‘Extremely dangerous’ Hurricane Florence hits Category 4 as it churns toward Carolinas

(This story was updated at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.)

Hurricane Florence is now a Category 4 storm and is “rapidly strengthening” as it heads toward the Carolinas coast, bringing “exceptionally heavy rain,” the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on Monday.

In a 11 p.m. update from the NHC, the storm’s winds rose to 140 mph, and it picked up speed in its westward track, doubling its speed from Sunday to 13 mph.

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“Further strengthening is anticipated and Florence is expected to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane through Thursday,” the NHC said in a statement.

“Storm-force winds” are expected to hit North Carolina beginning 8 a.m. Thursday, and some eastern counties could see as much as 12 inches of rain in the four days that follow, the National Weather Service said in its Monday morning update.

As of 11 p.m., there were no coastal watches or warnings in effect, but the NHC issued a statement that “storm surge and hurricane watches are are likely to be issued” Tuesday.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered a mandatory evacuation of all eight counties on the coast on Monday, The State reported.

“McMaster said he would reverse lanes on four main roads to facilitate the evacuation,” The State reported.

North Carolina allowed local leaders to make evacuation decisions, and mandatory evacuation orders began to go into effect for coastal areas of North Carolina, especially the Outer Banks, on Monday.

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“We face three critical threats from Florence: ocean surge along our coast, strong winds, and inland flooding from heavy rain,” N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement Monday. “Wherever you live in North Carolina, you need to get ready for this storm now and you need to evacuate if asked to.”

Florence was more than 400 miles wide early Monday, according to the NWS.

A category 4 hurricane has winds in the 130 to 156 mph range, according to the NHC. In such winds, downed trees and power outages are common, and well-built homes can suffer heavy damage, the NHC says.

A category 3 hurricane has winds of 96 to 112 mph, the NHC said.

NOAA’s latest “probable” models see the center of the storm at the North Carolina coast at 2 a.m. Friday and in central North Carolina at 2 a.m. Saturday.

That track shows the center of the storm continuing inland to Raleigh and Greensboro.

Once the storm makes landfall, it will “sit over the Carolinas for some time,” according to WSOC meteorologist John Ahrens. “This will likely be a big problem not just Thursday but potentially through the entire weekend. Some computer models keep the storm just offshore though, which would lessen the local impact.”

Hurricane-force winds are extending out up to 40 miles away from Hurricane Florence’s center, and “tropical-storm-force winds” are being felt up to 150 miles out, the NHC said.

The first of the gusts could arrive in North Carolina at 8 p.m. Wednesday, the center said.

Governors in North and South Carolina declared states of emergency in advance of the storm, which already was creating dangerous conditions in waters off the coast. The National Weather Service reported Sunday that more than 20 people had to be pulled from the ocean off Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, The Wilmington Star reported.

There is little to keep the hurricane from intensifying further, according to the NHC, adding “the new intensity forecast calls for continued strengthening to near category 5 strength.”

The NC Ferry Division announced Sunday that is was canceling some ferries to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands “due to preparation for possible severe weather.” NCDOT said the ferries would be aiding in evacuation.

“There is an increasing risk of coastal storm surge flooding and freshwater flooding from heavy prolonged rain when the hurricane approaches the U.S.,” said a NOAA tweet.

“While it is too soon to determine the exact timing, location and magnitude of these impacts, interest at the coast and inland from South Carolina into the mid-Atlantic region should closely monitor the progress of Florence,” said a NOAA statement.

At Cooper’s request, North Carolina has been granted a Federal Disaster Declaration for Hurricane Florence, which Cooper tweeted will speed federal aid for N.C.

U.S. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement on Monday that President Donald Trump had a 3 p.m. briefing call at the White House about Hurricane Florence with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“This latest briefing is part of the President’s monitoring of multiple storms that are predicted to affect the U.S. in the coming days,” Sanders said in the statement, adding that the White House is in contact with governor’s offices in all the areas affected, including the Carolinas.

“The federal government stands ready to assist,” she said. “These tropical storms and hurricanes are very dangerous.”

At 3:41, the president tweeted:

“To the incredible citizens of North Carolina, South Carolina and the entire East Coast - the storm looks very bad! Please take all necessary precautions. We have already began mobilizing our assets to respond accordingly, and we are here for you!”

Later Monday Trump declared an emergency exists in North Carolina and ordered “federal assistance to supplement the state,” according to a statement from the White House.

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