Hurricane Florence has strengthened into a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm as it closes in on North and South Carolina, carrying wind and water that could wreak havoc over a wide stretch of the eastern US coast.
South Carolina’s governor ordered the state’s entire coastline to be evacuated starting at noon on Tuesday.
The first effects were already being seen on barrier islands as dangerous rip currents hit beaches and seawater flowed over a state highway.
For many people, the challenge could be finding a safe refuge. If Florence slows to a crawl just off the coast, it could bring torrential rain to the Appalachian mountains and as far away as West Virginia, causing flash floods, mudslides and other dangerous conditions.
The storm’s potential path also includes half a dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous eastern pig farms that store animal waste in massive open-air lagoons.
National Hurricane Centre director Ken Graham warned that Florence is forecast to linger over the Carolinas once it reaches shore. People living well inland should prepare to lose power and endure flooding and other hazards, he warned.
“It’s not just the coast,” Mr Graham said. “When you stall a system like this and it moves real slow, some of that rainfall can extend well away from the centre.”
A warm ocean is the fuel that powers hurricanes, and Florence will be moving over waters where temperatures are peaking near 30C, hurricane specialist Eric Blake wrote.
With little wind to pull the storm apart, Florence’s hurricane wind field is expected to expand over coming days, increasing its storm surge and inland wind threats.
By noon on Monday, Florence had top sustained winds of 130mph. It was centred east-south-east of Cape Fear, North Carolina, and moving west. Its centre will move between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday and approach the coast of South or North Carolina on Thursday, the National Hurricane Centre said.
Meanwhile, two other storms were also spinning in the Atlantic. Hurricane Isaac is expected to lose strength as it reaches the Caribbean, and Helene, much farther out to sea, may veer northwards into open ocean as the 2018 hurricane season reaches its peak.
Preparations for Florence are intensifying up and down the densely populated coast. Since reliable record-keeping began more than 150 years ago, North Carolina has only been hit by one Category 4 hurricane – Hazel, with 130mph winds, in 1954.
The governors of North and South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia declared states of emergency ahead of the approaching storm. South Carolina governor Henry McMaster also suspended his campaign and asked President Donald Trump for a federal emergency declaration.
North Carolina governor Roy Cooper said his state was “in the bullseye” of the storm.
“Let me be clear: North Carolina is taking Hurricane Florence seriously and you should too,” Mr Cooper said at a news conference. “Get ready now.”