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Capital Weather Gang

Hurricane watches posted as ‘extremely dangerous’ Florence churns toward Carolinas

September 11, 2018 at 7:11 AM

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As Hurricane Florence heads towards the Carolinas, it looks to be tracking a pattern further south than first expected. Capital Weather Gang's Angela Fritz explains what that could mean for the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. (Joyce Koh /The Washington Post)

Florence continued its path toward the East Coast overnight Monday, maintaining its monstrous Category 4 storm status and 140-mph winds.

The National Hurricane Center is calling the storm “extremely dangerous,” and predicts it could still strengthen to near Category 5 intensity on Tuesday. The center issued hurricane and storm surge watches for the East Coast from Edisto Beach, S.C., northward to the North Carolina-Virginia border, including the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds.

Track forecast for Hurricane Florence. Hurricane watch zone is shaded in pink. (National Hurricane Center/)

Computer-model forecasts generally project the storm to make landfall between northern South Carolina and North Carolina’s Outer Banks as a Category 4 on Thursday, although shifts in the track are possible and storm impacts will expand great distances beyond where landfall occurs. More than 1.5 million people have already been ordered to evacuate coastal areas ahead of the storm.

“All interests from South Carolina into the Mid-Atlantic region should ensure they have their hurricane plan in place and follow any advice given by local officials,” the hurricane center said.

The center is warning of an “extremely dangerous” triple threat in the Carolinas and Virginia:

1) A “life-threatening storm surge” at the coast — a rise in ocean water over normally dry land.

2) “Life-threatening freshwater flooding from a prolonged and exceptionally heavy rainfall event” from the coast to interior sections.

3) “Damaging hurricane-force winds” at the coast and some distance inland.

Like Hurricane Harvey, which stalled over Texas in 2017, Florence could linger over the Southeast for several days after landfall. Forecast models suggest that more than two feet of rain could fall over the higher elevations of the Carolinas and Virginia, which would generate dangerous flooding downstream. The flooding might be similar to what the Carolinas experienced during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

At 5 a.m. Tuesday, Florence was tracking west-northwest at 15 mph, and located about 975 miles east-southeast of Cape Fear, N.C. Its zone of hurricane-force winds doubled in size Monday as it explosively strengthened.

If Florence makes landfall as a Category 4 in North Carolina, it would be the strongest storm to come ashore that far north on record.

In coastal areas of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, heavy surf and elevated water levels are expected to arrive by Wednesday morning, and rainfall could begin by Thursday morning.

Related: [Evacuations begin in Outer Banks as Hurricane Florence churns toward N.C.]

Tropical-storm-force winds could reach the coastline as early as Wednesday night, at which point all outdoor preparations should be completed. Extremely dangerous hurricane-force winds could batter coastal locations Thursday into Friday. Hurricane-to-tropical-storm-force winds could extend inland, depending on the storm’s track.

Models have come into agreement that a northward turn before reaching the United States is unlikely and that a building high-pressure zone north of the storm will cause it to slow or stall once it reaches the coast or shortly thereafter Where exactly the zone of heaviest rain will be is a big uncertainty. It could reasonably occur anywhere between the mountains and the coast.

Related: [What will Hurricane Florence mean for the Washington area?]

If the storm stalls, some areas could see feet of rain, especially if downpours focus over the higher terrain in western North Carolina and southwestern and central Virginia.

This region will be particularly susceptible to flooding because of far-above-normal rainfall in the region since May. In addition, because the ground is likely to be saturated, trees will be vulnerable in strong winds.

Parts of the Mid-Atlantic, especially from Virginia to Pennsylvania, have received 150 to 300 percent of their normal rainfall since May.

Residents farther north in coastal and inland areas in the Delmarva Peninsula, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York should also monitor the storm and prepare in case the forecast shifts to the north and east.

Where the storm makes landfall has implications for where the strongest winds and biggest rise in water at the coast occurs, but strong winds and extreme rainfall could occur at great distances from the landfall location. Keeping this in mind, here is the likelihood of landfall at different locations based on our evaluation of model data:

Even in the unlikely event that the storm center remains just offshore, it will almost certainly come close enough to bring dangerous wind and flooding to coastal areas. Inland areas may be somewhat spared in this scenario.

If a major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) does make landfall along the Southeast coast, the rarity of such an event is relevant. Since 1851, only 10 major hurricanes have done so, and the most recent was Fran in 1996, 22 years ago. Hugo in 1989 was the one before that and was a Category 4 at landfall. No hurricane has made landfall as a Category 5 in this region on record.

Many people in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic probably have not experienced a storm of the potential magnitude of Florence.

NEW BERN, NC - SEPTEMBER 15: A section of the Highway 17 exit ramp remains closed a day after Hurricane Florence's storm surge washed it out September 15, 2018 in New Bern, North Carolina.Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm Friday and at least five deaths have been attributed to the storm, which continues to produce heavy rain and strong winds extending out nearly 200 miles. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
SOUTHPORT, NC - SEPTEMBER 15: Kim Adams makes her way to her home that is surrounded by flood waters after Hurricane Florence passed through the area on September 15, 2018 in Southport, North Carolina. Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina and South Carolina coastline bringing high winds and rain. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
NEW BERN, NC - SEPTEMBER 15: High winds from Hurricane Florence uprooted a tree, crushing a car and toppling a wall surrounding a baseball diamond September 15, 2018 in New Bern, North Carolina. Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm Friday and at least five deaths have been attributed to the storm, which continues to produce heavy rain and strong winds extending out nearly 200 miles. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
NEW BERN, NC - SEPTEMBER 15: The courtyard at Queen's Point condos is filled with residents' belongings after the storm surge from Hurricane Florence tore open the lower floors with a four-foot high storm surge September 15, 2018 in New Bern, North Carolina. Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm Friday and at least five deaths have been attributed to the storm, which continues to produce heavy rain and strong winds extending out nearly 200 miles. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Rescue personnel use a small boat as they go house to house checking for flood victims from Florence, now a tropical storm, in New Bern, NC., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
A man holds on to a rail as a gust of wind hits after Hurricane Florence struck on Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
A tour boat is stacked up next to a railroad bridge as a result from Florence in New Bern, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Houses are surrounded by water from Florence, now a tropical storm, in New Bern, NC., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
A sailboat is shoved up against a house and a collapsed garage Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, after heavy wind and rain from Florence, now a tropical storm, blew through New Bern, N.C. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
NEW BERN, NC - SEPTEMBER 15: Betty Dunton searches through belongings in her garage after a four-foot storm surge produced by Hurricane Florence ripped through the Queen's Point condos along the Nuese River September 15, 2018 in New Bern, North Carolina. Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 1 storm Friday and at least five deaths have been attributed to the storm, which continues to produce heavy rain and strong winds extending out nearly 200 miles. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
An abandoned car's hazard lights continue to flash as it sits submerged in rising floodwaters during the early-morning hours after Florence struck in Wilmington, N.C.
Matt Lineberry looks out the door of his home, surrounded by floodwaters, in Southport, N.C.
Florence is seen in satellite images along the coast of North and South Carolina.
A downed tree rests on a newly constructed house while others are strewn on a street in Belville, N.C.
A downed tree rests on a damaged dormer window in Winnabow, N.C.
Members of the Boone County fire rescue team check for occupants in a home surrounded by floodwaters in Bolivia, N.C.
Water and high winds surround a house as Florence hits Swansboro, N.C.
Broken utility poles hang from their wires in Wilmington.
People sit at a bar that has no power and drink during a "Hurricane Party" in Wilmington.
Windows are missing from a building in Wilmington.
A large tree rests on a house in Wilmington after falling and killing a mother and her infant.
In this image from a video, a resident rescues a dog by boat from floodwaters in Jacksonville, N.C.
Volunteers from throughout North Carolina help rescue residents and their pets from their flooded homes in New Bern, N.C.
Robert Simmons Jr. and his kitten, Survivor, are rescued from floodwaters in New Bern.
Search-and-rescue workers from New York rescue a man from floodwaters in River Bend, N.C.
Downed trees block a road in downtown Wilmington.
A boat takes on water at the Grand View Marina in New Bern.
A bicyclist rides through a flooded South Water Street as Florence makes landfall in Wilmington.
A woman walks past bricks that have fallen from a building in Wilmington.
Members of the National Guard and volunteers fill sandbags in Lumberton, N.C.
The National Guard builds a wall of sandbags across train tracks in Lumberton.
Marian Rivera covers her face from the strong wind and blowing sand in Isle of Palms, S.C.
Russ Lewis covers his eyes from a gust of wind and a blast of sand as Hurricane Florence approaches Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Waves crash into the Second Avenue pier as the storm makes landfall at night in Myrtle Beach.
Jamie Thompson walks through flooded sections of East Front Street near Union Point Park in New Bern.
A spray-painted message is left on a boarded-up condominium in Atlantic Beach, N.C.
Waves slam into the Oceana Pier and Pier House Restaurant in Atlantic Beach.
Crew members and boat owners help moor the “Miss Janice,” a shrimp boat, to the dock at Mitchell Seafood on Wheeler Creek Road in Sneads Ferry, N.C.
Mike Pollack and his wife, Meredith, move a dock box as Hurricane Florence approaches the area in Wilmington.
U.S. Coast Guard officers attend the last command and staff meeting at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., before the storm reaches the East Coast.
A work truck drives on Highway 24 as the wind from the storm blows palm trees in Swansboro.
Samantha Newkirk and her father Craig Newkirk walk through the wind and rain in downtown Wilmington.
Portions of a boat dock and boardwalk are destroyed by powerful wind and waves in Atlantic Beach.
Residents of the Trent Court apartments in New Bern wait out the weather as rising waters get closer to their doors.
Michael Nelson floats in a boat made from a metal tub and fishing floats after the Neuse River went over its banks and flooded his street in New Bern.
Workers take boats out of the water at Wanchese Harbor in North Carolina.
Motorists drive westbound on Interstate 40 near Suttontown, N.C.
Recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot prepare to evacuate at Parris Island, S.C.
The bread aisle at Walmart is empty two days before Hurricane Florence is expected to strike Wilmington.
A lifeguard stand is removed at Wrightsville Beach.
A surfer takes advantage of the waves in Wrightsville Beach as Florence churns in the Atlantic.
A local TV crew waits for its cue as visitors explore the beach in Sandbridge, Va.
Jonathan Wynne, 4, ran to his mother, Martha Wynne, after a large wave snuck up on him at a beach in Sandbridge.
A business that caters to beachgoers in Sandbridge was closed as the storm effects approached.
Patio furniture floats in a swimming pool in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in an effort to keep it from flying away during the storm.
Stewart Thomason places sandbags and tarps he used for previous hurricanes to prevent flooding at his home on Isle of Palms in South Carolina.
An empty highway in Myrtle Beach.
Jason Moore, of Raleigh, N.C., packs to evacuate from Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
Strangers work together to fill sandbags in a field, in Virginia Beach.
Residents work together to fill sandbags in Virginia Beach.
Morgan Livingston, left, and JC Gravitte put plywood on the windows of Duffy’s bar and restaurant in Myrtle Beach.
Home Depot employee Ken Murphy helps Joe Spielman, left, load plywood in Myrtle Beach.
Workers board up an art gallery in Wrightsville Beach.
Mary Burdwood, a parking office employee, removes the electronic parts of parking meters in Wrightsville Beach.
Jeff Bigler turns his bicycle around after taking in the scene of flooded King Street in Alexandria, Va.
Jim Carter and Rob Quinn board up Lagerheads Tavern in Wrightsville Beach.
People shop for water and supplies at Harris Teeter in Charleston, S.C.
Mike Herring with Frank’s Ice unloads a pallet of ice in Wilmington.
Jim Craig, David Burke and Chris Rayner load generators at Home Depot in Wilmington.
People prepare to board up the windows of Roberts Grocery in Wrightsville Beach.
A store’s bread shelves are bare as people stock up on food ahead of the arrival of Florence in Myrtle Beach.
Brandon Alston carries a board to be placed over a window of the Casemate Museum of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va. The staff is preparing for rising waters and other possible flooding.
Residents evacuate from coastal areas near Wallace, N.C.
A pedestrian walks on a sidewalk along North Union Street after morning tidal flooding in Alexandria.
A portion of “The Awakening” statue is seen submerged by rising waters at National Harbor, in Oxon Hill, Md.
Photo Gallery: More than 1.5 million people were ordered to evacuate from coastal areas of North and South Carolina.

Jason Samenow is The Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association.

Brian McNoldy works in cyclone research at the University of Miami’s world-renowned Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS). His website hosted at RSMAS is also quite popular during hurricane season.

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