‘Big and vicious’ Hurricane Florence closes in on the Carolinas

Storm expected to blow ashore late Thursday or early Friday, then slow down and wring itself out

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, listens as Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), points to a map of the probable path of Hurricane Florence during a meeting with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. Trump said he expects Florence to be among the worst storms to ever strike the U.S., but that the federal government was prepared to respond to the disaster. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
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Motorists streamed inland on highways converted to one-way routes on Tuesday as more than one million people in three states were ordered to move out of the way of Hurricane Florence, a storm taking aim at the Carolinas with 130mph winds.

Florence was expected to blow ashore late Thursday or early Friday, then slow down and peter out over the next few days, unloading 1-2.5 feet of rain that could cause flooding, washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.

Forecasters and politicians pleaded asked the public to take warnings seriously.

“This storm is a monster. It’s big and it’s vicious. It is an extremely, dangerous, life-threatening, historic hurricane,” said North Carolina governor Roy Cooper.

“The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen. Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don’t bet your life on riding out a monster.”

North and South Carolina and Virginia ordered mass evacuations along the coast. But getting out of harm’s way could prove difficult.

Florence is so wide that a life-threatening storm surge was being pushed 300 miles ahead of its eye, and the rainfall could deluge states from South Carolina to Ohio and Pennsylvania.

People across the region rushed to buy water and other supplies, board up their homes or get out of town.

A line of heavy traffic moved away from the coast on Interstate 40, the main route between the port city of Wilmington and inland Raleigh.

Between the two cities, about two hours apart, the traffic flowed smoothly in places but was gridlocked in others.

Only a trickle of vehicles headed towards the coast, carrying plywood and other building materials.

Service stations as far west as Raleigh started running out of petrol, with bright yellow bags, signs or rags placed over the pumps.

At 2pm, the storm was 1,360km south-east of Cape Fear, North Carolina, moving at 28kph. It is a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm but is expected to draw further energy from warm water and intensify to near Category 5, which would bring winds of 253kph or higher.

“This one really scares me,” National Hurricane Centre Director Ken Graham said.

Forecasters said parts of North Carolina could get 50 centimetres of rain, with as much as 25cm elsewhere in the state and in Virginia, parts of Maryland and Washington DC.

One trusted computer model, the European simulation, predicted more than 112cm in parts of North Carolina. A year ago, people would have laughed off such a forecast, but the European model was accurate in predicting 150cm of rain for Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, so “you start to wonder what these models know that we don’t,” said University of Miami hurricane expert Brian McNoldy.

On Parris Island, South Carolina, recruits were ordered to leave the Marine Corps’ biggest training centre on the East Coast.

The storm forced people to cut their holidays short.

Paula Matheson of Springfield, Oregon, got the full "Southern experience" during her 10-week RV holiday: hot weather, good food, beautiful beaches and also a hurricane evacuation.

Florence interrupted her stay on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It took Matheson and her husband nearly all day on Monday to drive the 60 miles off the barrier island.

“It was so beautiful. The water was fabulous. Eighty-five degrees,” Matheson said, pausing a moment. “I guess that’s a big part of the problem.”

Florence could slam the Carolinas harder than any hurricane since Hazel, which hit in 1954 with 209kph winds. The Category 4 storm destroyed 15,000 buildings and killed 19 people in North Carolina.

In the six decades since, thousands of people have moved to the coast.

Florence’s projected path will include nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous hog farms that store animal waste in huge lagoons.

Duke Energy spokesman Ryan Mosier said operators would begin shutting down nuclear plants at least two hours before hurricane-force winds arrive.

North Carolina's governor issued a first-of-its-kind mandatory evacuation order for North Carolina's fragile barrier islands.

“We’ve seen nor’easters and we’ve seen hurricanes before,” Mr Cooper said, “but this one is different.”