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Coastal Carolinas feel first blows of Florence

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Photographs by AP/The News & Observer/TRAVIS LONG

Ferocious waves generated by Hurricane Florence lash the Oceana Pier and Pier House Restaurant on Thursday in Atlantic Beach, N.C. The center of the storm was still nearly 200 miles offshore.

WILMINGTON, N.C. -- Hurricane Florence's leading edge battered the Carolina coast Thursday, bending trees and shooting frothy seawater over streets on the Outer Banks as the storm closed in with 90 mph winds for a drenching siege that could last all weekend. Tens of thousands were without power.

Winds and rain were arriving later in South Carolina, and a few people were still walking on the sand at Myrtle Beach while North Carolina was getting pounded.

Forecasters said conditions only will get more lethal as the storm pushes ashore early today near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and makes its way slowly inland. Its surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 11 feet of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.

The cloud coverage from the storm, an indication of its size, is as large as the Carolinas.

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 Category 4 to a 1.

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."

Almost 30,000 people were already without power as the storm approached, he said.

Forecasters said that given the storm's size and sluggish track, it could cause 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 waste sites and hog-manure ponds.

"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."

As Florence drew near, President Donald Trump tweeted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and first responders are "supplied and ready."

Schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia, airlines canceled more than 1,500 flights, and coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely emptied out.

Duke Energy Co. said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and power failures could last for weeks. Workers are being called in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm's aftermath, it said.

As of 10 p.m., Florence was centered about 60 miles east-southeast of Wilmington and 50 miles south of Morehead City, its forward movement slowed to 6 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended 80 miles from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds up to 195 miles.

Around midday, Spanish moss blew sideways in the trees as the winds increased in Wilmington, and floating docks bounced atop swells at Morehead City. Some of the few people still left in Nags Head on the Outer Banks took photos of waves topped with white froth.

Wilmington resident Julie Terrell said she 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."

Forecasters' European climate model is predicting 2 trillion to 11 trillion gallons of rain will fall on North Carolina over the next week, according to meteorologist Ryan Maue of weathermodels.com. That's enough water to fill the Empire State Building nearly 40,000 times.

Federal, state and local officials have already spent days trying to warn people in Florence's path of the potential severity of the storm.

"We cannot underestimate this storm," Cooper said. "Wind speeds may have dropped some from yesterday, but we traded that for a larger wind field that expands 200 miles with tropical-storm-force winds."

He pleaded with people to move to a safe place and listen to their local authorities if they are asked to move again to safer ground.

North Carolina had opened 108 shelters, which currently house more than 7,000 people, and is trying to open more.

South Carolina officials said Thursday that about 3,900 people had moved into shelters, with three shelters completely occupied. The state still has space for more than 31,000 people across 60 shelters.

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.

Homeless after losing her job at Walmart three months ago, 25-year-old Brittany Jones went to a storm shelter at a high school near Raleigh. She said a hurricane has a way of bringing everyone to the same level.

"It doesn't matter how much money you have or how many generators you have if you can't get gas," she said. "Whether you have a house or not, when the storm comes it will bring everyone together. A storm can come and wipe your house out overnight."

The mini golf courses and neon beachwear shops were closed in Myrtle Beach, and the empty streets had a beach-town-in-winter feeling. But down on the sand itself, facing a low, gray sky, people surfed, swam, sat shirtless in low-slung beach chairs and tossed around balls like it was a hot Tuesday afternoon in July.

"We're staying," said Rosetta Gaskins, a school cafeteria cook who had called her 18-year-old son down from his college upstate to spend the weekend with her at a sort of multiday house party at Paco and Kathi Longoria's place, a half mile in from the beach.

There were 13 of them altogether, and there would be hot dogs and pancakes, games, a 1-year-old's birthday party, and days of watching the weather from the porch. Everyone was pretty sanguine about things.

Everyone except for Jennifer Bellamy.

"I was in panic mode and thinking I was with a bunch of crazy people and they were thinking I was the crazy one," she said.

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 bull's-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.

Information for this article was contributed by Jonathan Drew, Seth Borenstein, Jeffrey Collins, Jennifer Kay, Gary Robertson, Sarah Rankin, Denise Lavoie, Meg Kinnard, Skip Foreman, Jeff Martin, David Koeing, Gerry Broome and Jay Reeves of The Associated Press; and by staff members of The New York Times.

Fishermen launch their boat in rough waves Thursday to try to recover their haul-seine net at Virginia Beach, Va., as Hurricane Florence’s leading edg...

Police officers block the road leading to Emerald Isle, N.C.

Locals toast Hurricane Florence as they ride out part of the storm Thursday at the Barbary Coast bar in downtown Wilmington, N.C.

A Section on 09/14/2018

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