Hurricane Florence, now Category 4, could be ‘devastating’ if it stays on path, forecasters say

(This story was updated at 5:40 a.m. Eastern on Monday.)

Hurricane Florence is now a Category 4 storm, and its latest projected path is centered on Wilmington, North Carolina, adding more urgency to the state of emergency declared in the Carolinas.

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The storm regained its hurricane status Sunday and became a Category 4 storm Monday morning and was expected to continue to be a “dangerous major hurricane” by Monday night, according to updates from the National Hurricane Center.

“Somebody is going to suffer devastating damage if this storms continues as it is currently forecast,” said Dan Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Columbia, in an interview with The State.

As of 5 a.m. Monday, the hurricane was moving west about 9 mph, and it was expected to move on a west-northwestward track, picking up speed on Monday, according to an update from the NHC. Florence will approach the “southeastern coast” on Thursday.

The storm reached maximum winds of 105 mph with higher gusts, the NHC announced.

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Florence is expected to become larger and “rapidly strengthen to a major hurricane ... Monday, remaining an extremely dangerous major hurricane through Thursday,” the NHC said Sunday.

“This means that Florence is likely to be a very powerful hurricane as it moves over the western Atlantic toward the southeastern United States,” the NHC reported, adding the forecast predicts Florence will be “near category 4” when it makes landfall.

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Hurricane-force winds are extending out from the storm up to 25 miles from its center and tropical-storm-force winds up to 125 miles, the NHC said.

Ocean swells created by the storm already had reached Bermuda and were “beginning to reach portions of the U.S. East Coast,” the NHC said Sunday. “These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions.”

When Florence reached winds of 75 mph, it was reclassified as a hurricane again, since winds over 74 mph are considered hurricane force, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For “major hurricane” status, wind speeds must be greater than 110 mph, according to NOAA.

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Florence continues to defy easy prediction, but the latest projection is landfall in the Wilmington area at 2 a.m. Friday.

The Carolinas will feel the storm far in advance of that, according to the NHC.

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Tropical-storm-force winds could reach the Carolinas coast as early as 8 p.m. Wednesday, NOAA says.

Dave Loewenthal of the National Weather Service’s Wilmington office told the Wilmington Star Sunday that it could take another two days before experts know exactly where the storm will hit land.

Florence could make landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with 140 mph winds, WRAL reported Sunday.

Should that happen, it would be the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in North Carolina in more than 60 years, when Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954, according to the National Weather Service. Should Florence make landfall in South Carolina, it would be the first Category 4 since 1989, when Hurricane Hugo ravaged the state.

“This has the potential to be like a Hugo,” Miller told The State. “Somebody somewhere is going to suffer devastating damage. ... This is a major hurricane that is going to impact the region and people need to prepare.”

As the storm’s possible paths begin to narrow, there is “increasing likelihood that significant to life-threatening impacts will be felt across portions of (North Carolina). Time to prepare is now, time to take action is very soon!” the Raleigh branch of the National Weather Service tweeted Sunday afternoon.

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The biggest threats from the storm are storm surge flooding at the coast and freshwater flooding from prolonged heavy rain inland in the Carolinas, the weather service wrote in its 11 a.m. Sunday update.

Hurricanes also have the potential to produce tornadoes, in thunderstorms embedded within the larger storm, according to the NHC.

“Almost all tropical cyclones making landfall in the United States spawn at least one tornado, provided enough of the tropical cyclone’s circulation moves over land,” a report by NOAA said.

The NHC says tornadoes within hurricanes are usually “relatively weak and short-lived, but they still pose a significant threat.”

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The ocean off North Carolina and South Carolina has already become dangerous with swells and rip currents in advance of Florence, according to the National Weather Service. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore began asking visitors on Saturday to avoid getting in the ocean or risk drowning.

“Starting today, large swells and high threats of rip currents associated with Tropical Storm Florence will produce life-threatening ocean conditions along Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches,” the park wrote on Facebook.

The North Carolina Division of Transportation’s Ferry Division announced that ferries from Hatteras and Ocracoke islands were canceled on Sunday “due to preparation for possible severe weather.”

No coastal warnings or watches had been issued for the Carolinas as of Sunday at 11 p.m.

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Staff writer Aaron Moody contributed.

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