This story was last updated at 11:30 p.m. Thursday
▪ Charlotte could see nearly 11 inches of rain, enough to cause flooding. Forecasters say the bulk of the rain will arrive starting late Friday, and go through the weekend.
▪ The region has a better than 60 percent chance of seeing tropical storm-force winds (39 mph or higher), according to the National Hurricane Center.
▪ Areas to the south and east of Charlotte could see even more rain and flooding — 14.5 inches in Monroe, 13.67 inches in Concord, 14.7 inches in Albemarle and 18.46 inches in Anson County, meteorologist Doug Outlaw of the National Weather Service in Greer, S.C., said at 7 p.m. Thursday.
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Chances remained strong Charlotte will get a deluge of rain and high winds this weekend as the inland track of Hurricane Florence remained to the south and west of earlier projections. Charlotte’s airport could see 10.83 inches of rain, Outlaw said
The National Hurricane Center now projects 6 to 12 inches of rain for Charlotte and much of western North Carolina over the next week, likely starting Friday. Isolated areas could see 15 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center predicted. Projections for Charlotte were just 2 inches of rain Tuesday. Expected rainfall in the N.C. mountains continued to fall Thursday night, with only 3.54 inches now anticipated in Asheville, Outlaw said.
At 11 p.m. Thursday, Florence was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane but was still producing “life-threatening storm surge” along the NC coast, the National Hurricane Center reported.
Florence’s track remained largely unchanged late Thursday: Landfall at Wilmington on Friday, then nearly straight west across South Carolina over the weekend. Forecasters earlier this week had expected the storm to turn north and head through central North Carolina and into Virginia, a track that might have spared Charlotte more of the storm’s impact.
“In the Charlotte area and across the WBTV viewing area conditions here will begin to deteriorate by Friday night,” Chris Larson, a meteorologist at Observer news partner WBTV, wrote early Thursday. “The worst of the storm for us will be during the day on Saturday. We may experience tropical storm force winds, along with torrential rain as we go from Saturday into Sunday.”
Weather service meteorologist Jeffrey Taylor, based in Greer, S.C., said heavy rains will start arriving Friday and could linger through Monday.
“The biggest concern for the Charlotte area is the heavier rain,” Taylor told the Observer on Thursday. Rainfall projections bumped up a bit overnight from Wednesday. But the storm’s track could still change, and that could shift the amount of rain Charlotte gets.
“It’s hard to say exactly what it will do when it makes landfall,” Taylor said.
The National Weather Service’s forecast for Charlotte says wind gusts of up to 22 mph are expected Thursday, with windy conditions to linger through Sunday. Winds could gust to 32 mph on Friday.
“Concern over the potential for very windy conditions is growing for Friday,” the National Weather Service noted Thursday in its Charlotte-area forecast. “Great uncertainty also remains with exactly where the axis of heaviest rainfall will set up this weekend...This will result in flooding risk for the entire upstate of SC and almost all of western NC as well.”
The rain expected in Charlotte could flood neighborhoods in floodplains and cover roads near creeks, which in the city tend to fill quickly after hard rain. Charlotte is a in a zone with a “marginal” risk flash flooding will occur, according to the National Hurricane Center. Risks are highest on North Carolina’s southern coast, which is expected to get a catastrophic 20 to 30 inches of rain.
The hurricane center projects that wind speeds in Charlotte will most likely stay at the low end of tropical storm force, which is the range from 39 mph to 73 mph, or lower. Increased winds are expected to be apparent by Friday morning.
There’s a better than 60 percent chance that sustained winds will reach 39 mph sometime over the next five days, the center says. The chance of significantly stronger sustained winds is much lower: a 16 percent chance that winds will reach 58 mph and a 3 percent chance they will hit hurricane strength, 74 mph.
The widely used Beaufort wind scale says wind averaging 35 mph makes walking difficult and trees sway. At 42 mph, cars veer on roads and tree twigs snap. Wind averaging 50 mph causes light structural damage, and 60 mph wind uproots trees and causes greater structural damage.
Duke Energy said Wednesday it expects 1 million to 3 million of its Carolinas customers to lose power during and after the storm. In Charlotte, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will be closed Thursday and Friday and shelters will be opened for hurricane evacuees. Fire Chief Reginald Johnson warned residents to “be prepared to be without power for three to four days.”
The “probable” forecast path for Florence as of 11 p.m. Wednesday showed the storm shifting farther toward the southern North Carolina coast and the northern half of the South Carolina coast, with the forecast cone stretching into Georgia, Western North Carolina and Tennessee, according to the NHC.
Once it makes landfall, the current forecast path shows the storm making a turn even west, carrying it across central South Carolina through the weekend and eventually into the upstate, before crossing into western North Carolina early Monday.
The inland forecasts are still uncertain. But the storm’s expected track would put Charlotte on Florence’s “bad” side, to the right of the center of the storm, where wind and rain are most damaging.
“If it does take the more southerly track, of course, it will have an effect on the wind field,” said Taylor, the meteorologist. “We could get stronger winds as it moves south of the Charlotte area, possibly higher sustained winds.”
Sunday into Monday presents the greatest risk of tornadoes spawned by Florence in the Charlotte region, according to the National Weather Service
Across the Carolinas, businesses and residents are busily trying to prepare for a looming storm without knowing what the worst impacts will be.
Milk, bread and bottled water disappeared from grocery stores across Charlotte, but stores said they’re constantly restocking essential items and supplies such as batteries, toilet paper and propane tanks.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management advised local people to stock emergency kits well with food, water, medications and flashlights with extra batteries, and to gas up their cars well before the storm hits.
Lines for gas have already formed at some gas stations, mostly in coastal communities, ahead of the storm. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina cut supply lines from the Gulf coast, leading to widespread shortages.
The online short-term rental site Airbnb offered free temporary lodging to hurricane evacuees and disaster relief workers in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia.
North Carolina officials said hundreds of inmates from state prisons and county jails in the projected path of Florence were being evacuated to larger facilities.
Observer videographer John Simmons and McClatchy reporter Franco Ordoñez contributed.