Hurricane Florence is forecast to be an extremely unsafe major hurricane when it nears the US coast, while some weakening is expected on Thursday, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in its latest advisory on Wednesday.
In the 5 a.m. ET advisory, Florence was 205 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, NC, packing maximum-sustained winds of 110 mph and moving to the northwest at 15 mph.
Florence's top winds were clocked on Thursday evening at 90 miles per hour (150 km/h) as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean, down from a peak of 140 miles per hour (224 km/h) earlier this week when it was classified a Category 4 storm. Apparently, the hurricane is just a few hundred miles away from the North Carolina's coastline.
Of three named tropical systems, Hurricane Florence is by far the most risky.
Although its peak winds diminished, forecasters said the storm's total energy grew as its inner core and outlying bands of wind expanded.
"For a meandering storm, the biggest concern - as we saw with Harvey - is the huge amount rainfall", said Chris Landsea, chief of tropical analysis and forecast branch at the National Hurricane Center.
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"The time to prepare is nearly over", North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a morning news conference. "Disaster is at the doorstep and it's coming in".
Some of the weather models predict that it may stall and sit and spin for a couple of days, just as Hurricane Harvey did over Houston a year ago. The forecast "cone of uncertainty" shows that Florence might severely affect the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee by Monday.
Tens of thousands of homes and businesses could be flooded in North Carolina alone, Governor Cooper warned.
In South Carolina, governor Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency on Saturday to give his state time to prepare for the possible arrival of a hurricane.
SC ordered the mandatory evacuation of one million coastal residents while North Carolina ordered an evacuation of the Outer Banks, barrier islands that are a popular tourist destination.
With flood waters advancing rapidly in many communities, around 50 stranded people had been airlifted out by helicopter in North Carolina, said Petty Officer Michael Himes of the U.S. Coast Guard. Authorities in Chatham County, Georgia, which borders SC and includes the historic port city of Savannah, urged residents who feel unsafe "to evacuate as they see fit".
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Some US media report concern about the effects of Florence on 6 nuclear power plants in the areas expected to be hit by the hurricane.
Usually when a storm approaches the coast, forecasters can tell with ever increasing accuracy where it will hit and who will get walloped.
Utility officials have warned that widespread power outages are likely and that it could take weeks to restore electricity.
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. "It's going to happen".
"In most hurricanes, we worry about our line and equipment being blown down to the ground", said Pettit.
Holly Waters, a retired special education teacher from Wilmington, said she was happy to have a place to go to relax before the storm worsened. "But no matter how bad it's going to be, it will pass and our job will be to rebuild this community together, and that's what we're going to do".
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