'Threat becomes reality': Florence begins days of rain, wind

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Latest forecast of Hurricane Florence from Gray-TV affiliate WITN in Greenville, N.C.

View of Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station (ISS) | Image Source: Alexander Gerst / NASA / MGN

The Latest on Hurricane Florence (all times local):

4:25 p.m.

As Hurricane Florence begins to batter North Carolina, the state's governor has asked President Donald Trump for another federal disaster declaration beyond what the president declared earlier this week.

Gov. Roy Cooper requested the added disaster declaration Thursday because he anticipates what his office calls "historic major damage" across the state from the hurricane.

Cooper's office says the current emergency declaration is helping state officials prepare for the storm. It says the additional declaration would bring more federal help with debris removal, search and rescue teams, meals and generators, among other items.

Cooper is seeking the new declaration so that federal funds and other assistance can be received as soon as possible.

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4 p.m.

The approach of Hurricane Florence has given one South Carolina beach community a sort of split personality — businesses closed and boarded up while surfers flock to the beach to take advantage of storm-churned waves.

Molly Reagan strolled in the sand Thursday on Sullivan's Island after leaving her office job early. She said she was one of the only people who showed up for work. Many had heeded evacuation orders that included the island just east of Charleston.

The sky was cloudy and waves crashed along the beach. But Reagan said the weather remained calm and "the only thing crazy here is the amount of people out surfing."

A hurricane watch was in effect for the Charleston area. Reagan said she's not worried: "It's looking like we may get tropical storm conditions. Maybe."

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3:15 p.m.

South Carolina officials say more than 400,000 people have evacuated the state's coast and more than 4,000 people have taken refuge in shelters as Hurricane Florence approaches.

State Transportation Department Secretary Christy Hall said Thursday that an estimated 421,000 residents had left the coast.

Acting Department of Social Services Director Joan Meacham says shelters are about 12 percent full with the 4,000 residents. Meacham says the state can house more than 35,000 people if needed. She says 61 shelters have opened thus far, including 12 that are specially outfitted to help people with special medical needs.

Gov. Henry McMaster has ordered the evacuation of most of the state's coastline as the storm approaches.

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2:45 p.m.

Officials say Hurricane Florence could bring not only flooding but also landslides to South Carolina.

The National Weather Service is forecasting "significant" river flooding, especially in the northeastern portion of the state. That same area experienced dangerous flooding after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters Thursday that up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) of rain in the state's northwestern mountains could mean landslides and dangerous conditions.

McMaster has ordered evacuations along much of the state's coast. He warned residents to be prepared to be without electricity "for a long time" in the storm's aftermath.

The outer bands of Hurricane Florence have begun to impact the coast of North Carolina.

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2:45 p.m.

Two amphibious Navy ships are on standby to respond and provide disaster relief after Hurricane Florence moves through.

Navy Lt. Jamie Seibel said Thursday that the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the amphibious transport ship USS Arlington are the two ships that have been tapped to respond.

Seibel says about 800 Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are aboard the two ships, which will move directly to where they are needed once the storm passes.

Seibel said the ships already have the resources and supplies they need, including a fleet surgical team, engineers and damage assessment personnel, as well as heavy- and medium-lift helicopters, search-and-rescue aircraft and smaller ship-to-shore landing craft.

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2:45 p.m.

National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham says hurricane-force winds are starting to get really close to shore as Florence slowly nears the Carolinas.

Graham says it may not be until Monday or Tuesday before the system moves away from North Carolina and South Carolina. He says that in the storm's wake will be a lot of rainfall, a lot of river flooding and "a lot of issues."

Television footage Thursday afternoon showed water in a street at knee level due to storm surge in New Bern, North Carolina.

Graham says that because so much water is being pushed ashore by Florence, rivers and inlets that normally flow out to sea will be forced to flow in the opposite direction. Storm surge also could push several miles (kilometers) inland.

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2 p.m.

Power outages already are creeping up along the North Carolina coast as tropical storm-force winds started sweeping over land.

Electric utilities and cooperatives reported about 12,000 outages statewide as of early Thursday afternoon, with nearly all of them at the coast. Most of the homes and businesses without electricity are in Carteret and Craven counties. Both are north of the eye's projected path and expected to get massive amounts of rain— potentially 20 inches (50 centimeters) or more.

Duke Energy is the largest of the utilities in the Carolinas. The company predicts Carolinas power outages caused by Florence will range from 1 million to 3 million customers. It's got more than 20,000 workers from the Carolinas and other states in place to restore power.

Duke reported few South Carolina outages Thursday afternoon.

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2 p.m.

The only route off North Carolina's Hatteras Island has closed as Hurricane Florence approaches.

Officials with the state Transportation Department said Thursday afternoon that N.C. Highway 12 was closed in both directions on Hatteras Island, part of the Outer Banks.

The closure means that people who chose to ride out the storm now officially have no way off the island. The two-lane highway is the only route to the mainland other than ferries.

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2 p.m.

Forecasters say Hurricane Florence won't change much before its eye makes landfall.

As of 2 p.m. Thursday, the Category 2 storm was centered about 110 miles (180 kilometers) east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 165 miles (270 kilometers) east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Its forward movement was 10 mph (17 kph) and top sustained winds stayed at 105 mph (165 kph).

Florence's outer bands of wind and rain began lashing North Carolina on Thursday. Its center will approach the coast later Thursday and make landfall around the North Carolina-South Carolina line.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center say the storm will weaken after landfall but also linger, dumping heavy rains for days.

Florence's hurricane-force winds were blowing 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds reached up to 195 miles (315 kilometers) from the eye.

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1:15 p.m.

An emergency management official in one of the most populated areas of coastal North Carolina says winds from the storm have already arrived and other impacts won't be far behind.

New Hanover County Emergency Management Director Steven Still said Thursday that residents who didn't evacuate should expect 60 mph (97 kph) winds by 7 p.m. that would eventually increase to 100 mph (161 kph) or more.

Still says residents "can expect to have that wind to the tune of 100 mph-plus stay on us for considerable period of time."

Still says landfall is expected around 8 a.m. Friday in the Wrightsville Beach area, and he said the area could see 20 to 30 inches (50 to 75 cms) of rain and beaches could get 9 to 10 to feet (about 3m) of storm surge.

Wrightsville Beach Mayor William Blair says evacuations are complete.

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1:15 p.m.

The head of Duke Energy Corp.'s North Carolina operations says it could take weeks to restore electricity if the company's prediction that 1 million to 3 million of its 4 million customers lose power due to Hurricane Florence.

Duke Energy executive David Fountain said Thursday that flooding from the slow-moving Florence must recede before crews can start sizing up needed repairs. He says based on the experience with Hurricane Matthew two years ago, it could be days before assessments start and the major electricity provider in the Carolinas can estimate when power can be restored.

Fountain says outages in the worst-hit areas could last for weeks.

He says repair crews will go where they can do the most good and won't prioritize Duke Energy customers over the electric cooperatives and municipal utilities that buy and resell power.

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12:15 p.m.

A flight-tracking service says about 1,200 U.S. airline flights scheduled for Thursday or Friday have been canceled, with some airports in the Carolinas essentially shut down.

FlightAware said in its midday report Thursday that the number of canceled flights is relatively small and could increase.

However, the hurricane's effect on the nationwide air-travel system will be less than feared if, as now forecast, Florence veers away from the American Airlines hub airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, and doesn't score a direct hit on Delta Air Lines' massive hub in Atlanta.

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11:50 a.m.

A private weather-forecasting firm is estimating that Hurricane Florence will cause $50 billion to $60 billion in economic damages.

Accuweather founder and President Joel Myers said in a news release Thursday that much of that will stem from flooding, with coastal damage as the second-biggest factors. Winds come in third.

Florence's winds had dropped from a peak of 140 mph (225 kph) to 105 mph (165 kph) by midmorning Thursday, reducing the hurricane from a Category 4 to a Category 2. But forecasters warned that the storm is growing in size and moving slowly, which will bring seawater surging onto land and torrential downpours.

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11:50 a.m.

One of South Carolina's major power companies is warning customers to be wary of fallen power lines and other hazards that could come after Hurricane Florence's arrival.

South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. CEO Keller Kissam gave updates to reporters Thursday in a news conference at the company's headquarters in Cayce (KAY-cee).

Kissam says the storm, which is expected to bring torrential rains and sustained winds, could mean that it takes linemen longer to repair any power problems, in part due to concerns for their own safety.

Kissam says SCE&G has been in touch with other power companies in the Southeast that are willing to help with any problems after the storm. Kissam says crews are already in South Carolina from other states, including Mississippi.

SCE&G has more than 700,000 power customers in South Carolina.

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The big slosh has begun, and the consequences could be disastrous.

Hurricane Florence's leading edge battered the Carolina coast Thursday, bending trees and shooting frothy sea water over streets on the Outer Banks, as the hulking storm closed in with 100 mph (155 kph) winds for a drenching siege that could last all weekend.

Forecasters said conditions will only get more lethal as the storm pushes ashore early Friday near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and makes its way slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.

Florence's winds weakened as it drew closer to land, dropping from a peak of 140 mph (225 kph) earlier in the week, and the hurricane was downgraded from a terrifying Category 4 to a 2.

But North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned: "Don't relax, don't get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality."

Forecasters said that given the storm's size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.

"It truly is really about the whole size of this storm," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. "The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact — and we have that."

The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as sluggish and unprepared for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.

As Florence drew near, President Donald Trump tweeted that FEMA and first responders are "supplied and ready," and he disputed the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico, claiming the figure was a Democratic plot to make him look bad.

Schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia, airlines canceled about 1,200 flights and counting, and coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely emptied out.

Around midday, Spanish moss blew sideways in the trees as the winds increased in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City. Some of the few people still left in Nags Head on the Outer Banks took photos of angry waves topped with white froth. By early afternoon, utilities reported about 12,000 homes and businesses had lost power.

Wilmington resident Julie Terrell was plenty concerned after walking to breakfast past a row of shops fortified with boards, sandbags and hurricane shutters.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm probably a 7" in terms of worry, she said. "Because it's Mother Nature. You can't predict."

Forecasters' European climate model is predicting 2 trillion to 11 trillion gallons of rain will fall on North Carolina over the next week, according to meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com. That's enough water to fill the Empire State Building nearly 40,000 times.

More than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate over the past few days, and the homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.

Homeless after losing her job at Walmart three months ago, 25-year-old Brittany Jones went to a storm shelter at a high school near Raleigh. She said a hurricane has a way of bringing everyone to the same level.

"It doesn't matter how much money you have or how many generators you have if you can't get gas," she said. "Whether you have a house or not, when the storm comes it will bring everyone together. A storm can come and wipe your house out overnight."

Duke Energy Co. said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks. Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm's aftermath, it said.

As of 5 p.m., Florence was centered about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Wilmington, its forward movement slowed to 5 mph (7 kph). Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles (315 kilometers).

Scientists said it is too soon to say what role, if any, global warming played in the storm. But previous research has shown that the strongest hurricanes are getting wetter, more intense and intensifying faster because of human-caused climate change.

Florence's weakening as it neared the coast created tension between some who left home and authorities who worried that the storm could still be deadly.

Frustrated after evacuating his beach home for a storm that was later downgraded, retired nurse Frederick Fisher grumbled in the lobby of a Wilmington hotel several miles inland.

"Against my better judgment, due to emotionalism, I evacuated," said Fisher, 74. "I've got four cats inside the house. If I can't get back in a week, after a while they might turn on each other or trash the place."

Authorities pushed back against any suggestion the storm's threat was exaggerated.

The police chief of a barrier island in Florence's bulls'-eye said he was asking for next-of-kin contact information from the few residents who refused to leave.

"I'm not going to put our personnel in harm's way, especially for people that we've already told to evacuate," Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said.

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Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Washington; Jeffrey Collins in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Jennifer Kay in Miami; Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina; Sarah Rankin and Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; Skip Foreman in Charlotte, North Carolina; Jeff Martin in Hampton, Georgia; David Koeing in Dallas; Gerry Broome at Nags Head, North Carolina; and Jay Reeves in Atlanta contributed to this report.



 
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