- Hurricane Florence is a Category 1 storm moving toward the coast at 6 mph
- According the the National Hurricane Center's 11 p.m. update, Florence's max sustained winds dropped to 90 mph
- Sustained hurricane-force winds and life-threatening storm surge are battering the North Carolina coast
- Hurricane warnings are in place along the coast from the Grand Stand to the Outer Banks
- Landfall looks to be early Friday morning near Wilmington
- Highest impact areas will be from Myrtle Beach northward to the Outer Banks
- The latest track has the storm taking an inland path with a shift south, putting Charlotte closer to the center of what's left of the circulation
- The Charlotte-area will start to see the effects this weekend with bands of very heavy rain and heavy flooding threats -- especially for our eastern counties
- A flash flood watch was issued Thursday night for most of the Charlotte region and will remain in effect until 8 p.m. Sunday
- The worst-case scenario for Charlotte includes winds faster than 40 mph and more than six inches of rain
- Quick spin up tornadoes cannot be ruled out now that the most recent track has Charlotte on the north side of the storm
>> Watch the video below for Severe Weather Center 9's latest forecast update on Hurricane Florence.
In the Charlotte region, it's still unclear exactly what impact Florence will have. Channel 9 has reporters and meteorologists from Charlotte to the coast tracking every change.
>> Stay updated on the storm and its latest track by downloading our weather app.
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- Duke Energy says 75% of Carolina customers could lose power
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- How to use the internet during the storm when your internet is down
- Taking photos of your home before a storm can speed up insurance process
>> Governor Roy Cooper said shelters across the state are opening to help people displaced by evacuations. You can find a full list here.
>> The state has announced the closures of state parks, museums and other sites. For a full list click here.
>> N.C. State Superintendent Mark Johnson provided this link for a list of districts already closed and other information related to schools across the state.
>> Airbnb activated its "Open Homes Program" to help those who were evacuated because of Florence in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
MINUTE-BY-MINUTE FLORENCE UPDATES:
A North Carolina TV news station has evacuated its building due to rising waters from Hurricane Florence.
New Bern's WCTI-TV NewsChannel 12 posted on Facebook on Thursday night that employees had to abandon the studio for the "first time in history."
A spokesperson for the ABC affiliate said that roads around the building were flooding.
New Bern is a city along the Neuse River and is near the Atlantic coast, about 90 miles northeast of Wilmington.
The station said on Facebook that it was broadcasting its sister station WPDE-TV's coverage of the storm.
Channel 9 crews were on Wrightsville Beach Thursday night as the wind started picking up.
Police there held a news conference and said they're concerned about high tide and the flooding that may follow.
They said because the wind is not as strong as they anticipated, emergency personnel will be in the area to help the handful of people who did not evacuate.
The Carolina Waterfowl Rescue is still looking for a hawk after officials with the group told Channel 9 birds being transported from the coast were thrown from a vehicle.
Four of the five birds that fell off the truck were found. A hawk that can't fly is still missing.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety said 102,308 people are without power across the state.
The counties seeing the most impact are Beaufort, Carteret, Craven, Onslow and Pamlico.
The North Carolina Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice has evacuated several thousand adult and juvenile offenders and staff from facilities threatened by the effects of Hurricane Florence.
More than 3,000 offenders have been relocated from facilities in the path of Hurricane Florence. Four county jails have also been evacuated with more than 300 offenders housed temporarily in state facilities.
A news release from the division Wednesday said all adult offenders affected by the move will be allowed to make a free phone call to a family member over the weekend.
The division said leaders made the decision earlier in the week to evacuate three juvenile detention centers and relocate inmates to inland facilities within the system. Officials said 26 youth were moved and their families notified.
The news release said all offenders will be moved back to the affected facilities once the storm subsides and it's deemed safe for operations to continue.
The Verizon Foundations is donating $1 million to the American Red Cross to help in Hurricane Florence relief efforts.
Customers can also text to donate. For full details click here.
Power outages in North Carolina have increased as a weakened and slower Hurricane Florence moves closer to the coast.
The two major electric utilities covering the state --Duke Energy and Dominion-- and a consortium of electric cooperatives reported more than 80,000 customers without power as of early Thursday evening. That doesn't include numbers from dozens of city-operated electricity providers.
Almost two-thirds of the reported outages originated in Carteret County, along the coast about 100 miles northeast of Wilmington, North Carolina. There were also several thousand outages each in Craven, Pamlico and Onslow counties.
The numbers are expected to soar as the storm's winds and torrential rains sweep over more land. Duke anticipates 1 million to 3 million of their 4 million customers in the Carolinas will lose power from Florence.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper says there are over 12,000 people in 126 shelters as the first effects of Hurricane Florence begin to batter the state.
Cooper spoke at a news conference Thursday afternoon with state emergency management officials. The governor said tens of thousands are without power and roads are beginning to flood along the coast.
The governor said those were "early warnings of the days to come."
Cooper says officials are also in the process of opening more shelters because demand is expected to continue to increase.
A flight-tracking service says airlines have canceled more than 1,500 flights through Saturday.
FlightAware says that was the number as of Thursday evening.
At least 140 flights were canceled Thursday in both Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, although that amounted to only around 8 percent of flights at the sprawling Charlotte airport. Several airports along the coast were virtually shut down.
South Carolina's most popular tourist destination is like a ghost town.
North Myrtle Beach was nearly empty Thursday as the first bands of heavy rain from Hurricane Florence approached.
A few locals briefly walked into the sand but were quickly sandblasted back by stiff winds.
One man tried to skimboard, but gave up after a few minutes as winds from the land cut down the waves. He called the ocean "Lake Myrtle" as he walked back to his car.
There was several hundred feet of sand between the dunes and ocean as a low tide approached around 5 p.m. Thursday. The sky occasionally spit a drop or two of rain, but the steady rain bands remained to the north.
A police officer sat nearby to talk to anyone who ventured too close to the surf.
The area called the Grand Strand attracts 18 million visitors a year. On Thursday, every restaurant, beachwear shop and mini golf course was closed.
Channel 9 crews along the coast already started to notice damage along the coast as the outer bands of Florence started to pound the area.
Water was already covering roads and starting to flood homes at Topsail Beach.
As Hurricane Florence begins to batter North Carolina, the state's governor has asked President Donald Trump for another federal disaster declaration beyond what the president declared earlier this week.
Gov. Roy Cooper requested the added disaster declaration Thursday because he anticipates what his office calls "historic major damage" across the state from the hurricane.
Cooper's office says the current emergency declaration is helping state officials prepare for the storm. It says the additional declaration would bring more federal help with debris removal, search and rescue teams, meals and generators, among other items.
Cooper is seeking the new declaration so that federal funds and other assistance can be received as soon as possible.
South Carolina officials say more than 400,000 people have evacuated the state's coast and more than 4,000 people have taken refuge in shelters as Hurricane Florence approaches.
State Transportation Department Secretary Christy Hall said Thursday that an estimated 421,000 residents had left the coast.
Acting Department of Social Services Director Joan Meacham says shelters are about 12 percent full with the 4,000 residents. Meacham says the state can house more than 35,000 people if needed. She says 61 shelters have opened thus far, including 12 that are specially outfitted to help people with special medical needs.
Gov. Henry McMaster has ordered the evacuation of most of the state's coastline as the storm approaches.
Officials say Hurricane Florence could bring not only flooding but also landslides to South Carolina.
The National Weather Service is forecasting "significant" river flooding, especially in the northeastern portion of the state. That same area experienced dangerous flooding after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters Thursday that up to 7 inches of rain in the state's northwestern mountains could mean landslides and dangerous conditions.
McMaster has ordered evacuations along much of the state's coast. He warned residents to be prepared to be without electricity "for a long time" in the storm's aftermath.
The outer bands of Hurricane Florence have begun to impact the coast of North Carolina.
Power outages already are creeping up along the North Carolina coast as tropical storm-force winds started sweeping over land.
Electric utilities and cooperatives reported about 12,000 outages statewide as of early Thursday afternoon, with nearly all of them at the coast. Most of the homes and businesses without electricity are in Carteret and Craven counties. Both are north of the eye's projected path and expected to get massive amounts of rain-- potentially 20 inches or more.
Duke Energy is the largest of the utilities in the Carolinas. The company predicts Carolinas power outages caused by Florence will range from 1 million to 3 million customers. It's got more than 20,000 workers from the Carolinas and other states in place to restore power.
Duke reported few South Carolina outages Thursday afternoon.
The only route off North Carolina's Hatteras Island has closed as Hurricane Florence approaches.
Officials with the state Transportation Department said Thursday afternoon that N.C. Highway 12 was closed in both directions on Hatteras Island, part of the Outer Banks.
The closure means that people who chose to ride out the storm now officially have no way off the island. The two-lane highway is the only route to the mainland other than ferries.
An emergency management official in one of the most populated areas of coastal North Carolina says winds from the storm have already arrived and other impacts won't be far behind.
New Hanover County Emergency Management Director Steven Still said Thursday that residents who didn't evacuate should expect 60 mph winds by 7 p.m. that would eventually increase to 100 mph or more.
Still says residents "can expect to have that wind to the tune of 100 mph-plus stay on us for considerable period of time."
Still says landfall is expected around 8 a.m. Friday in the Wrightsville Beach area, and he said the area could see 20 to 30 inches of rain and beaches could get 9 to 10 to feet of storm surge.
Wrightsville Beach Mayor William Blair says evacuations are complete.
The head of Duke Energy Corp.'s North Carolina operations says it could take weeks to restore electricity if the company's prediction that 1 million to 3 million of its 4 million customers lose power due to Hurricane Florence.
Duke Energy executive David Fountain said Thursday that flooding from the slow-moving Florence must recede before crews can start sizing up needed repairs. He says based on the experience with Hurricane Matthew two years ago, it could be days before assessments start and the major electricity provider in the Carolinas can estimate when power can be restored.
Fountain says outages in the worst-hit areas could last for weeks.
He says repair crews will go where they can do the most good and won't prioritize Duke Energy customers over the electric cooperatives and municipal utilities that buy and resell power.
A flight-tracking service says about 1,200 U.S. airline flights scheduled for Thursday or Friday have been canceled, with some airports in the Carolinas essentially shut down.
FlightAware said in its midday report Thursday that the number of canceled flights is relatively small and could increase.
However, the hurricane's effect on the nationwide air-travel system will be less than feared if Florence veers away from the American Airlines hub airport in Charlotte, and doesn't score a direct hit on Delta Air Lines' massive hub in Atlanta.
A private weather-forecasting firm is estimating that Hurricane Florence will cause $50 billion to $60 billion in economic damages.
Accuweather founder and President Joel Myers said in a news release Thursday that much of that will stem from flooding, with coastal damage as the second-biggest factors. Winds come in third.
Florence's winds had dropped from a peak of 140 mph to 105 mph by midmorning Thursday, reducing the hurricane from a Category 4 to a Category 2. But forecasters warned that the storm is growing in size and moving slowly, which will bring seawater surging onto land and torrential downpours.
One of South Carolina's major power companies is warning customers to be wary of fallen power lines and other hazards that could come after Hurricane Florence's arrival.
South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. CEO Keller Kissam gave updates to reporters Thursday in a news conference at the company's headquarters in Cayce.
Kissam says the storm, which is expected to bring torrential rains and sustained winds, could mean that it takes linemen longer to repair any power problems, in part due to concerns for their own safety.
Kissam says SCE&G has been in touch with other power companies in the Southeast that are willing to help with any problems after the storm. Kissam says crews are already in South Carolina from other states, including Mississippi.
SCE&G has more than 700,000 power customers in South Carolina.
Hundreds of National Guard soldiers assembled at the armory on Museum Road in Rock Hill Thursday.
The 178th Engineering Battalion was getting ready to leave for the coast but will wait until winds got down to about 30 mph, so it’s safe to put vehicles on the road.
The 263 soldiers expect to help with debris removal and possibly rescuing people from flooded homes.
"We're here to support the communities. We're here to support the local government, where they need us. We're happy to do that,” Lt. Col. Marty Hanks said.
The troops will meet up with hundreds of others already on the coast.
Iredell County has declared a state of emergency to make sure the county is eligible for federal funding if there’s significant damage from Florence.
Officials said if widespread power outages occur, emergency personnel will work with the American Red Cross and other agencies to provide shelters. At this time, no shelters are open in the county.
Hurricane Florence is still the most dangerous of the four tropical storms in the Atlantic.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center say Tropical Storm Isaac was speeding into the eastern Caribbean Sea on Thursday after passing between Dominica and Martinique. The poorly organized storm with 45 mph winds was not expected to strengthen.
Helene weakened to a tropical storm while moving north over the open Atlantic. Also over open waters, Subtropical Storm Joyce could transition into a tropical storm over the next couple days.
Forecasters also were watching a tropical disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico.
All commercial flights have been canceled at the Myrtle Beach International Airport as Hurricane Florence approaches the South Carolina coast.
Airport spokesman Kirk Lovell said in an email that one flight left early Thursday morning and all other flights have been canceled for Thursday and Friday.
He said 84 flights with 12,248 seats were on the schedule for Thursday, with 80 flights with 11,416 seats scheduled for Friday.
Lovell said the airlines will decide when to resume service after Florence makes landfall. Myrtle Beach is served by 10 airlines.
Hurricane Florence is slowing down as its outer bands of wind and rain lash North Carolina's barrier islands.
The National Hurricane Center's 11 a.m. advisory has shifted Hurricane Florence's storm track a bit farther north, which would bring more wind concerns to the Charlotte area this weekend.
It would also increase the risk for isolated tornadoes.
The storm's maximum sustained winds are at 105 mph and the system is moving northwest at 10 mph.
The Category 2 storm is centered about 145 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 195 miles east of Myrtle Beach.
National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham says there is nothing "minor" about this hurricane. Water causes the most deaths during tropical storms and hurricanes, and Florence is expected to cause dangerous flooding.
Graham said areas that repeatedly get hit even with weaker winds at Florence's edges could see heavy rainfall for hours. Storm surge flooding also could push 2 miles or more inland if Florence lingers for days along the coast.
Duke Energy Corp. is shutting down a coastal North Carolina nuclear power plant ahead of Hurricane Florence.
The electricity provider says it began powering down one reactor early Thursday and would start shutting the second reactor later in the day. Florence was projected to reach land Friday near the plant located about five miles from the Atlantic Ocean near Southport.
The Brunswick plant's two reactors share the same design as those in Fukushima, Japan, that exploded and leaked radiation following a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Federal regulators later required all U.S. nuclear plants be reinforced against earthquakes and flooding.
Duke Energy did not provide information about specific changes made at Brunswick, other than to say emergency generators and pumps will remove stormwater if the plant floods.
The long big slosh has begun.
Meteorologists say the leading edge of Florence has arrived in North Carolina, with tropical storm-force winds carrying drenching bands of rainfall onto some beach communities.
Florence will likely bring days of rain totaling three feet or more, and a storm surge of ocean water that rises to more than 12 feet near the center of the storm.
Gov. Roy Cooper is urging North Carolina residents not to ease up in their preparations for Hurricane Florence, despite southward changes in the storm's forecast and a decrease in its top sustained wind speeds.
Cooper, speaking at his Thursday morning news conference as Hurricane Florence creeps closer to the Carolina coast, told the public that, "Hurricane Florence is uninvited, but she is almost here anyway. The storm will soon be lashing our coast."
Cooper said tropical storm-force winds capable of destroying buildings will begin soon along the coast.
"Don't relax," he said. "Don't get complacent. Stay on guard."
The governor said around 108 shelters are open, and more are expected to be.
"We cannot underestimate this storm," he said. "Our greatest concern about this storm remains the same -- storm surge and massive flooding. Catastrophic effects will be felt across the state and the storm surge is expected to be 9 to 13 feet."
Cooper also said that everyone needs to be prepared for power outages, which are estimated to be in the millions.
"Your supplies should include water, food, flashlights, batteries, meds, important docs and items for your pets," he said. "Most storm-related deaths are caused by drowning in fresh water. Streams can be turned into raging bodies of water. North Carolina needs to continue to stay alert."
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen delivered three key health and safety messages:
- Be prepared with a safety kit
- Do not drive through standing water
- Do not use gas-powered generators inside your home
When asked if he had a message to those still recovering from Hurricane Matthew that struck North Carolina in 2016, Cooper said, "We hope that there isn't further damage to communities already impacted by Hurricane Matthew. $750M has been distributed in these communities to date, and we still have teams working on these efforts today. Recovery from a hurricane is a long-term effort."
Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry says an estimated 750 people have packed a megashelter set up at a coliseum in Winston-Salem. Sprayberry says a team is conducting surveys to find other locations for potential megashelters.
Federal emergency officials at a Washington briefing are urging people to treat Hurricane Florence seriously even though its top sustained winds are down to 110 mph, which makes it a Category 2 storm.
They say it remains very large and very dangerous, bringing more than 30 inches of rain to the coast and heavy winds that will impact a giant swath of land.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long says storm surge warnings have not changed despite the weakening intensity on the wind scale.
He urged people in the coastal Carolinas and living near inland rivers to evacuate now.
"Please heed the warnings," Brock says: "Your time is running out."
Wells Fargo has closed 47 branches today in Eastern North Carolina in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Florence, and more branches could close as circumstances dictate.
Customers can check here for real-time information.
The police chief of a barrier island in the bull's-eye of Hurricane Florence is warning any stragglers who refused to evacuate that they are making a dangerous choice.
At a news conference just across the bridge in Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said a handful of residents on the island have refused evacuation orders. He's telling them they "better go ahead and give me your next of kin" information, because no one will rescue them at the height of the storm.
The police chief says he's not going to put his people in harm's way, especially for people they've already told to evacuate. The latest forecast shows the eye of Florence could pass directly over the barrier island, pushing a huge surge of ocean water.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warn that Florence remains deadly because of its size and slow forward speed, even if its top sustained winds have dropped it to Category 2 status as a hurricane.
Director Ken Graham says there is nothing "minor" about this hurricane. Water causes the most deaths during tropical storms and hurricanes, and Florence expected to cause dangerous flooding.
Graham said areas that repeatedly get hit even with weaker winds at Florence's edges could see heavy rainfall for hours. Storm surge flooding also could push 2 miles or more inland if Florence lingers for days along the coast.
Tornadoes also remain a threat, particularly in areas northeast of the hurricane's eye.
Senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart warns that Florence being a slow hurricane could mean three to four hours of battering, beach-eroding winds for some areas.
Channel 9 reporter Gina Esposito visited the hurricane shelter at East Mecklenburg High School. She says a few dozen people are already there, including a 16-year-old who said her family plans to stay there tonight because of concerns about the stability of their mobile home.
The outer bands of wind and rain from Hurricane Florence are moving onshore along North Carolina's barrier islands as the massive storm bears down on the Southeastern coastline.
As of 8 a.m., the Category 2 storm was centered about 170 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, and about 220 miles east-southeast of Myrtle Beach. Its forward movement slowed to 12 mph and top sustained winds stayed at 110 mph.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami don't expect it to strengthen from a Category 2 hurricane before it moves ashore, but they say the real problem will be water as Florence lingers along the coast through Saturday.
Florence's hurricane-force winds were blowing 80 miles from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds reached up to 195 miles from the eye.
The mayor of Myrtle Beach says her city has done as much as it can to prepare for Hurricane Florence.
Brenda Bethune says that public safety crews have been checking to make sure businesses are secure, and looking for anything that could become a projectile as the winds come ashore.
But the mayor says she knows many people are ignoring evacuation orders. She hopes they'll stay inside once the winds, rain and floods arrive.
She says people often want to get outside and take pictures. Bad idea, she says because emergency crews won't be able to reach them in the storm.
The Coast Guard says port operations in Charleston have been stopped as Hurricane Florence approaches the coast.
The Coast Guard said that the decision to stop port operations at 8 p.m. Wednesday comes because gale force winds of up to 54 mph were possible within 24 hours.
The Coast Guard said ocean-going vessels were told to prepare to leave. Those heading to Charleston were told to find another destination.
The Coast Guard warned pleasure boaters to find safe harbors and noted that drawbridges might not operate once winds reach 25 mph.
As Florence inches closer to the Carolina coast, it will actually be pretty quiet around Charlotte Thursday. We will see a partly cloudy day with highs in the mid-80s and little to no chance of rain
The worst weather for the Charlotte region will start up Saturday afternoon, with heavy rain and wind threats lasting through Monday. This could lead to widespread flooding concerns and power outages.
Richmond County has been upgraded to a Tropical Storm Warning. Conditions can be expected to worsen by early Saturday in that area.
The National Hurricane Center's 5 a.m. advisory shows no major changes to Hurricane Florence. It remains a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph.
The National Hurricane Center says the outer rain bands of Florence are approaching the coast of North Carolina.
Early Thursday the Category 2 was about 205 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, and about 250 miles east-southeast of Myrtle Beach. The gradually slowing but still life-threatening storm is moving northwest at 15 mph.
Little change in strength is expected before the center reaches the coast. Weakening is expected after the center moves inland.
The Miami-based center says the center of Florence will approach the coasts of North and South Carolina later today. It then will move near or over the coast of southern North Carolina and eastern South Carolina in the hurricane warning area later Thursday and Friday.
Monster storm Hurricane Florence is barreling closer to the coast of the Carolinas.
Forecasters say wind speeds have dropped from a high of 140 mph to 110 mph, reducing it to a Category 2 storm. But authorities warn Florence has an enormous wind field as it zeroes in on the Southeast U.S. coast, raising the risk of the ocean surging on to land and making Florence extremely dangerous.
Early Thursday Florence was about 235 miles east-southeast of Wilmington and about 280 miles east-southeast of Myrtle Beach. The storm is moving northwest at 17 mph.
The National Hurricane Center's says it expects Florence will blow ashore as early as Friday afternoon around the North Carolina-South Carolina line, then slog westward with a potential for catastrophic inland flooding.
The American Red Cross is readying for response across as many as 11 states. In western North Carolina, the Red Cross is opening shelters for evacuees.
Officials say as many as 100,000 people may need emergency shelter. More than 1,500 Red Cross disaster workers are helping Hurricane Florence relief efforts.
- Ardrey Kell High School, 10220 Ardrey Kell Dr., Charlotte, N.C.
- East Mecklenburg High School, 6800 Monroe Rd., Charlotte, N.C.
- North Mecklenburg High School, 11201 Old Statesville Rd., Huntersville, N.C
- South Mecklenburg High School, 8900 Park Rd., Charlotte, N.C.
- The Lambs, 415 Roxboro St., Haw River, N.C.
- Glenwood Recreation Center, 2010 Coliseum Blvd., N.C.
- West Mecklenburg High School, 7400 Tuckaseegee Rd., Charlotte, N.C.
- Page Elementary School, 897 Page St., Troy, N.C.
- First Baptist Church, 133 N. Church St., Asheboro, N.C.
- Rockingham Middle School, 182 High School Rd., Reidsville, N.C.
Time is running short to get out of the way of Hurricane Florence, a monster of a storm that has a region of more than 10 million people in its potentially devastating sights as it zeroes in on the Southeastern coast.
Forecasters said wind speeds have dropped from a high of 140 mph to 110 mph, reducing it from a Category 4 storm to a Category 2, and additional fluctuations and weakening were likely as it swirled toward land. But authorities warned Florence has an enormous wind field that has been growing larger, raising the risk of the ocean surging on to land and making Florence extremely dangerous.
"Do you want to get hit with a train or do you want to get hit with a cement truck?" said Jeff Byard, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The National Hurricane Center's best guess was that Florence would blow ashore as early as Friday afternoon around the North Carolina-South Carolina line, then slog its rainy way westward with a potential for catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses and farm fields.
Channel 9 will have continuing coverage of Hurricane Florence and its potential impacts along the Carolina coast.
To receive the latest hurricane alerts, download the WSOCTV news app and tap the blue "Hurricanes" tag.
About 5.25 million people live in areas under hurricane warnings or watches, and 4.9 million live 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 merely a Category 1 hurricane 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, and he said it will still be an extremely dangerous storm for rain and storm surge.
The hurricane center is forecasting the storm to hover near the coast Saturday with winds of around 80 mph before landfall, but with rainfall in the 20 to 30 inches range and up to 13 feet of storm surge.
President Donald Trump both touted the government's readiness and urged people to get out of the way. "Don't play games with it. It's a big one," he said at the White House.
As of 2 a.m. EDT Thursday, was about 235 miles east southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina and about 280 miles east southeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, moving northwest at 17 mph. The hurricane center said Florence will approach the coast Friday and linger for a while before rolling ashore.
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 had 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.
Boarding up his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Chris Pennington watched the forecasts and tried to decide when to leave.
"In 12 or 18 hours, they may be saying different things all over again," he said.
Computer models of exactly what the storm might do varied, adding to the uncertainty. Reacting to the possibility of a more southerly track, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared an emergency but did not immediately order any evacuations.
"I ask all Georgians to join me in praying for the safety of our people and all those in the path of Hurricane Florence," Deal said.
In Virginia, where about 245,000 residents were ordered to evacuate low-lying areas, officials urged people to remain away from home despite forecast changes showing Florence's path largely missing the state.
Their entire neighborhood evacuated in Wilmington, North Carolina, David and Janelle Garrigus planned to ride out Florence at their daughter's one-bedroom apartment in Charlotte. Unsure of what they might find when they return home, the couple went shopping for a recreational vehicle.
"We're just trying to plan for the future here, not having a house for an extended period of time," David Garrigus said.
Melody Rawson evacuated her first-floor apartment in Myrtle Beach and arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia, to camp for free with three other adults, her disabled son, two dogs and a pet bird.
"We hope to have something left when we get home," she said. Three other Southern raceways also opened campgrounds to evacuees.
Forecasters worried the storm's damage will be all the worse if it lingers on the coast. The trend is "exceptionally bad news," said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy, since it "smears a landfall out over hundreds of miles of coastline, most notably the storm surge."
With South Carolina's beach towns more in the bull's-eye because of the shifting forecast, Ohio vacationers Chris and Nicole Roland put off their departure from North Myrtle Beach to get the maximum amount of time on the sand. Most other beachgoers were long gone.
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