“A storm surge of 10 feet above normal levels was reported by the National Weather Service office in Morehead City, North Carolina, at the Cherry Branch Ferry Terminal on the Neuse River,” the National Hurricane Center reported at 11 p.m. Thursday.
In southeastern North Carolina, rivers began to spill into towns. Large areas of New Bern were underwater.
Thursday marked the beginning of a prolonged assault from wind and water, which — by the time it’s over — is likely to bring devastating damage and flooding to millions of people in the Southeast.
Conditions will deteriorate through Friday morning: Winds will further accelerate, the rain will intensify, rivers will swell, and the angry, agitated ocean will surge ashore.
The storm’s center is expected to make landfall Friday in southeast North Carolina, which will coincide with the most severe effects. Storm surge, the rise in seawater above normally dry land at the coast, could exceed a record high. On top of that, a disastrous amount of rain — 20 inches, possibly even as much as 40 inches in isolated areas — is expected to fall.
Flooding from both the storm surge and rainfall could be “catastrophic,” the National Hurricane Center warned.
This same zone will be hammered by winds gusting up to hurricane force for nearly a day while tropical-storm conditions could linger twice that long. These unforgiving winds will damage homes and buildings, down trees and knock out power.
Even though the storm’s category fell from a 4 to a 2 Wednesday and then to 1 Thursday night, forecasters stressed the category is only an indication of the storm’s peak winds in a very narrow core near the center of the storm. The storm’s size and area affected by hazardous winds have expanded, and the threat from storm surge and rain-induced flooding “have not changed,” tweeted Rick Knabb, the Weather Channel’s tropical weather expert and former Hurricane Center director.
Gradually, Friday through the weekend, the massive storm — containing a zone of tropical-storm-force winds nearly 400 miles wide — will drift inland, engulfing much of South Carolina and southern North Carolina. Widespread rainfall amounts could reach 6 to 12 inches, spurring flooding. Some of the storm’s wind and rain could even creep into eastern Georgia.
The rain threat may not stop in the Carolinas. By early next week, a weakened but soggy Florence may drop rain on already saturated Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. These areas are vulnerable to flooding and downed trees after heavy rains this summer.
The latest (through 11 p.m. Thursday)
On Thursday evening, the Hurricane Center reported heavy rain bands with hurricane-force winds had arrived over North Carolina’s Outer Banks, while tropical storm conditions buffeted areas to the south.
Between 7 and 11 p.m., several weather stations on the Outer Banks reported sustained hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph and gusts near or over 100 mph. Just before 9 p.m., a weather station on Cape Lookout, N.C., clocked a sustained wind to 83 mph and gust to 106 mph. Another weather station in Fort Macon, N.C., gusted to 105 mph.
To the south, Wilmington had posted a gust to 63 mph. The violent winds had knocked out power to more than 100,000 people in the state.
The Hurricane Center reported sea levels “increasing quickly” on the western side of Pamlico Sound, where one gauge reported water heights about 4 feet above normal.
Just inland from the coast, flooding was already beginning along the Neuse River in New Bern. Downstream from New Bern, in the town of Oriental, the river level was 6 feet above normal.
As of 12 a.m. Friday, Florence’s top winds had lessened to 90 mph from 100 mph, dropping to a Category 1 storm. It was crawling northwest at 6 mph, 50 miles east of Wilmington, N.C., and 45 miles south-southwest of Morehead City, N.C.
The storm’s forward motion has slowed since Wednesday, which was predicted as the storm nears the coast. The slower motion will prolong effects from wind, rain and surge in the eastern Carolinas.
The Hurricane Center predicts the storm to maintain its current intensity until landfall with possible small fluctuations, after which wind speeds will steadily decline.
Hurricane warnings are in effect for the South Santee River in South Carolina to Duck, N.C, and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. This includes Wilmington. A tropical storm warning covers the area from north of Duck to the Virginia Tidewater area and, to the south, extends into the Charleston area.
Because landfalling hurricanes commonly spawn twisters, a tornado watch was issued for eastern North Carolina through 9 p.m.
Like a bulldozer, the storm’s winds and forward motion will push a tremendous amount of water onshore when it makes landfall. The storm surge could reach up to more than a story high, or 11 feet, if the maximum surge coincides with high tide.
The biggest surge should occur just to the north of where the eye of the storm comes ashore, which the Hurricane Center projects in southeastern North Carolina.
The surge will result in “large areas of deep inundation . . . enhanced by battering waves,” the Weather Service said. It warned of likely “structural damage to buildings . . . with several potentially washing away,” “flooded or washed-out coastal roads” and “major damage to marinas.”
Storm surge warnings were issued from South Santee River in South Carolina to Duck, N.C. The Charleston area is under a storm surge watch.
The Hurricane Center projects the following surge heights above normally dry land, if the maximum surge coincides with high tide:
- Cape Fear to Cape Lookout, including the Neuse, Pamlico, Pungo and Bay rivers: 7 to 11 feet
- Cape Lookout to Ocracoke Inlet: 6 to 9 feet
- South Santee River to North Myrtle Beach: 4 to 6 feet
- Ocracoke Inlet to Salvo, N.C.: 4 to 6 feet
- Salvo to North Carolina/Virginia Border: 2 to 4 feet
- Edisto Beach to South Santee River: 2 to 4 feet
Storm surge flooding may be compounded by heavy rainfall. “Florence’s slow motion also means that massive amounts of runoff [from the heavy rain] will be flowing into coastal inlets, where it will have no place to go while the circulation around Florence is still pushing water into shore,” write meteorologists Jeff Masters and Bob Henson at Weather Underground. “This will greatly exacerbate the potential for flooding.”
Models agree that excessive amounts of rain will fall in southeastern North Carolina.
“Floodwaters may enter numerous structures, and some may become uninhabitable or washed away,” the Weather Service warned.
Where exactly the zone of heaviest rain sets up as the storm meanders inland is more uncertain, but models suggest that it may concentrate in southern North Carolina and northern South Carolina through the weekend.
It has become likely that the storm will reverse course early next week and turn back north toward West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, albeit significantly weakened.
The Hurricane Center forecasts the following rain amounts:
- Coastal North Carolina into far northeastern South Carolina: 20 to 30 inches, isolated 40 inches.
- Remainder of South Carolina and North Carolina into southwest Virginia: 6 to 12 inches, isolated 15 inches
The strongest winds will occur where and when the storm makes landfall in a ring around the calm eye of the storm known as the eyewall.
The zone where these intense winds occur will be narrow and they will last just a few hours, but the effects will probably be severe, similar to a tornado.
A power outage model run at the University of Michigan projects that 3.2 million customers will be without electricity because of the storm, mostly in the eastern half of North Carolina.
Because the storm will be slow as it moves over the eastern Carolinas, these wind impacts will be magnified.
The latest path projections
While it is extremely likely that the eastern Carolinas will be hardest hit by the storm Thursday into Friday, the storm’s direction becomes far less certain over the weekend and next week.
Models agree the storm should strike land between the North Carolina-South Carolina border and the North Carolina Outer Banks, and then track across South Carolina. But then they gradually diverge. While all simulations show the storm turning back to the north Sunday or Monday, exactly where that turns occurs is a big wild card.
The storm could track north through the Ohio Valley, the Appalachians or even closer to the Interstate 95 corridor. The specifics of the track early next week will have implications for where the heaviest rainfall occurs north of the Carolinas.
The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach and Ann Gerhart contributed to this report.