Watch: Heavy Winds Lash Carolinas as Hurricane Florence Nears Landfall

Waves crash around the Oceana Pier as the outer edges of Hurricane Florence being to affect the coast September 13, 2018 in Atlantic Beach, United States. Coastal cities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virgnian are under evacuation orders as the Category 2 hurricane approaches the United States. (Photo by …
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Heavy winds began lashing the east coast Thursday morning as meteorologists say the leading edge of Florence has arrived in North Carolina, with tropical storm-force winds carrying drenching bands of rainfall onto some beach communities.

Florence will likely bring days of rain totaling three feet or more, and a surge of ocean water that rises to more than 12 feet near the center of the storm. Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) says he knows many people are watching the changing predictions and categories, and he’s concerned because some are even saying that “North Carolina is getting a break.”

“Please hear my message,” he added. “Don’t relax; don’t get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill.”

Federal emergency officials at a Washington briefing are urging people to treat Hurricane Florence seriously even though its top sustained winds are down to 110 mph (177 kph), which makes it a Category 2 storm. They say it remains very large and very dangerous, bringing more than 30 inches of rain to the coast and heavy winds that will impact a giant swath of land.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long says storm surge warnings have not changed despite the weakening intensity on the wind scale. He urged people in the coastal Carolinas and living near inland rivers to evacuate now. “Please heed the warnings,” Brock says: “Your time is running out.”

The police chief of a barrier island in the bull’s-eye of Hurricane Florence is warning any stragglers who refused to evacuate that they are making a dangerous choice. At a news conference just across the bridge in Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said a handful of residents on the island have refused evacuation orders. He’s telling them they “better go ahead and give me your next of kin” information, because no one will rescue them at the height of the storm. The police chief says he’s not going to put his people in harm’s way, especially for people they’ve already told to evacuate.

The latest forecast shows the eye of Florence could pass directly over the barrier island, pushing a huge surge of ocean water. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warn that Florence remains deadly because of its size and slow forward speed, even if its top sustained winds have dropped it to Category 2 status as a hurricane.

Director Ken Graham says there is nothing “minor” about this hurricane. Water causes the most deaths during tropical storms and hurricanes, and Florence expected to cause dangerous flooding. Graham said areas that repeatedly get hit even with weaker winds at Florence’s edges could see heavy rainfall for hours. Storm surge flooding also could push 2 miles or more inland if Florence lingers for days along the coast. Tornadoes also remain a threat, particularly in areas northeast of the hurricane’s eye.

Senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart warns that Florence being a slow hurricane could mean three to four hours of battering, beach-eroding winds for some areas.The outer bands of wind and rain from Hurricane Florence are moving onshore along North Carolina’s barrier islands as the massive storm bears down on the Southeastern coastline.

As of 8 a.m., the Category 2 storm was centered about 170 miles (275 kilometers) east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 220 miles (355 kilometers) east-southeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Its forward movement slowed to 12 mph (19 kph) and top sustained winds stayed at 110 mph (175 kph).

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami don’t expect it to strengthen from a Category 2 hurricane before it moves ashore, but they say the real problem will be water as Florence lingers along the coast through Saturday. Florence’s hurricane-force winds were blowing 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its center, and tropical-storm-force winds reached up to 195 miles (315 kilometers) from the eye. Millions of people in the path of Hurricane Florence are frantically preparing for a monster storm that’s anticipated to make landfall as early as Friday afternoon. Residents in states from Virginia to Georgia — especially those who live in flood-prone areas or on the coast — must decide whether to stay or go.

Below is a snapshot of a region awaiting the deadly storm:

One South Carolina family living two blocks from the ocean thought long and hard about leaving before Hurricane Florence hit, but they just couldn’t afford it.

Mercedes O’Neill said she is scared to be in her North Myrtle Beach home with her boyfriend, her 6-year-old daughter and a son due Sept. 27 when the winds and rain pick up. But she says they couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel or to drive to a shelter. And she didn’t want to leave her cats behind. A family member rented a room, but when the storm slowed down, they couldn’t afford any extra days. O’Neill’s boyfriend Kelly Johnson says the couple needs to get back to work as soon as they can and returning after an evacuation can take several days.

Hours before a mandatory evacuation took effect, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, resident Phoebe Tesh paused while loading her car to have a glass of wine on the steps of the house where she and her husband rent an apartment. “We just love it down here so much we want to spend as time as we can,” she said.

Tesh, who works in information technology for UNC-Wilmington, said she and her husband have been ferrying valuables to her parents’ house on the mainland in Wilmington, where they planned to ride out the storm. “We started out with anything that cost over $200. Now we’re down to anything over $30,” she said, waving toward an SUV crammed with plastic bins and various items, including a block of chef’s knives. “Next time, we need a box truck.”

She and her husband, a professor at UNC-W, love the beach so much they sold a house on the mainland to rent there full time five years ago. She said they typically evacuate for major storms, and even neighbors who tend to ride out hurricanes are leaving. “We don’t know of anyone who’s staying for the storm,” she said.

Looking over a fleet of utility trucks staged near Charlotte Motor Speedway, retired utility worker Paul Anderson confessed Wednesday that he gets a rush from helping out with recovery efforts. The pay is good, but that’s not why he does it. “It’s adrenaline,” said Anderson, 59, of Lake City, Florida. “As soon as I get the call to go to work, I’m a changed man. My wife will tell you that. It makes you feel good to go help people. Plus, you get paid.”

Anderson didn’t hesitate this time, gathering people from Florida and Alabama and preparing to roll toward Wilmington, North Carolina. At least two dozen trucks were parked near the speedway as workers loaded equipment into a trailer. “When (my boss) asked me if I’d go down to the coast, I said yeah. And he said ‘You know what you’re getting into, don’t you?’ and I said, ‘That’s where I want to be. I want to be right in the middle of it.’”

Finally, Anderson admitted to one fear. “I’m scared of the water,” he said. “I’m not scared of the wind. (Hurricane) Irma had a lot of wind. You don’t want to be out in it but you can protect yourself from that. This water thing, we’ve never had to face that. ”Seth Bazemore lives in one of the most flood-prone neighborhoods in Norfolk, Virginia: A sliver of land known as Willoughby Spit that juts into Chesapeake Bay like a hitch-hiker’s thumb.

Previous hurricanes have made him a survivor.

On Wednesday, his brick house was lined with sandbags. Six bilge pumps sat inside on the ground floor, ready to push out the heavy rains and possible flood surge that the outer bands of Hurricane Florence are forecast to deliver.

“It looks like a ship moored to a pier,” said the 62-year-old engineering manager at Newport News Shipbuilding, a nearby shipyard the builds aircraft carriers and submarines for the U.S. Navy. “I’ve learned from past experience,” he said. “But believe you me, if I think it’ll be worse and more than my setup can handle, we’re out of here.” Bazemore was feeling some relief Wednesday. The forecast showed that Florence may strike the East Coast even further south in the Carolinas and bring less rain and wind to Virginia.

Colin Richards was among the military personnel leaving coastal Virginia and North Carolina ahead of Hurricane Florence. Many of the region’s ships had already headed out to sea. The 28-year-old mostly was concerned for his daughter, who is one month and two days old. “It’s very simple,” he said Wednesday morning. “We don’t want to live without power with a newborn.”

Richards is a U.S. Navy diver based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach. He and his wife, Louilyn, live in the Norfolk neighborhood of Oceanview, which sits on the southern edge of the Chesapeake Bay.

Florence is projected to strike the Carolinas. But heavy rains, winds and flooding are expected in Virginia.

“It’s just not worth the risk,” Richards said. “We’ve lost power frequently in the past.” The family planned to head to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Richards is from. He said many of his neighbors in Norfolk planned to wait out the storm with generators.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

.