Just as Florence bears down on the Southeast, hurricane-force winds cover more than 15,000 square miles — larger than the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
That’s because the area covered by hurricane-force winds recently doubled — meaning far more people will get blasted with winds topping 73 mph.
By late Thursday afternoon, the Carolina coasts can expect winds stronger than 80 mph. And that’s just the prelude to untold days of misery for people who have stayed behind.
“If you’re going to leave — and you should leave, if you haven’t left yet — you should leave now. … Time is running out,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at a midafternoon news conference.
What also makes Florence extremely dangerous are the deadly storm surges, mammoth coastal flooding and historic rainfall expected far inland.
“Catastrophic effects will be felt outside the center of the storm due to storm surge as high as 9 to 13 feet. That’s the second story of a house,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday morning. “Tens of thousands of structures are expected to be flooded, and many more by rising rivers and creeks.”
And don’t be fooled by the fact that Florence has weakened slightly to a strong Category 2 hurricane. Categories only represent the speed of sustained winds, and these are still destructive.
“I don’t care if this goes down to a Category 1. We’re still going to have a Category 4 storm surge,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Even worse: Florence is expected to hover over the Carolinas, whipping hurricane-force winds and dumping relentless rain at least through Saturday.
The tropical cyclone is expected to unload 10 trillion gallons of rainfall in North Carolina, weather.us meteorologist Ryan Maue said. That’s enough to fill more than 15 million Olympic-size swimming pools.
Now, many more people and houses are set to endure hurricane-force winds, which extend 80 miles out from Florence’s center.
“It’s cumulative damage,” Myers said. When fierce winds keep up for a long time, homes are “going to start to deteriorate. So will the trees. So will the power lines, as the trees fall down.”
• Fierce winds and rain have started: “Heavy rainbands with tropical-storm-force winds (are) spreading across the outer banks and coastal southeastern North Carolina,” the National Hurricane Center said late Thursday morning. Tropical-storm-force winds are between 39 and 73 mph.
• Florence is getting closer: As of 2 p.m. ET Thursday, the center of Florence was about 110 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 165 miles east of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As the storm moves inland, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland will also be in peril.
• When is landfall? Florence’s center will approach the North and South Carolina coasts late Thursday and Friday. The actual landfall — when the center of the eye reaches land — will be Friday afternoon at the earliest, said Neil Jacobs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
• Widespread power outages: Duke Energy, a power company serving North and South Carolina, expects as many as 3 million customers to lose power during Hurricane Florence.
• Tornadoes are possible: A few twisters are likely later Thursday through Friday in southeast North Carolina, federal forecasters predicted.
• Many flights are canceled: More than 1,000 flights along the US East Coast have been canceled through Friday.
Millions either flee or prepare for mayhem
Despite days of warnings to evacuate, some residents are staying put — even if they don’t want to.
Cheryl Browning lives with her husband and son, who has terminal cancer, in Richlands, North Carolina. They also have three dogs and three parrots.
Browning’s choice to stay in the hurricane warning zone wasn’t easy, she said, but she “could not find anywhere to go.”
“Either no (hotel) rooms are available, or we are denied because the breed or size of dogs,” she said. “Many that will accept them only allow one per room. And since we have three dogs and three parrots, they’re requesting us to purchase two to six rooms.”
And there’s no way her family could afford that — or the $1,728 per room another hotel quoted. Other residents have told CNN they’re not evacuating because emergency shelters won’t accept pets.
“Since my husband retired and my health declined, we have his retirement as an income. He is the only caregiver to me and my son,” Browning said. “So since we can’t find anything within our means, … we’ve opted to stay.”
Her neighbors gave her the key to their house, which is two stories and might be safer from flooding, she said. It’s a kind gesture but doesn’t alleviate Browning’s fear.
“I’m not going to lie: I’m scared,” she said. “But I think it’ll be OK.”
Thousands bunk in shelters
More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate — but the window to do so is almost over.
“Inland flooding kills a lot of people. … Please keep that in mind,” and consider leaving soon, Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said midmorning Thursday.
More than 6,700 people spent Wednesday night in 127 Red Cross and community shelters in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, Red Cross spokeswoman Stephanie Rendon said.
In North Carolina, Florence is expected to dump up to 40 inches of rain.
The mayor of Carolina Beach, North Carolina, said authorities have stopped allowing traffic to the island via the only bridge between the island and the mainland.
The town is less than 5 feet above sea level, and officials worry that as many as 1,000 of its 6,300 residents are planning to stay.
Mayor Joe Benson said the storm will batter Carolina Beach through two high-tide periods. Storm surge of 13 feet on top of a high tide at 7 feet could overwhelm the town.
Like many other officials in the storm’s path, South Carolina’s McMaster said no one will be able to save at-risk residents if they choose to ride out the storm.
“Even the rescuers cannot stay there,” he said.
Emergencies declared in several states
Officials in several states have declared states of emergency, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.
Florence’s expanse even captured the attention of the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station, who have been tweeting pictures of the storm back to Earth.
“Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye,” German astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted. “Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you.”
Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac is forecast to approach the Lesser Antilles Islands on Thursday. Hurricane Helene is veering toward Europe. And newly formed Subtropical Storm Joyce is not expected to threaten land soon. Those four storms are brewing at the same time Hurricane Olivia is pounding Hawaii.