PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY/AP) — Rain, heavy winds and storm surge hit Hatteras and the rest of the Outer Banks Thursday as Hurricane Florence crept toward the Carolina coast.
By the end of the day Thursday, Florence’s winds had dropped to under 100 mph, but forecasters say the storm surge and heavy rainfall will be the biggest threats from the storm.
Florence’s top sustained wind speeds continued to drop from a high of 140 mph on Wednesday to 90 mph Thursday night, reducing the storm from Category 4 to Category 1, but forecasters warned that the enormous wind field raised the risk of the ocean surging onto land.
Moving slowly northwest at 6 mph, Florence was less than 60 miles away from Wilmington, North Carolina, around 11 p.m. Thursday, and was expected to hit Wilmington around 8 a.m. Friday. The storm is expected to then move toward the North Carolina-South Carolina border before curving into the western Carolinas and the central Appalachian Mountains early next week.
It will likely hover along the coast Saturday, pushing up to 13 feet (nearly 4 meters) of storm surge and dumping 20 to 30 inches (50 to 75 centimeters) of rain on both states, before heading up through Appalachia.
NOTE: Live coverage tracking Hurricane Florence. This feed will change periodically. App/mobile users can watch here.
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.”
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.
A tornado watch was issued for Dare County until 9 p.m. Thursday.
A tornado watch has been issued through early tonight for Eastern NC, as #Florence approaches the coast. Tropical tornadoes can hit quickly with little advance notice, so be sure to heed any warnings from NOAA Weather Radio or your Wireless Emergency Alerts on your phone. #ncwx https://t.co/yxQiMVT38w— NWS Newport/Morehead (@NWSMoreheadCity) September 13, 2018
The area between South Santee River, South Carolina to Duck, North Carolina — including the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, and Neuse and Pamlico rivers — was still under hurricane and storm surge warnings. A tornado warning was issued for the area Thursday evening.
Portions of the Outer Banks north of Duck to the North Carolina-Virginia border were under a storm surge watch and tropical storm warning. A tropical storm warning was also in effect for the parts of the Tidewater region.
Tropical Storm Warning is now in effect for parts of Hampton Roads. This means tropical storm force winds (39mph + ) are expected within 36 hours or less. #vawx pic.twitter.com/VZyysNCNde— Deitra Tate (@DeitraT) September 13, 2018
Overwash on the vulnerable North Carolina Highway 12 prompted officials to close the road south of Oregon Inlet. Surging ocean water was breaching the dunes up and down NC-12 with crews working to keep the sand in place.
A tornado warning was issued around 11 a.m. for a small area that included Pamlico Beach, North Carolina. That warning expired at 11:15 a.m.
According to WAVY’s team of Super Doppler 10 meteorologists, inland parts of northeast North Carolina could see 5 to 10 inches of rain, with some isolated areas seeing more than 10 inches. Winds of 25 to 35 mph are possible, with gusts of 60 mph or more.
Conditions are forecast to be worse along the Outer Banks over the weekend, where 6 to 10 inches of rainfall is forecast to fall. Southern parts of the Outer Banks may see more than a foot of rain.
Winds were picking up in places like Nags Head early Thursday morning. Speeds are forecast to be between 45 and 55 mph, with gusts of 74 mph.
Storm surge and beach erosion could be major factors in the Outer Banks. The western Albemarle Sound could see big problems as well, with storm surge forecast to be in the 4-to-6 feet range.
Florence’s impact on Hampton Roads is not forecast to be quite as severe. Rainfall is largely is expected range from 3 to 5 inches across the region, with some places getting more than 6 inches.
Thursday afternoon, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was operating under Level 2 wind restrictions, with winds above 47 mph. Learn more about the restrictions here.
Wind speeds will range between 20 and 35 mph between the Peninsula and Southside Hampton Roads — with gusts of 40 to 45 mph possible.
Tidal flooding will likely be the big issue, however.
Parts of the Peninsula could see moderate to major flooding — especially in areas along the James and York rivers. Meanwhile, flooding on the Southside is forecast to be moderate.
RESIDENTS, LOCALITIES BRACE FOR IMPACT
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.
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.
Know Your Zone: Mandatory evacuation for Zone A
Localities up and down the viewing are declared local emergencies to allow for access state and federal resources as needed. The approach of Florence also prompted many local school districts, private schools and universities to announce cancellations.
Shelters were opened in multiple cities and counties. State-managed shelters were opened Wednesday at Christopher Newport University and William and Mary to help residents who were fleeing vulnerable parts of the Commonwealth.
A senior health care facility in Norfolk decided to take no chances, and evacuated on Wednesday. Consulate Health Care said patients went to six sister facilities in the area — and their return depends on the storm.
The threat from Florence prompted the U.S. Navy to order many ships to leave Naval Station Norfolk. Some of ships at the base could not get underway due to maintenance, but officials said precautions were taken to avoid potential damage.
Fighter jets at Joint Base Langley-Eustis and Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana were moved further inland to avoid Florence. A U.S. Air Force official said Langley-Eustis’ facilities could withstand hurricane-force winds, but there was no reason risk damage to fleet of advanced F-22 fighter jets.
The Virginia National Guard on Wednesday staged more than 1,200 personnel to support local and state response to Florence.
“I am incredibly proud at how quickly and safely our personnel were able to get in place and be ready to provide support to Hurricane Florence if needed,” Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, said in a statement.