State and local officials in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have ordered about 1.5 million people to evacuate a lengthy stretch of coastline ahead of Hurricane Florence’s potentially catastrophic landfall, which is expected Thursday.
Florence is an extremely powerful storm that has been rapidly intensifying during its journey across the Atlantic, becoming a Category 4 hurricane and doubling the size of its hurricane-force wind zone Monday.
The unusually warm water that awaits Florence as it nears the U.S. coast could accelerate the storm’s winds to 155 miles per hour — nearly Category 5 intensity — before it strikes land, probably near the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Forecasts late Monday predicted that Florence’s path would head toward North Carolina, but it could still veer north or south and is likely to affect a large part of the region with pounding rains, perhaps for days.
tes and counties along the Eastern Seaboard from Maryland to Georgia are bracing for the impact of what the National Hurricane Center warned could be a “life-threatening storm surge” along the coast, and “life-threatening freshwater flooding from a prolonged and exceptionally heavy rainfall” from the coast to areas much further inland.
The governors of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina each declared a state of emergency. And the National Park Service said it was preparing for the potential need to deploy a levee through downtown Washington to protect against flooding in a region that already has been saturated by heavy rains in recent weeks.
“We do know we’re in the bull’s eye. We’re using this time to get together all the people we need, the equipment that we need, locating our strategic resources,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said Monday. Local authorities have ordered the evacuation of more than 250,000 residents and tourists from coastal islands and beach towns, where authorities expect a storm surge of at least 10 feet.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Monday evening ordered the evacuation of roughly a quarter of a million people from sections of the Eastern Shore, Virginia Beach, Hampton, Norfolk and the Middle Peninsula starting Tuesday morning. Northam also activated the state’s entire National Guard to provide help and requested 21 swift-water rescue teams from other states.
Meteorologists and government officials say the hurricane will bring powerful winds and storm surges to the coast, but the threat doesn’t stop there: Torrential rains across the broader region are likely to bring significant flooding to low-lying areas, including to communities more than 100 miles inland. Any stall as the storm heads northwest could lead to conditions reminiscent of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded Houston with more than four feet of rain in August 2017.
The lessons of last year’s hurricane season, which saw major storms make landfall in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, appeared to be reflected in decisions Monday to move people out of the way of Florence days before it was expected to hit.
In South Carolina, which Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said Monday is “liable to have a whole lot of flooding” no matter where the hurricane strikes, more than 1 million people are expected to take to the roadways Tuesday in response to mandatory evacuation orders affecting eight coastal counties.
“This is a very dangerous hurricane. We are not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina,” McMaster said Monday, describing the potential for an impact exceeding that of Hurricane Hugo, which killed 60 people in 1989, and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, from which several damaged communities across the Carolinas are still recovering.
The state has closed schools and state government offices across 26 counties to accommodate an influx of people in need of shelter, and hundreds of law enforcement officials Tuesday will enforce one-way passage away from the coast along four major highways.
McMaster, who spoke Monday alongside state officials and a coordinator from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the evacuation operations would include the patients and staffs of 117 medical facilities and nursing homes. Last year, 12 people died at a Hollywood, Fla., nursing home after the facility’s air conditioning failed in the days after Hurricane Irma. About a week after the storm hit Florida in September 2017, 45 nursing homes remained without power as temperatures reached into the 90s.
In response to the deaths, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed legislation requiring that the temperature in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities remain at or below 81 degrees within 96 hours after power goes out.
State authorities in the Carolinas said they were working with FEMA to prepare for the hurricane and are discussing the possibility of requiring federal assistance in its aftermath.
FEMA is coming off a year when it struggled to respond to a wide variety of disasters, including wildfires in the West and back-to-back-to-back hurricanes in August and September 2017.
Chris Currie, the director of the Government Accountability Office, said last week that FEMA was “completely overwhelmed” when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September; it was the third in the quick succession of devastating hurricanes.
“Once Maria hit, their staff resources were pretty exhausted. Their other commodities and resources were exhausted,” Currie said in a call with reporters to discuss the GAO’s newly released performance audit of FEMA’s 2017 disaster response.
State officials declined to say whether their confidence in FEMA has waned since last year’s catastrophes.
Researchers at George Washington University estimate that there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths in Puerto Rico in the six months after Maria’s landfall, an estimate that the territory’s officials accepted as the official death toll, making the storm one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern U.S. history.
Both North Carolina and South Carolina have asked President Trump to declare a federal emergency for their states as soon as possible, to give them access to federal resources.
Trump tweeted about the storm Monday, calling it “very dangerous.”
“We encourage anyone in the path of these storms to prepare themselves and to heed the warnings of State and Local officials,” Trump tweeted. “The Federal Government is closely monitoring and ready to assist. We are with you!”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump would receive a briefing on the impending hurricane at the White House on Tuesday from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FEMA Director William “Brock” Long.
“The lines of communication remain open, and the federal government stands ready to assist,” Sanders told reporters.
Cooper said he spoke to Long on Monday morning: “He is from North Carolina, he knows our state well and says this is going to be a statewide event.”
Maryland authorities had not issued any evacuation orders as of Monday night.
“While we are hoping for the best, we are preparing for the worst,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Hogan said he has readied the National Guard for potentially “catastrophic” flooding.
The Pentagon began preparing for the hurricane in earnest Monday, ordering nearly 30 ships based in Norfolk out to sea to avoid the storm and sending a small team of Defense Department personnel to a headquarters in Raleigh, N.C.
The military could take a beating from the storm with installations up and down the coastline. The Marine Corps’ shoreside Camp Lejeune, near where the storm could make landfall, is home to nearly 170,000 Marines, sailors, civilians and retirees.