People flee as 'catastrophic' Hurricane Florence sweeps towards America

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The outer reaches of Hurricane Florence began lashing coastal North Carolina with heavy winds and flooded roads on Thursday ahead of an expected landfall that will bring walls of water and lingering downpours.

The center of Florence, no longer classified as a major hurricane but a grave threat to life and property, is expected to hit North Carolina's southern coast Friday, then drift southwest before moving inland on Saturday, enough time to drop as much as 40 inches (1 meter) of rain, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The hurricane center is forecasting the storm to hover near the coast Saturday with winds of around 80 miles per hour (130 kph) before landfall, but with rainfall in the 20 to 30 inches (50 to 75 centimeter) range and up to 13 feet (nearly 4 meters) of storm surge.

Sustained winds remained at 90 miles per hour, but the storm - which was never expected to threaten the US coast - should begin to weaken over the next day and become a tropical storm on Thursday, forecasters said in an 11 a.m. advisory.

Industrial waste, including toxic ash from power plants, could also be spread by flooding from the massive storm, which has caused mandatory evacuations of coastal areas in both Carolinas and Virginia, the AP reports. It could stall just off the coast and then drift south along the SC coast and possibly make a landfall as a weaker system if it doesn't make it clearly over the coast of North Carolina.

"This is a life-threatening situation".

Marshall: When should we now expect landfall along the coast? But, Hill added, those lane reversals will end soon: "At that point, they'll shut 'em down for the incoming storm".

Scientists hypothesize that a warmer world will bring slower storms, so what we saw last year with Harvey - and now this year with Florence - could be a sign of those changes. The axis of heaviest rain may shift further south or west, but the extreme rainfall is going to happen. Although it has shown signs of weakening, it will remain a powerful force, forecasters say.

This same zone will be hammered by winds gusting up to hurricane force for almost a day while tropical-storm conditions could linger twice that long.

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"It truly is really about the whole size of this storm", National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said.

The storm's maximum sustained winds were clocked at 175kmph late on Wednesday, down from a peak of 225kmph a day earlier, before it was downgraded to a Category 3 and then a Category 2.

But what forecasters are keeping an eye on, in particular, is the forward motion of the storm. The problem is, Flo is now expected to stall out over the Carolinas before slowly moving inland. Cooper said he hopes more shelters will also open today.

In the midst of what's being called a "monster storm", some US residents are welcoming Hurricane Florence with parties.

Body surfer Andrew Vanotteren, of Savannah, Georgia, crashes into waves in the surf bolstered by the incoming Hurricane Florence on the south beach of Tybee Island, Georgia. It's already been raining in these areas and the ground is sodden.

"But that's not going to be until Monday", Eliasen said".

At this height of the Atlantic hurricane season, Florence was being trailed on east-to-west paths by two other storms, Hurricane Helene and Tropical Storm Isaac, but neither packs the deadly punch of Florence. More flights were expected to be grounded and more airports were preparing to shut down operations as the storm moves inland. That storm killed at least 10 people in SC and in Georgia.

The current track for Florence takes the eye of the storm (the strongest most destructive winds) through Bald Head Island and just north of Myrtle Beach.

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