The big slosh: Florence hits coast

The Star Democrat - - OBITUARIES - By JONATHAN DREW JONATHON GRUENKE/THE DAILY PRESS VIA AP As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers Seth Boren­stein in Wash­ing­ton; Jef­frey Collins in Myr­tle Beach, S.C.; Jen­nifer Kay in Mi­ami; Gary Robert­son in Raleigh, N.C.; Sarah Rankin and Denise Lavoie in Rich­mond, Va

WILM­ING­TON, N.C. (AP) — 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 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 dump 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 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 and farm waste sites.

“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.”

Schools and busi­nesses closed as far south as Ge­or­gia, air­lines can­celed about 1,200 flights and count­ing, and coastal towns in the Caroli­nas were largely emp­tied out.

Around mid­day, Span­ish moss blew side­ways in the trees as the winds in­creased in Wilm­ing­ton. Some of the few peo­ple still left in Nags Head on the Outer Banks took photos of an­gry waves topped with white froth. By early af­ter­noon, util­i­ties re­ported about 12,000 homes and busi­nesses were al­ready in the dark.

Wilm­ing­ton res­i­dent Julie Ter­rell was plenty con­cerned af­ter walk­ing to break­fast past a row of shops for­ti­fied with boards, sand­bags and hur­ri­cane shut­ters.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m prob­a­bly a 7” in terms of worry, she said. “Be­cause it’s Mother Na­ture. You can’t pre­dict.”

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.

Duke En­ergy Co. said Florence could knock out elec­tric­ity to three­quar­ters 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 south­east of Wilm­ing­ton, its for­ward move­ment slowed to 10 mph. Hur­ri­cane-force winds ex­tended 80 miles from its cen­ter, and trop­i­cal-storm-force winds up to 195 miles.

Sci­en­tists said it is too soon to say what role, if any, global warm­ing played in the storm. But pre­vi­ous re­search has shown that the strong­est hur­ri­canes are get­ting wet­ter, more in­tense and in­ten­si­fy­ing faster be­cause of hu­man-caused cli­mate change.

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 was later down­graded, re­tired nurse Fred­er­ick Fisher grum­bled in the lobby of a Wilm­ing­ton ho­tel sev­eral miles in­land.

“Against my bet­ter judg­ment, due to emo­tion­al­ism, I evac­u­ated,” said Fisher, 74. “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 place.”

Au­thor­i­ties pushed back against any sug­ges­tion the storm’s threat was ex­ag­ger­ated.

The po­lice chief of a bar­rier is­land in Florence’s bulls’-eye said he was ask­ing for next-of-kin contact in­for­ma­tion from the few res­i­dents who re­fused to leave.

“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.

Gwen Pat­ter­son watches as waves crash ashore at Buck­roe Beach in Hamp­ton, Va., Thurs­day, Sept. 13, as Hur­ri­cane Florence ap­proaches the coast.

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