WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) -- The outer bands of wind and rain
from a weakened but still lethal Hurricane Florence began lashing North
Carolina on Thursday as the monster storm moved in for a prolonged and
potentially catastrophic stay along the Southeast coast that could drench the
homes of as many as 10 million people.
Florence's winds dropped from a peak of 140 mph to 110 mph
early Thursday. That reduced Florence from a Category 4 hurricane to a Category
2, but forecasters warned that the widening storm -- and its likelihood of
lingering around the coast day after day after day -- will bring ocean water
surging onto land and torrential rain.
"It truly is really about the whole size of this storm,"
National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham said. "The larger and the
slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact -- and we have that."
As of 8 a.m. Eastern time, Florence was centered about 170
miles southeast of Wilmington, moving at 12 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended
80 miles from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles.
Forecasters said Florence's eye could come ashore early
Friday around the North Carolina-South Carolina line. Then it is likely to
hover along the coast Saturday, pushing up to 13 feet of storm surge and
unloading water on both states.
The forecast calls for as much as 40 inches of rain over
seven days along the coast, with the deluge continuing even as the center of
the storm pushes its way over the Appalachian Mountains.
The result: catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp
homes, businesses, farm fields and industrial sites.
The police chief of a barrier island in Florence's bulls'-eye
said he was seeking next-of-kin contact information from the few residents who
refused to evacuate.
"I'm not going to put our personnel in harm's way,
especially for people that we've already told to evacuate," Wrightsville
Beach Police Chief Dan House said.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged residents to remain
alert despite changing forecasts.
"Don't relax, don't get complacent. Stay on guard. This
is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality," he
About 5.25 million people live in areas under hurricane
warnings or watches, and 4.9 million in places covered by tropical storm
warnings or watches, the National Weather Service said.
Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said
Florence eventually could strike as a Category 1 with winds less than 100 mph,
but that's still enough to cause at least $1 billion in damage. Water kills
more people in hurricanes than wind does.
It's unclear exactly how many people fled, but more than 1.7
million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out. Airlines
canceled nearly 1,000 flights and counting. Home Depot and Lowe's activated emergency
response centers to get generators, trash bags and bottled water to stores
before and after the storm. The two hardware chains said they sent in a total
of around 1,100 trucks.
Duke Energy, the nation's No. 2 power company, 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.
Florence's weakening as it neared the coast created tension
between some who left home and authorities who worried that the storm could
still be deadly.
Frustrated after evacuating his beach home for a storm that
has since been downgraded, retired nurse Frederick Fisher grumbled in the lobby
of a hotel in Wilmington several miles inland.
"Against my better judgment, due to emotionalism, I
evacuated," he said. "I've got four cats inside the house. If I can't
get back in a week, after a while they might turn on each other or trash the