Florence drops to Cat 3 hurricane, but wind field expands

Hurricane warnings issued for landfall with 120 mph winds in coming days

By Rebecca Barry - Meteorologist, John Gaughan - Chief meteorologist

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Portions of southern Georgia could see the impacts of Hurricane Florence by this weekend, primarily rain.

The hurricane weakened slightly, with sustained winds dropping to 125 mph at 2 p.m. Wednesday - which makes Florence a Category 3 Hurricane. The National Hurricane Center opened the cone of impact more to the south, increasing the chance of more rainfall into southeast Georgia. Areas like Savannah and Brunswick can expect up to two inches of rain over the next four days. By the time Florence reaches portions of South Georgia, it will have weakened considerably into a Depression. 

At 2 p.m., the center of the hurricane was 470 miles east-southeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was moving northwest at 16 mph. The NHC track forecasts it will intensify back into a Category 4 Hurricane by tomorrow, before weakening as it starts to interact with the Carolina coast. 

The NHC has issued Hurricane Warnings from South Santee River, South Carolina, to Duck, North Carolina. A storm surge warning is out for the same stretch of coastline. A Tropical Storm Warning was issued from the North Carolina/Virginia border to Cape Charles Light, Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.

Florence is going through another eyewall replacement cycle, which is typical of only the most organized major hurricanes and the warm water will likely keep Florence at least a Category 2 hurricane as it approaches land.

The official track has Florence hovering off the southern North Carolina coast from Thursday night until landfall Saturday morning or so, then veering south through South Carolina and Georgia into Monday.

If these projections hold, University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy says "it's exceptionally bad news, as it smears a landfall out over hundreds of miles of coastline, most notably the storm surge." McNoldy says "the rainfall has been and continues to be a very substantial threat over the entire area."

Locally, here in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia, the storm has generated a moderate risk of rip currents. The risk of life-threatening rip currents will increase as Florence gets closer and builds rough surf and the increasing potential for beach erosion Wednesday and Thursday.

LIVE: Interactive map of cameras along Carolina coast

Fleeing Florence

Evacuations were imposed for parts of three East Coast states Tuesday as millions of Americans prepared for what could become one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to hit the Eastern Seaboard in decades. Mandatory evacuations began at 8 a.m. in many coastal communities.

"Today's the day," Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday. "It's time for our citizens to be a part of the team. Heed those warnings and evacuate if you're in one of the zones."    

National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham called Hurricane Florence's size is "staggering."

"We could cover several states easily with the cloud cover alone," Graham said. "This is not just a coastal event."

The center of the massive storm is forecast to meander Thursday, Friday and Saturday over a stretch of coastline saturated by rising seas, inundating several states and triggering life-threatening floods. Seven-day rainfall totals are forecast to reach 10 to 20 inches over much of North Carolina and Virginia, and even 30 inches in some places. Combined with high tides, the storm surge could swell as high as 12 feet.

"The water could overtake some of these barrier islands and keep on going. With time, the wind pushes the water into every nook and cranny you can think of," Graham said. "All you have to do is look up at your ceiling, and think about 12 feet (of water). That, folks, is extremely life-threatening."

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said his state is "in the bullseye" and urged people to "get ready now."

The very center of that bullseye may be Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine Corps training base, where authorities were opening emergency operation centers and staging equipment.

"Please be prepared, be careful and be SAFE!" tweeted President Donald Trump, adding: "We are here for you."

South Carolina's governor ordered the state's entire coastline evacuated at noon Tuesday and predicted that 1 million people would flee as highways reverse directions. Coastal evacuations were in effect for Virginia and North Carolina as well.

The National Hurricane Center emphasizes four main points:

  • A life-threatening storm surge is now highly likely along portions of the coastlines of South Carolina and North Carolina, and a Storm Surge Warning is in effect for a portion of this area.  All interests from South Carolina into the mid-Atlantic region should complete preparations and follow any advice given by local officials.
  • Life-threatening, catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding is likely over portions of the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic states from late this week into early next week, as Florence is expected to slow down as it approaches the coast and moves inland.
  • Damaging hurricane-force winds are likely along portions of the coasts of South Carolina and North Carolina, and a Hurricane Warning is in effect.  Strong winds could also spread inland into portions of the Carolinas.
  • Large swells affecting Bermuda and portions of the U.S. East Coast will continue this week, resulting in life-threatening surf and rip currents.

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