A North Carolina shop boarded up for the hurricane offers a hopeful message: “Pray for Wilmington.” (Ernest Scheyder/Reuters)

Beach communities in North Carolina and South Carolina emptied Wednesday as Hurricane Florence threatened to unleash pounding surf and potentially deadly flooding by Friday. It is predicted to become the most powerful storm to make a direct hit on the Southeastern states in decades.

Forecasts show the Category 4 storm bringing days of heavy rains and possibly intense inland flooding from South Carolina to Virginia.

Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the storm would punch the Carolina coast like a world champion boxer.

“The time to prepare is almost over,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper at a Wednesday news conference. “Disaster is at the doorstep, and it’s coming in.”

More than a million people were ordered to evacuate the coastline of the three states, while schools and factories were ordered closed.

The National Hurricane Center said the first winds of tropical-storm force — at least 39 miles per hour — would hit the region early Thursday.

State and federal officials have urged residents in the target zone to evacuate, but there was hesitation along the coast.

“I’m not approaching Florence from fear or panic,” said Brad Corpening, 35, who planned to ride out the storm in Wilmington, North Carolina. “It’s going to happen. We just need to figure out how to make it through.”

The last hurricane rated a Category 4 to hit North Carolina directly was Hazel in 1954. It killed 19 people.

This week’s emergency preparations include setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so that all major roads led away from shore and getting 16 nuclear reactors in the region ready for the storm.

— Reuters