Hurricane Florence

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Hurricane Florence's Winds And Rain Begin Lashing Carolinas

September 13, 2018 - 1:37 pm
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WCBS 880/AP) -- The outer bands of wind and rain from a weakened but still lethal Hurricane Florence began lashing North Carolina on Thursday as the monster storm moved in for a prolonged and potentially catastrophic stay along the Southeast coast that could drench the homes of as many as 10 million people.

Florence's winds dropped from a peak of 140 mph to 110 mph early Thursday. That reduced Florence from a Category 4 hurricane to a Category 2, but forecasters warned that the widening storm — and its likelihood of lingering around the coast day after day after day — will bring ocean water surging onto land and torrential rain.

"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."

As of 8 a.m., Florence was centered about 170 miles southeast of Wilmington, moving at 12 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles.

Forecasters said Florence's eye could come ashore early Friday around the North Carolina-South Carolina line. Then it is likely to hover along the coast Saturday, pushing up to 13 feet of storm surge and unloading water on both states.

“CBS Evening News” anchor Jeff Glor oined WCBS 880’s Joe Avellar and Michael Wallace from Wilmington late Thursday afternoon.

“We’re looking at sustained winds of 30-plus miles an hour with the gusts of 50 to 60 miles an hour. It’s definitely – it’s gotten significantly worse in just the past couple hours here in Wilmington,” Glor said. “We saw some of the worst winds earlier in Morehead City, which is north of here, but now, the real outer bands of Florence have moved in, and we’re expecting rain and wind – really strong rain and wind – for 36 hours plus.”

CBS News Correspondent Jim Krasula was also in Wilmington as the winds gradually began picking up.

“Right now, the wind has died down a bit. It comes and goes; at times we’re buffeted with some pretty good wind gusts – upwards of 30, 35, 40 miles an hour – that’s tropical storm force,” Krasula said around 3:30 p.m. We also had initial rain bands here in this historic port city. They come in, rain very heavily – it’s a wind-driven rain – and then it lets up.”

Hurricane-force winds are expected to strike Wilmington as soon as nightfall.

“The National Weather Service Hurricane Center, the best guess is that this is going to come in near Wilmington sometime tomorrow morning; mid- to late morning; maybe even a bit earlier; perhaps 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock tomorrow morning is the best guess,” Krasula said. “And we will have; we should see at least here, winds over 100 miles an hour; perhaps a pretty good Category 2 hurricane; pretty strong Category 2 hurricane, when it hits.”

There are also serious concerns about storm surge. The National Hurricane Center anticipates storm surge of as much as 15 feet directly on the coast and barrier islands. But there are also worries about the inner sides of the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, which protrude far inland from the coast.

In downtown Wilmington, storm surge could come push a lot of water up the Cape Fear River, Krasula said.

The forecast calls for as much as 40 inches of rain over seven days along the coast, with the deluge continuing even as the center of the storm pushes its way over the Appalachian Mountains.

The result: catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses, farm fields and industrial sites.

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

"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.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged residents to remain alert despite changing forecasts.

"Don't relax, don't get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality," he said.

Time is running short to get out of the way of Hurricane Florence, a monster of a storm that has a region of more than 10 million people in its potentially devastating sights as it zeroes in on the Southeastern coast.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning issued a video statement warning people to get out of the path of the hurricane.

In the videotaped message from the White House, Trump said the government is fully prepared for Florence but urged people to "get out of its way."

"Don't play games with it. It's a big one," he said.

But in Wilmington, some people have chosen not to leave.

“Some of these homes here near downtown Wilmington are back from the Civil War days; pre-Civil War days, so they’ve been around here a long time,” Krasula said. “A lot of these old buildings, people feel that they’re safe in them; they can withstand these storms.”

Glor said he got the sense that most people were still heeding the warning.

“I haven’t gotten the sense that people have really backed off. Because so many people have left, I don’t think that anybody’s made a decision to come back at all. And I think that, you know, there are experienced sort of hurricane folks down here who have dealt with many hurricane – which are all different, by the way – so they know, and I think they’ve known from the beginning, that this is going to be more of a rain even than it is a wind event, and they’re prepared for some potentially catastrophic flooding,” he said.

The National Hurricane Center's best guess was that Florence would blow ashore as early as Friday afternoon around the North Carolina-South Carolina line, then slog its rainy way westward with a potential for catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses and farm fields.

About 5.25 million people live in areas under hurricane warnings or watches, and 4.9 million live in places covered by tropical storm warnings or watches, the National Weather Service said.

Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said Florence eventually could strike as merely a Category 1 hurricane with winds less than 100 mph, but that's still enough to cause at least $1 billion in damage. Water kills more people in hurricanes than wind, and he said it will still be an extremely dangerous storm for rain and storm surge.

The hurricane center is forecasting the storm to hover near the coast Saturday with winds of around 80 mph before landfall, but with rainfall in the 20 to 30 inches range and up to 13 feet of storm surge.

Glor broke down the likely devastating scenarios when  it comes to flooding, particularly given that North Carolina has already had had record rainfall for this year.

“The ground and everything else is already saturated here. There’s really nowhere for the water to go, even if we were to get 5 or 10 inches of rain. When you start talking about 20 inches of rain, and in some isolated spots, there’s the potential for 30 to 40 inches of rain, that presents major, major problems,” he said. “And we saw what happened in Houston last year with Harvey when the water just has nowhere to go, and that’s really what everyone is focused.”

It's unclear exactly how many people fled, but more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out. Airlines had canceled nearly 1,000 flights and counting. Home Depot and Lowe's activated emergency response centers to get generators, trash bags and bottled water to stores before and after the storm. The two hardware chains said they sent in a total of around 1,100 trucks.

Duke Energy, the nation's No. 2 power company, 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.

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 has since been downgraded, retired nurse Frederick Fisher grumbled in the lobby of a hotel in Wilmington several miles inland.

"Against my better judgment, due to emotionalism, I evacuated," he said. "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."

Boarding up his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Chris Pennington watched the forecasts and tried to decide when to leave.

"In 12 or 18 hours, they may be saying different things all over again," he said.

Computer models of exactly what the storm might do varied, adding to the uncertainty. Reacting to the possibility of a more southerly track, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared an emergency but did not immediately order any evacuations.

"I ask all Georgians to join me in praying for the safety of our people and all those in the path of Hurricane Florence," Deal said.

In Virginia, where about 245,000 residents were ordered to evacuate low-lying areas, officials urged people to remain away from home despite forecast changes showing Florence's path largely missing the state.

Their entire neighborhood evacuated in Wilmington, North Carolina, David and Janelle Garrigus planned to ride out Florence at their daughter's one-bedroom apartment in Charlotte. Unsure of what they might find when they return home, the couple went shopping for a recreational vehicle.

"We're just trying to plan for the future here, not having a house for an extended period of time," David Garrigus said.

Melody Rawson evacuated her first-floor apartment in Myrtle Beach and arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia, to camp for free with three other adults, her disabled son, two dogs and a pet bird.

"We hope to have something left when we get home," she said. Three other Southern raceways also opened campgrounds to evacuees.

Forecasters worried the storm's damage will be all the worse if it lingers on the coast. The trend is "exceptionally bad news," said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy, since it "smears a landfall out over hundreds of miles of coastline, most notably the storm surge."

With South Carolina's beach towns more in the bull's-eye because of the shifting forecast, Ohio vacationers Chris and Nicole Roland put off their departure from North Myrtle Beach to get the maximum amount of time on the sand. Most other beachgoers were long gone.

"It's been really nice," Nicole Roland said. "Also, a little creepy. You feel like you should have already left."

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.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)