Mass evacuation ordered for Florence's bull's eye
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Mass evacuation ordered for Florence's bull's eye

North Carolina: With mandatory evacuations already issued for parts of three East Coast states, millions of Americans are preparing for what could become one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to hit the Eastern Seaboard in decades.

Carrying winds of up to 220 km/h as a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Florence is expected to strengthen and become a Category 5 storm Tuesday. It's then forecast to close in on North or South Carolina on Thursday, hitting a stretch of coastline that's vulnerable to rising sea levels due to climate change.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued an evacuation order for about 245,000 residents in flood-prone coastal areas beginning at 8 am local time and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster ordered more than 1 million residents along his state's coastline to leave starting at noon on Tuesday.

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.

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Virginia's emergency operations chief, Jeffrey Stern, told reporters that residents should brace for "something that no one in Virginia has experienced in their lifetimes".

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper told a news conference his state was in "the bull's eye".

Larry Pierson purchases bottled water in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, in preparation for hurricane Florence.

Larry Pierson purchases bottled water in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, in preparation for hurricane Florence.

Photo: AP

The storm's first effects were already apparent on barrier islands as dangerous rip currents hit beaches and seawater flowed over a state highway.

For many people, the challenge could be finding a safe refuge: If Florence slows to a crawl just off the coast, it could bring torrential rains to the Appalachian mountains and as far away as West Virginia, causing flash floods, mudslides and other dangerous conditions.

The storm's potential path also includes half-a-dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous hog farms that store animal waste in massive open-air lagoons.

National Hurricane Centre (NHC) Director Ken Graham warned that Florence was forecast to linger over the Carolinas once it reaches shore. People living well inland should prepare to lose power and endure flooding and other hazards, he warned.

Hurricane Florence as seen from the International Space Station on Monday.

Hurricane Florence as seen from the International Space Station on Monday.

Photo: NASA

"It's not just the coast," Graham said. "When you stall a system like this and it moves real slow, some of that rainfall can extend well away from the centre."

US President Donald Trump has cancelled a political rally planned for Friday in Jackson, Mississippi, over safety concerns related to Florence, his campaign said.

Trump said in a Twitter message he had spoken to the governors of North and South Carolina and Virginia, adding: "Federal government stands by, ready to assist."

"Please be prepared, be careful and be SAFE!" President Donald Trump tweeted Monday evening.

A warm ocean is the fuel that powers hurricanes, and Florence will be moving over waters where temperatures are peaking near 30 degrees celsius, hurricane specialist Eric Blake wrote. And with little wind shear to pull the storm apart, Florence's hurricane wind field was expected to expand over the coming days, increasing its storm surge and inland wind threats.

Kevin Orth loads sandbags into cars as he helps residents prepare for Hurricane Florence, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Kevin Orth loads sandbags into cars as he helps residents prepare for Hurricane Florence, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo: Post and Courier/AP

By 5am Tuesday local time, Florence was centred about 1570 kilometres east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, and moving west-northwest at 24 km/h. Its centre will move between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday and approach the coast of South Carolina or North Carolina on Thursday, the NHC said.

Two other storms were spinning in the Atlantic. Hurricane Isaac was expected to lose strength as it reaches the Caribbean, and Helene, much farther out to sea, may veer northward into the open ocean as the 2018 hurricane season reaches its peak.

In the Pacific, Hurricane Olivia triggered warnings for multiple Hawaiian islands as it blew west toward an arrival over the state as soon as late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

Apart from Florence, two other storms were spinning in the Atlantic.

Apart from Florence, two other storms were spinning in the Atlantic.

Photo: NHC

Preparations for Florence were intensifying up and down the densely populated coast. Since reliable record-keeping began more than 150 years ago, North Carolina has been hit by only one Category 4 hurricane: Hazel, with 209 km/h winds, in 1954.

Several meteorologists said Florence could do what Hurricane Harvey did last year over Texas, dumping days of rain, although not quite as bad.

"I think this is very Harvey-esque," said University of Miami hurricane expert Brian McNoldy. "Normally, a landfalling tropical cyclone just keeps on going inland, gradually dissipating and raining itself out. But on rare occasions, the steering patterns can line up such that a storm slips into a dead zone between troughs and ridges."

The last time the midsection of the East Coast stared down a hurricane like Florence, it was hurricane Hazel in 1954 when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were newlyweds.

The last time the midsection of the East Coast stared down a hurricane like Florence, it was hurricane Hazel in 1954 when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were newlyweds.

Photo: AP

'This is the craziest one'

Jittery residents in the Carolinas have begun the rituals of disaster preparation - boarding up windows and stocking up on groceries, water and petrol.

In Holden Beach, North Carolina, in the storm's path, long-time residents were busy preparing.

A local service station ran out of petrol for about two hours on Monday as motorists rushed to fill up their tanks.

"People are getting frantic," Assistant Manager Nadine Schrock said, adding her shop also sold out of cases of bottled water.

The parking lot has been full for three days at the Ace Hardware store in coastal Calabash, North Carolina, where manager Tom Roberts said he sold 150 gas cans in two hours Monday, along with generators, plywood, rope, manual can openers, sand bags and a plethora of other items.

"I've been doing this since 1983," Roberts said as he completed an order for another 18-wheeler full of supplies. "This is the craziest one."

Many newcomers have moved to the coast in the nearly 19 years since the last strong hurricane — Floyd — threatened the area. Roberts said he's telling them to get out of town.

"I'm telling them to go inland, but I'm worried about the rain and tornadoes too," Roberts said.

On North Carolina's Outer Banks, Dawn Farrow Taylor, 50, was gathering photos and important documents and filling prescriptions Monday before heading inland. She grew up on the island chain, and says this will be only the second time she's evacuated.

"I don't think many of us have ever been through a Category 4. And out here we're so fragile. We're just a strip of land - we're a barrier island," she said.

AP with Reuters