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WILMINGTON, N.C. — Florence’s outer bands lashed at coastal North Carolina on Thursday, shooting sea water through streets and cutting power to tens of thousands as the storm neared with 100 mph winds.
Officials and forecasters begged residents in the massive storm’s path to not be deceived by the hurricane getting downgraded to a Category 2.
“Do not pay attention to the category. That’s not the important thing,” said NBC News’ meteorologist Al Roker. “The storm surge — this is the most dangerous part of the storm.”
Here’s the latest on Hurricane Florence:
- The storm could still bring peak wind gusts at over 100 mph and substantial storm surges of up to 13 feet.
- Storm surges are forecast to peak Thursday night just before midnight and Friday around noon, according to NBC’s Al Roker.
- The storm could make landfall early Friday in North Carolina. Its size is larger than North and South Carolina combined.
- More than 100,000 power outages as of Thursday evening in North Carolina, according to the state department of public safety.
As of 9 p.m. ET, Florence was about 75 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph. Briefly a Category 4 storm, it had weakened to a Category 2 as of 11 p.m. Wednesday when its top wind strength dropped.
But the storm, which the National Hurricane Center said was moving northwest at 5 mph, poses many other threats from water.
The agency warned that “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall” were expected — and officials urged anyone in areas under evacuation orders to get out as quickly as they could.
“Just because the wind speeds came down, the intensity came down to a Category 2, please do not let your guard down,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long at a press conference Thursday morning. “The storm surge forecast with this storm has not changed.”
Landfall is expected early Friday in coastal North Carolina, but rain is forecast to last for the next several days.
“Heavy rains and high winds are likely to spread across North Carolina and linger for days,” Gov. Roy Cooper said at a news conference. “As Florence moves inland, we’ll see more rain and more flooding from our rivers. And remember that rivers keep on rising even after the rain stops.”
Long, the FEMA administrator, warned that state infrastructure is “going to break,” adding: “The power is going to go out. It could go out for a number of days, it could go out for weeks. It’s very hard to say at this point.”
Despite the dire predictions, there were some holdouts here in Wilmington, a port city normally teeming with tourists. Those who were riding out the storm boarded windows, rounded up pets and made last-minute trips for food, ice, water and gas.
On Thursday morning, Darius Pearce, 27, drove from his house in nearby Castle Hayne to fill up a cooler at a roadside ice vending machine. Nearly everyone in his family fled their home days ago, but he stayed back with his mother, a nurse at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, who is on-call through the storm.
“I don’t want to leave her here,” Pearce said.
But he wasn’t panicking. Shrugging, he said: “I believe that when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.”
Meanwhile, in Wilmington’s Northside neighborhood, Julio Martinez, 28, sat on the steps of an apartment complex. He’d hoarded enough water and food to last a few days, and figured that would be enough. He’d watched neighbors and friends leave, but he said he didn’t have anywhere to go.
“Everyone is evacuating and freaking out, and I tell them, ‘I’ll see you when you get back,’” Martinez said.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo asked those in shelters to stay put until the storm passed.
“The last thing we need is for people to be sightseeing, driving around town,” he told MSNBC.
In total, more than 10 million people face dangerous or life-threatening conditions from Florence, officials said. And about 1.7 million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have been told to evacuate.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster — who started out a press conference Thursday afternoon with a prayer — said more than 421,000 people had evacuated in his state. He urged those in evacuation zones to “leave now, because time is running out.”
In addition to flash floods, South Carolina officials said residents should expect landslides in some areas.
The mayor of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Brenda Bethune, said once the immediate safety concerns from the storm were over, she expected a deep economic impact on her city, which relies heavily on tourism.
“I think it will be huge, unfortunately,” she told MSNBC. “So it is crucial that we get this community back up quickly, rebuilt better than ever, so that people can come back and visit us.”
As Florence closed in on Thursday, all eyes were on the storm surges. Two potentially catastrophic storm surges are forecast: one just before midnight Thursday and another midday Friday.
Hurricane and storm surge warnings were in effect for South Santee River, South Carolina, to Duck, North Carolina, and Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. A hurricane watch was in effect for Edisto Beach, South Carolina, to South Santee River, South Carolina, and a storm surge watch was in effect for Edisto Beach, South Carolina, to South Santee River and north of Duck, North Carolina, to the North Carolina-Virginia border.
The biggest area of concern was Cape Fear to Cape Lookout, North Carolina, which could see storm surges of 9 to 13 feet.
On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Cooper said there were more than 100 shelters open throughout the state, with more than 12,000 people in them. Cooper said he expected more shelters to open. In South Carolina, more than 1,800 people were in shelters, the state government said on Wednesday.
State and federal agencies said they were prepared for the worst. Cooper said he had been in contact with President Donald Trump and said the president had offered “whatever we need” to get through the storm.
Gen. Gregory Lusk, the adjutant general of the North Carolina National Guard, said 6,400 guardsmen were on active duty between North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
“We are in constant contact and coordination with each other,” Lusk said, “because in an event such as this, state boundaries don’t matter when American lives are at risk.”
Jon Schuppe reported from Wilmington, North Carolina. Elizabeth Chuck reported from New York. Daniel Arkin reported from Los Angeles.