WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – Hurricane Florence, on track to become the first Category 4 storm to make a direct hit on North Carolina in six decades, howled closer to shore on Tuesday, threatening to unleash deadly pounding surf, days of torrential rain and severe flooding.
Fierce winds and massive waves are expected to lash the coasts of North and South Carolina and Virginia even before Florence makes landfall on Friday, and its rains will take a heavy toll for miles inland, the National Hurricane Center in Miami warned.
Although Florence was still days from arrival, authorities took extraordinary measures to move people out of harm’s way. More than 1 million residents have been ordered to evacuate from coastal areas of the three states, closing university campuses, schools and factories.
Packing maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour (225 km per hour), the storm ranked as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale and was expected to grow stronger and larger over the next few days, the NHC said.
“This storm is a monster,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said. “Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don’t bet your life on riding out a monster.”
He cited forecasts showing Florence was likely to stall over North Carolina, “bringing days and days of rain.”
To hasten evacuations from coastal South Carolina, officials reversed the flow of traffic on some highways so all major roads led away from shore. Miles of traffic slowed to a crawl along the main highway along North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands.
(GRAPHIC: Hurricane Florence heads toward Carolinas – tmsnrt.rs/2oZ5m1v)
Maps of Florence’s trajectory showed the center of the storm most likely to strike the southern coast of North Carolina. The last Category 4 hurricane to plow directly into North Carolina was Hazel in 1954, a devastating storm that killed 19 people and destroyed some 15,000 homes.
But NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen stressed the effects of Florence would be widely felt. Tropical storm-force winds would extend nearly 300 miles across three states. A hurricane warning was posted for most of the Carolina coast north to the Virginia border.
In addition to flooding the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 13 feet (4 m), Florence could dump 15 to 25 inches (38 to 64 cm) of rain, with up to 35 inches (89 cm) in some spots, forecasters said.
LONG-TERM POWER OUTAGES POSSIBLE
Communities in Florence’s path could be without electricity for weeks due to downed power lines and flooded equipment, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long said.
Utility companies deployed crews and gear in advance, according to trade group, the Edison Electric Institute. Workers from at least 15 states were en route to the region to assist with what could be a lengthy power restoration effort.
Crews also prepared 16 nuclear reactors in the three-state region for the storm. One power station, Duke Energy Corp’s Brunswick plant, the closest to the area where landfall is forecast, faced a likely shutdown as a precaution. Shutdowns also were possible at two more plants in the path of predicted hurricane-force winds.
The American Red Cross said more than 700 workers were headed to the target area while shelters were set up to take in those who could not evacuate. A hospital in Hampton, Virginia, was transferring patients to safer places.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed declarations of emergency for North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, freeing up federal resources for storm response.
“We are sparing no expense. We are totally prepared,” Trump said at the White House.
Trump faced severe criticism for his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico. Some 3,000 people died in the aftermath of that storm.
Days before its arrival, Florence was already disrupting commercial operations.
Boeing Co suspended work on Tuesday at the South Carolina plant where it assembles 787 widebody jetliners, and a Volvo automobile plant in South Carolina’s evacuation zone was also closed, company officials said.
Smithfield Foods Inc [SFII.UL] said it would shut down the world’s largest hog-slaughtering facility in Tar Heel, North Carolina, on Thursday and Friday due to the hurricane.
Residents prepared by boarding up their homes and stocking up on food, water and other essentials, stripping many grocery store shelves of merchandise. Some gasoline stations also ran low on fuel.
Not everyone was in a hurry to leave. Charles Mullen, 81, a longtime resident of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, said he had ridden out many storms and that most locals were planning to stay unless Florence took aim at Hatteras.
“If it decides to come here, we’re gone,” he said.
Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Additional reporting by Anna Driver in Holden Beach, North Carolina, Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina, Liz Hampton in Houston, Susan Heavey in Washington, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Scott DiSavino and Alden Bentley in New York, Nichola Groom and Alex Dobzinskis in Los Angeles and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Nick Zieminski, Bill Trott and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker