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Florence's onslaught could cue disaster in North Carolina

By The Associated Press
Posted 2:12AM on Friday 14th September 2018 ( 8 months ago )

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Hurricane Florence already has inundated coastal streets with ocean water and left tens of thousands without power, and forecasters say conditions will only worsen as the hulking storm slogs inland.

Screaming winds bent trees toward the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence's leading edge whipped the Carolina coast Thursday to begin an onslaught that could last for days, leaving a wide area under water from both heavy downpours and rising seas.

The storm's intensity diminished as it neared land, with winds dropping to around 90 mph (144 kph) by nightfall. But that, combined with the storm's slowing forward movement and heavy rains, had Gov. Roy Cooper warning of an impending disaster.

"The worst of the storm is not yet here but these are early warnings of the days to come," he said. "Surviving this storm will be a test of endurance, teamwork, common sense and patience."

Cooper requested additional federal disaster assistance in anticipation of what his office called "historic major damage" across the state.

More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm began buffeting the coast, and more than 12,000 were in shelters. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.

Prisoners were affected, too. North Carolina corrections officials said more than 3,000 people were relocated from adult prisons and juvenile centers in the path of Florence, and more than 300 county prisoners were transferred to state facilities.

Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it's unclear how many did. The homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.

Spanish moss waved in the trees as the winds picked up in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City. Ocean water flowed between homes and on to streets on the Outer Banks; waves crashed against wooden fishing piers.

Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.

As of 2 a.m., Florence was centered about 35 miles (55 kilometers) east of Wilmington, North Carolina. Its forward movement increased slightly to 6 mph (9 kph). Hurricane-force winds extended 90 miles (150 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles (315 kilometers).

A buoy off the North Carolina coast recorded waves nearly 30 feet (9 meters) high as Florence churned toward shore.

Forecasters said conditions will deteriorate 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 (3.4 meters) of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet (0.9 meters) of rain, touching off severe flooding.

Once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 mph (225 kph), the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 1 on Thursday night.

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.

The hurricane was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticized as slow 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.

Not everyone was taking Florence too seriously: About two dozen locals gathered Thursday night behind the boarded-up windows of The Barbary Coast bar as Florence blew into Wilmington.

"We'll operate without power; we have candles. And you don't need power to sling booze," said owner Eli Ellsworth.

Others were at home hoping for the best.

"This is our only home. We have two boats and all our worldly possessions," said Susan Patchkofsky, who refused her family's pleas to evacuate and stayed at Emerald Isle with her husband. "We have a safe basement and generator that comes on automatically. We chose to hunker down."

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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 Koenig in Dallas; Gerry Broome at Nags Head, North Carolina; and Jay Reeves in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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For the latest on Hurricane Florence, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes

This enhanced satellite image made available by NOAA shows Hurricane Florence off the eastern coast of the United States on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 at 5:52 p.m. EDT. (NOAA via AP)
Members of law enforcement work with the National Guard to direct traffic onto U.S. Highway 501 as Hurricane Florence approaches the East Coast Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, near Conway, S.C. 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. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
UPDATED THU 5 A.M. Map shows probable path of Hurricane Florence. ; 1c x 2 1/2 inches; 46.5 mm x 63 mm;
Police patrol past boarded up shops along the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Waves crash under the Avalon Fishing Pier in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
An onlooker checks out the heavy surf at the Avalon Fishing Pier in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Heavy surf crashes the dunes at high tide in Nags Head, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gwen Patterson watches as waves crash ashore at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Va., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the coast. (Jonathon Gruenke/The Daily Press via AP)
Police patrol past boarded up shops along the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
An onlooker checks out the heavy surf at the Avalon Fishing Pier in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
New Hanover Sheriff's Corp. N. Brothers wraps a gas pump for protection in Wilmington, N.C., as Hurricane Florence threatens the coast Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
In this Sept. 12, 2018 photo provided by NASA, Hurricane Florence churns over the Atlantic Ocean heading for the U.S. east coast as seen from the International Space Station. Astronaut Alexander Gerst, who shot the photo, tweeted: "Ever stared down the gaping eye of a category 4 hurricane? It's chilling, even from space." (Alexander Gerst/ESA/NASA via AP)
Allen Cahoon and Toby Bryant load a generators for a customer Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 at Big Blue Store in Kinston NC.. (Janet S. Carter/Daily Free Press via AP)
Plywood covers the doors of the Chef and the Farmer on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 as the city awaits Hurricane Florence. (Janet S. Carter/Daily Free Press via AP)
Sam Kim and Donald Walker tape up the windows Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 at Sam's Hair and Beauty Supply in Kinston, N.C., ahead of Hurricane Florence. (Janet S. Carter/Daily Free Press via AP)
Misty Murphrey and Jean Sugg place sand bags outside of White Allen on McLewean Street in Kinston Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 as the city awaits Hurricane Florence. (Janet S. Carter/Daily Free Press via AP)
New Hanover Sheriff's deputy J. Brown wraps a gas pump for protection in Wilmington, N.C., as Hurricane Florence threatens the coast Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Mostly deserted, much of downtown Charleston, S.C. is boarded up and closed on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 in advance of Hurricane Florence. (Matthew Fortner/The Post And Courier via AP)
Michael and Polly Long walk down East Bay St. past a sign asking for Hurricane Florence to spare the Lowcountry in Charleston, S.C., as Hurricane Florence spins out in the Atlantic ocean Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
A bike rider makes her way down East Bay St. past a sign asking for Hurricane Florence to spare the Lowcountry in Charleston, S.C., as Hurricane Florence spins out in the Atlantic ocean Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
With most people off work and it looking like the Charleston, S.C., area will be spared from destructive winds many people biked to Dunleavy's Pub, one of the few open restaurants, on Sullivan's Island, S.C., as Hurricane Florence spins out in the Atlantic ocean Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Pedestrians pass a sign at the Harbour View Inn asking for Hurricane Florence to spare the Lowcountry in Charleston, S.C., as Hurricane Florence spins out in the Atlantic ocean Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Union Point Park is flooded with rising water from the Neuse and Trent Rivers in New Bern, N.C. Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Hurricane Florence already has inundated coastal streets with ocean water and left tens of thousands without power, and more is to come. (Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP)
Residents at Trent Court Apartments wait out the weather as rising water gets closer to their doors in New Bern, N.C. Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. Hurricane Florence already has inundated coastal streets with ocean water and left tens of thousands without power, and more is to come. (Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP)

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