Hundreds of thousands of people scrambled to get out of the coastal areas of the Carolinas on Wednesday ahead of Hurricane Florence, a mammoth storm that forecasters say has the potential for “unbelievable damage."
The storm, with maximum sustained winds at 130 mph, also moved closer to the East Coast, still more than 500 miles southeast of Cape Fear, N.C. Forecasters say Florence will reach North Carolina sometime between Thursday night and Friday as a Category 3 or 4 storm.
Airlines were already canceling hundreds of flights to and from the region and strongly advised travelers to check before leaving for the airport. By Wednesday afternoon, FlightAware.com reported more than 250 flights had been canceled nationwide, with many of the disruptions in the Carolinas. As many as 500 were already canceled for Thursday and 300 for Friday. Those numbers are expected to rise.
Southwest suspended operations midday Tuesday at Charleston International Airport and canceled nearly 200 flights through Saturday morning. The airline said it planned to cancel flights starting Thursday to airports in the region, including Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Norfolk, and Richmond. American had canceled more than 550 flights through the weekend; JetBlue canceled about 60 flights in the impacted area.
Airlines including American, JetBlue and Delta were waiving change fees for passengers who need to cancel or rebook flights. Some also were waiving luggage and pet fees.
Airlines said they are capping bookings for remaining seats in the affected region. JetBlue said fares on new bookings are capped at $149 to and from Savannah, Charleston, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, and Richmond through Sunday.
Officials at Charleston International Airport said they anticipate its runways to close by midnight Wednesday due to the tropical wind conditions. Southwest and Frontier stopped their Charleston flight operations Tuesday afternoon while JetBlue was planning to end flights at midnight, the airport said. Other airlines, including United and Alaska, planned to continue their operations through Wednesday.
Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham airports continued normal operations, but anticipated flight cancellations as the storm nears and urged travelers to check with their airlines before heading to the airport Thursday.
On the ground, Amtrak service to areas south of Washington had been canceled starting Wednesday.
On roads, long lines of cars and trucks could be seen traveling from the Virginia coast as tourists and residents fled the coastal zones — among the areas under a mandatory evacuation order. State transportation officials in South Carolina reversed lanes to expedite evacuations.
North Carolina Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon said at a morning press briefing that traffic was steady on major evacuation routes, including Interstate 40 and crews were ready to assist in evacuations. The agency has suspended ferry service, he said.
Gas stations were also jammed as Carolinians rushed to fill their tanks before Florence's arrival. News reports from across the state, including Durham and Wilmington, showed gas pumps covered with bags, signaling they were empty. The app GasBuddy reported Wednesday that the number of stations running out of gas continued to climb. The app said its members were reporting shortages in Wilmington, Greenville, and Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina.
When asked about fuel supply, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said at a morning briefing that supplies “are pretty good” and his understanding was that gas stations across the state had stocked up with three times their normal supply. He to urged residents in areas expected to be impacted to evacuate.
“No possession is worth your life,” he said. “Expect this storm to batter our state for days . . . Every person in North Carolina needs to stay alert.”