Hurricane Florence is bearing down on the midsection of the East Coast, expected to make landfall later this week with the most strength since Hurricane Hazel in 1954 – a storm which destroyed about 15,000 buildings as it maintained hurricane level winds as far inland as Raleigh, North Carolina.
The hurricane — on track to become the first Category 4 storm to directly hit North Carolina in 60 years — is expected to make landfall by early Friday. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned there could be a storm surge as high as 13 feet, bringing with it catastrophic floods if the storm stalls inland.
"This storm is a monster," North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said. "Even if you've ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don't bet your life on riding out a monster."
More than 1½ million people have been ordered to evacuate their homes along the coast as government officials in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. declared states of emergency. Florence maintained Category 4 strength about 785 miles east south east of Cape Fear, North Carolina as of 5 p.m. ET Tuesday, the NHC said. The storm has maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour, strengthened from earlier in the day, and is already 500 miles wide.
"Further strengthening is forecast tonight and Wednesday. While some weakening is expected on Thursday, Florence is forecast to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane through landfall," the National Hurricane Center said. The Center also upgraded its previous storm surge watch and hurricane watch to warnings, affecting a majority of the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts.
@NHC_Atlantic: Here are the 5 PM EDT Sep. 11 Key Messages for Hurricane #Florence. Hurricane and Storm Surge Warnings now in effect for portions of the North and South Carolina coasts.
The Center expects Florence to produce between 15 to 25 inches of total rainfall across portions of North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina until Saturday, with up to 35 inches closer to the center of the storm. Florence may also create "life-threatening flash flooding" and "damaging hurricane-force winds" the Center said.
@NWSEastern Total rainfall accumulations of over 15 to 25 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 35 inches are expected over the next 7 days across portions of the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic States. This rainfall would produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding.
@NHC_Atlantic: Hurricane Warning is now in effect for #Florence from South Santee River, South Carolina, to Duck, North Carolina, including the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.
Hurricane Hazel in 1954 registered winds of 150 miles per hour when it made landfall on the North Carolina coast. Jay Barnes, a hurricane historian and author, told AP that Hazel was "a benchmark storm in North Carolina's history." With evacuations already underway across the region, Barnes says the damage Florence may cause could be notably greater than Hazel's impact.
"Today, we have thousands and thousands of permanent residents on our barrier beaches," Barnes told AP. "It's a totally different scenario with regard to human impact."