HOLDEN BEACH, N.C. (Reuters) – More than 1.5 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes along the U.S. southeast coast as Hurricane Florence, the most powerful to menace the Carolinas in nearly three decades, barreled closer on Tuesday.
Florence, a Category 4 storm packing winds of 130 miles per hour (210 kph), was expected to make landfall on Friday, most likely in southeastern North Carolina near the South Carolina border, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
Residents boarded up their homes and stripped grocery stories bare of food, water and supplies. Officials in South Carolina prepared to reverse lanes on major roadways to speed the evacuation of the coast.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster evoked the memory of 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, which killed 27 people in the state, in urging people to obey his evacuation order.
“I’d rather be safe than sorry,” McMaster told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday morning. “We want people to get out and get safe.”
The storm was located about 950 miles (1,530 km) east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, at 5 a.m. ET, according to the NHC, which warned it would be “an extremely dangerous major hurricane” through Thursday night.
In addition to flooding the coast with wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 12 feet (3.7 m), Florence could drop 20 inches to as much as 30 inches (51-76 cm) of rain in places, posing the risk of deadly flooding miles inland, forecasters said. They warned the storm could linger for days after making landfall.
Florence appears to have weakened slightly but is expected to restrengthen later on Tuesday, the NHC said.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued an evacuation order for about 245,000 residents in flood-prone coastal areas beginning at 8 a.m. local time and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster ordered about 1 million residents along his state’s coastline to leave starting at noon on Tuesday.
GRAPHIC: Hurricane Florence heads toward Carolinas – tmsnrt.rs/2oZ5m1v
STAY OR FLEE?
At least 250,000 more people were due to be evacuated from the northern Outer Banks in North Carolina on Tuesday after more than 50,000 people were ordered on Monday to leave Hatteras and Ocracoke, the southernmost of the state’s barrier islands.
North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland governors have declared states of emergency.
Mindful of devastation wrought by a string of deadly U.S. hurricanes last year, residents in the Carolinas began the rituals of disaster preparation – boarding up windows and stocking up on groceries, water and gasoline.
On North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island, part of the Outer Banks, Tom Pahl, 66, said he was getting ready to board up his house.
“We haven’t plywooded our house for several years but I am for this one,” Pahl, who serves as a Hyde County commissioner said in a phone interview.
Some of Pahl’s neighbors were talking about evacuating the island, which is reachable only by ferry and plane, but he had not yet made up his mind.
“The most uncomfortable part for staying for a hurricane is making the decision to stay,” Pahl said. “Nobody decides to stay until the last ferry runs,” he said.
Classified as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength, Florence was the most severe storm to threaten the U.S. mainland this year and the first of its magnitude to target the Carolinas since 1989, when Hurricane Hugo barreled over Charleston, South Carolina.
The United States was hit with a series of high-powered hurricanes last year, including Hurricane Maria, which killed some 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Harvey, which killed about 68 people and caused an estimated $1.25 billion in damage with catastrophic flooding in Houston.
Additional reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski