WILMINGTON, N.C. — The big slosh has begun, and the consequences could be disastrous.
Hurricane Florence’s leading edge battered the Carolina coast Thursday, bending trees and shooting frothy sea water over streets on the Outer Banks, as the hulking storm closed in with 105 mph (165 kph) winds for a drenching siege that could last all weekend.
Forecasters said conditions will only get more lethal as the storm pushes ashore early Friday near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and makes its way slowly inland. Its surge of ocean water could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 13 feet, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.
Florence’s winds weakened as it drew closer to land, dropping from a peak of 140 mph (225 kph) earlier in the week, and the hurricane was downgraded from a terrifying Category 4 to a 2.
But North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned: “Don’t relax, don’t get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality.”
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.
More than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate over the past few days, and the homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions.
Homeless after losing her job at Walmart three months ago, 25-year-old Brittany Jones went to a storm shelter at a high school near Raleigh. She said a hurricane has a way of bringing everyone to the same level.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how many generators you have if you can’t get gas,” she said. “Whether you have a house or not, when the storm comes it will bring everyone together. A storm can come and wipe your house out overnight.”
Duke Energy Co. said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks. Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm’s aftermath, it said.
As of 2 p.m., Florence was centered about 110 miles (180 kilometers) southeast of Wilmington, its forward movement slowed to 10 mph (17 kph). Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles (315 kilometers).