Hurricane Florence bringing 'catastrophic' flooding to the Carolinas, officials say: 'Do not focus on the wind speed'

  • Hurricane Florence has been downgraded to a category 2 storm by the National Hurricane Center, which cautioned that life-threatening storm surge and rainfall are still expected.
  • "Do not focus on the wind speed category," the NHC said.
  • Airlines have canceled more than 1,000 flights scheduled for Thursday and Friday in the Carolinas and Virginia.

Time is running short to get out of the way of Hurricane Florence, a monster of a storm that has a region of more than 10 million people in its potentially devastating sights as it zeroes in on the Southeastern coast.

"Damaging hurricane-force winds are likely along portions of the coasts of South Carolina and North Carolina as soon as this evening," the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on Thursday.

The hurricane weakened to a Category 2 storm with winds of 105 mph about 145 miles southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina as of 11 a.m. ET Thursday. But authorities at the NHC warned Florence has an enormous wind field that has been growing larger, raising the risk of the ocean surging on to land and making Florence extremely dangerous. The storm is still expected to hit portions of the Carolinas with life-threatening storm surge and rainfall, according to the NHC.

"Do not focus on the wind speed category ... life-threatening storm surge flooding, catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding are still expected," NHC said in a tweet.

A live stream of the storm is being broadcast from Frying Pan Tower, 34 miles off the coast of Cape Fear, North Carolina.

According to NHC Director Ken Graham, "ninety percent of fatalities" during hurricanes are caused by flooding. Areas in coastal North Carolina have already started to experience floods.

More than 1½ million people have been ordered to evacuate their homes along the coast as government officials in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. declared states of emergency. The City of Myrtle Beach also announced an overnight curfew effective from Thursday night to Friday morning.

More than 5 million people live in areas under hurricane warnings or watches, and 4.9 million live in places covered by tropical storm warnings or watches, the National Weather Service said.

The hurricane center is forecasting the storm to hover near the coast Saturday with winds of around 80 mph before landfall, but with rainfall in the 20 to 30 inches range and up to 13 feet of storm surge. The National Hurricane Center has issued a storm surge warning from the South Santee River in South Carolina to Duck, North Carolina.

"A life-threatening storm surge is now highly likely along portions of the coastlines of South Carolina and North Carolina," NHC said.

President Donald Trump both touted the government's readiness and urged people to get out of the way. "Don't play games with it. It's a big one," he said at the White House.

Airlines have canceled more than 1,000 flights scheduled for Thursday and Friday in the Carolinas and Virginia. American, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and United Airlines said they capped some airfares at levels below what last-minute tickets would cost. Airlines were criticized on social media last year when fares soared ahead of storms.

– AP contributed to this report.