As Hurricane Florence continues its menacing churn toward the Eastern Seaboard, multiple states bracing for the potentially “catastrophic” storm are ordering residents along the coast to leave. Emergency officials in the Carolinas and Virginia gave evacuation orders to more than 1.25 million people Monday, including everybody along South Carolina’s 187-mile coastline.
Florence is expected to make landfall later this week — its precise target still uncertain, though officials up and down the coast warned of potential destruction.
“We do know that we’re in the bull's eye,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said at a Monday news briefing.
“We’re liable to have a whole lot of flooding,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said at a separate briefing. “We’re in for a real episode here.”
The National Hurricane Center said Monday that the storm is rapidly intensifying over the Atlantic Ocean and is now a major hurricane, with winds near 130 mph. Florence was upgraded from Category 3 to Category 4 on Monday and is expected to strengthen further before making landfall Thursday night or Friday morning.
The governors of Virginia and Maryland also have declared states of emergency. Virginia activated its 6,000-member National Guard and told residents to prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime storm.
President Trump weighed in as well, tweeting: “The Storms in the Atlantic are very dangerous. We encourage anyone in the path of these storms to prepare themselves and to heed the warnings of State and Local officials. The Federal Government is closely monitoring and ready to assist. We are with you!” He also tweeted photos of himself meeting with homeland security and FEMA officials.
McMaster ordered a “full coastal evacuation” from the eight South Carolina counties nearest to the Atlantic Ocean.
“This may be inconvenient,” McMaster said of his evacuation order. But, he added, “this is a very dangerous hurricane. … We are not going to gamble for the lives of the people of South Carolina, not a one.”
Beginning Tuesday, state officials will reverse the lanes on four major roadways leading to and from the coast, so that all paths will lead away from Hurricane Florence. Authorities expect about a million people to flee inland.
South Carolina will also shut down its state offices and schools in 26 counties, repurposing the buildings for shelters and the school buses for transportation.
“Throughout South Carolina, we’ll have heavy rains, we'll have heavy winds, we will have power lines down,” McMaster said. “People, we need to prepare.”
Cooper added that “we here in North Carolina are bracing for a hard hit.” Noting that “this storm is strong, and it’s getting stronger,” he urged residents to review emergency plans and gather supplies — before it's too late.
“We still have a couple days to get ready, so let’s use that time,” Cooper said.
Officials in North Carolina issued mandatory evacuation orders for Hatteras Island, on the southern end of the Outer Banks, beginning at noon Monday. The northern part of the Outer Banks, including the popular tourist destinations of Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, must be evacuated beginning Tuesday morning, Dare County Emergency Management said.
“Everyone in Dare County is encouraged to evacuate as soon as possible,” the agency said.
On Monday, as Cooper warned residents across the entire state — not just those along the coast — to be alert, he reminded North Carolinians that they have experienced this before.
“North Carolina is no stranger to hurricanes,” he said at a media briefing, counting off some of the most traumatic storms in Carolina history — including Matthew, Floyd and Fran. “We are a resilient state and resilient people.”
Officials have raised red flags along the Outer Banks telling beachgoers to avoid the ocean, and ferries from islands off the state's coast have been canceled. The waters off the coast already are showing signs of the hurricane in the form of large sea swells and life-threatening currents.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has canceled classes and all campus events and athletics. Students are urged, but not required, to evacuate. Wilmington, located on the North Carolina coast, appears to be in the hurricane's path. Cooper waived certain restrictions for trucks and heavy vehicles to help farmers harvest crops and move livestock ahead of the storm, state officials said.
In Virginia, officials warned of a once-in-a-lifetime storm as Northam ordered a mandatory evacuation in parts of the Hampton Roads area and the state’s Eastern Shore, where 245,000 people live.
“This is a serious storm, and it’s going to affect the entire state of Virginia,” Northam said at a Monday news briefing.
Northam said the potential flooding — not the heavy hurricane winds — will be the storm’s most dangerous accompaniment, and he advised residents in the evacuation zone to seek higher ground. Officials advised residents to remember Hurricane Harvey, invoking the storm that hit Houston last year and resulted in flooding that made it one of the most destructive storms in recent memory.
Virginia has mobilized its entire National Guard, some 6,000 troops, a move state officials say is unprecedented. Authorities have also called on other states to send water rescue teams to help.
Maryland officials said residents along the state’s Eastern Shore and those who live in areas that have seen a lot of rain in recent days are most at risk.
“We are preparing for the potential of historic, catastrophic and life-threatening flooding in Maryland,” said Gov. Larry Hogan (R) at a Monday news briefing.
Hogan said state officials are still unsure about the hurricane’s path and its potential impact on Maryland but that authorities are ready to respond.
“While we’re hoping for the best, we’re preparing for the worst,” Hogan said.
Several airlines will allow customers to change their flights at no extra cost if they're scheduled to travel through cities in the hurricane's path. American Airlines, Southwest and JetBlue have all offered fee waivers to customers heading in or out of some airports in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.
Florence, previously a tropical storm, rapidly intensified Monday morning, when it was upgraded to a Category 3 storm; about an hour later, the National Hurricane Center upgraded it again, to Category 4.
Officials expect the storm to park somewhere over the Carolinas, bringing heavy rain, flooding and potentially devastating winds to inland and coastal areas.
On Monday, Cooper stressed the gravity of the days ahead.
“When weather forecasters tell us ‘life-threatening,’ we know that it is serious,” he said.
He underscored his point when he compared Florence to three past hurricanes that haunted the state.
Hurricanes Matthew, Floyd and Fran took an enormous toll — in dollars and in death — in North Carolina and beyond: nearly $30 billion in damage and more than 650 deaths, according to National Hurricane Center data.
Matthew pummeled North Carolina in 2016, killing 22 people and submerging some of the state's small towns. The storm killed more than 500 people in Haiti before inflicting destruction on beaches and coastal communities in the United States, from Florida to Virginia.
In 1999, North Carolina was blasted by Floyd, a sprawling and fast-moving storm that passed across the state quickly but left behind fast-flooding rivers that, in the end, were responsible for much of the damage from the storm, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.
Three years before Floyd, Fran touched down in North Carolina, precipitating days of destruction. It has since been called one of the worst storms in the state’s history. Fittingly, Fran made landfall at Cape Fear, then traveled north and hit Raleigh, pulling down trees and power lines on its way into Virginia.
Cooper said he doesn't want Carolinians waiting around to see whether Florence will be like the storms that preceded it.
“Let me be clear: North Carolina is taking Hurricane Florence seriously, and you should, too,” he said. “Get ready now.”
Chico Harlan contributed to this report.
Graphic: Tracking Hurricane Florence