm surge head-on in their shear wall-lined bunker.
“In this area it’s going to be fairly bad, the way the storm churns," Donny King said.
King is preparing for property damage. He figures his benches are made of iron and can be pressure washed and repainted. Some of the tables aren't so sturdy, however.
"Those, we'll just wait for them to break and buy new ones," he said.
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In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster said more than 300,000 people had fled the storm. The Coast Guard shut down the Port of Charleston and warned people off the water.
Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune urged residents to leave – and to help neighbors, especially the elderly. Don and Lydia Stauder, however, spent Thursday morning taking selfies on the beach to ensure relatives up north that things weren't too bad.
Now retired, the couple had no qualms about staying put for Hurricane Florence.
"We've got generators and live way above the flood level," Don Stauder said. "We're prepared for it."
Just north of Columbia, South Carolina, Ray Stickley was sitting in one of the state's 35 hurricane shelters and pondering a move to Pennsylvania. He said he stayed when Hurricane Matthew hit two years ago, and his entire trailer shook.
“With this coming, I am not going to take any chances," Stickley said. 'I’m 50 miles inland and I’m scared of this storm."
Maximum sustained winds, once as high as 140 mph decreased Thursday to 110 mph. But Florence has forecast to linger along the coast for a day more, sweeping away trees and power lines. Duke Energy said that up to 75% of its 4 million customers in the two states could lose power.
Duke said 20,000 people will be in place to "attack restoration" as soon as it’s safe.
The hurricane center warned that Florence could dump 20 to 30 inches of rain in some coastal areas. Isolated totals of 40 inches are possible. Storm surge of up to 13 feet were possible.
"Do not focus on the wind speed category of #Hurricane #Florence!" the hurricane center tweeted. "Life-threatening storm surge flooding, catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding are still expected."
Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Kirk Brown, Anderson, (S.C.) Independent-Mail