Large swaths of America’s southeast coastline battened down, stocked up and emptied out on Tuesday ahead of Hurricane Florence, a massive Category 4 storm that is expected to make landfall Friday as a major threat somewhere along the Carolinas’ vulnerable barrier islands.
Officials in both Carolinas and Virginia are imploring residents and visitors alike to leave low-lying coastal areas and islands, and more than one million people are expected to flee the storm. Highways and roads out of Myrtle Beach and Charleston carried heavy traffic on Tuesday, as residents and visitors heeded a mandatory evacuation order for parts of the coast.
“It is too early to characterize whether it is a success or failure because it is taking place across such a wide area,” said Bill Holmes, a spokesman with the North Carolina Joint Information Center. “There are some places where people are doing a better job of leaving than others.”
Forecasters are warning of record-setting storm surges, along with rains heavy enough to cause catastrophic inland flooding. Some experts worry that the storm could knock out power for days or longer. Tropical storm-force winds are expected to begin battering the Carolinas on Thursday morning.
Officials in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., also issued emergency declarations or made preparations for flooding and other potential impacts of the storm.
Here are the latest developments:
• As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the center of the storm was in the Atlantic Ocean about 785 miles from Cape Fear, N.C. Follow the hurricane’s path here.
• The storm’s maximum sustained winds were back up to 140 miles an hour after easing slightly in the morning. The National Hurricane Center said the storm would remain an extremely powerful and dangerous storm at least through landfall.
• A hurricane warning has been issued for the coast from South Santee River, S.C., to Duck, N.C., and for Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Storm surge warnings are posted for the same area plus the Neuse and Pamlico rivers. A tropical storm watch covers the coast to the north as far as Cape Charles Light, Va., and for the Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.
• President Trump said on Tuesday that “we are ready as anybody has ever been” for a hurricane. He also called the widely criticized federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year an “incredible unsung success.”
• Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for most coastal counties of South Carolina and in parts of North Carolina. Schools and government offices in coastal counties of both states have been ordered closed.
• U.S. 501, the highway that runs from Myrtle Beach to Virginia, carried four to six times as much traffic as normal on Tuesday, according to the South Carolina Highway Patrol. Interstate 26, which runs from Charleston to the western part of the state, had three times as much traffic as normal.
• Evacuations began at 8 a.m. Tuesday in coastal areas of Virginia, including large parts of the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area. In Maryland, a state of emergency was declared to mobilize resources ahead of the storm. Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., also declared a state of emergency, with torrential rain a threat there.
• Two more tropical storms, Isaac and Olivia, are also causing concern. Isaac is expected to move across the Lesser Antilles and into the Caribbean Sea on Thursday and might skirt Puerto Rico on the weekend. Olivia, in the Central Pacific, is expected to start crossing the Hawaiian islands Tuesday night.
‘Nothing like you’ve ever seen’
Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina on Tuesday ordered a mandatory evacuation of the state’s barrier islands. He said he believed it was the first time the state had issued an evacuation order, adding that he expected the local authorities to issue similar orders for their areas. Evacuations were already underway in some places.
The storm “will affect each and every one of you,” the governor told the state’s residents during a news conference. “The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen.”
He urged residents to prepare now, calling the storm “a monster,” and warned that people should not count on being able to ride it out.
Power in some areas is likely to be out for several days, and storm surge is expected to flood widespread areas, he said, including inland regions of the state. Forecasts predict as much as 20 inches of rain in some places.
“Wherever you are in North Carolina, get ready for Florence now,” Governor Cooper said. “It is big and it is vicious.”
In South Carolina, the authorities reversed the lanes of two major divided highways to carry traffic away from the coast. However, on Tuesday Gov. Henry McMaster rescinded his evacuation order for the three southernmost coastal counties, responding to updated forecasts of the storm’s likely path.
‘We’re staying ’til they make us leave’
On any normal late-summer morning, the High Tide Lounge would be crowded with fishermen downing Budweisers and telling the usual lies. But on Tuesday, the shorefront watering hole in Carolina Beach, N.C., was deserted and locked up tight, and the attached pier was empty. Most of the fishermen and tourists had cleared out.
Some homeowners on the island were nailing plywood over windows and cramming pickup trucks with household possessions for the trip inland, heeding a mandatory evacuation order. But others were hauling in porch furniture, stocking up on food and water, and planning to ride out Hurricane Florence on the narrow barrier island south of Wilmington.
The storm, still hundreds of miles offshore, was already churning up the surf outside the High Tide Lounge, where Jim Hempfling stood all alone, trying to squeeze in just a little more of his vacation. He cast a line into the rising waves.
“Too rough out there,” he said. “As soon as a bite hits, the surf knocks it off.”
Mr. Hempfling, 71, said he had rented a beach residence through the weekend, but he planned to head reluctantly home to Silver Spring, Md., after one last day of so-far futile fishing.
“I love it here, but not enough to stay through what’s coming,” he said.
On the wide beach north of the lounge, Shari Osborne and her family had the entire oceanfront to themselves and were determined to enjoy it, despite frequent complaints from her husband, Doug, that they would get stuck in traffic if they didn’t leave right away and head home to Kannapolis, N.C.
“We’re trying to ignore him,” Mrs. Osborne said as she sat on the beach with her two daughters and son-in-law, squinting into the sun and fighting a whipping wind that blew sand against the dunes.
“We’re staying ’til they make us leave,” said her daughter Meagan Osborne.
A threat supercharged by climate change
Hurricane Florence presents a double threat to the region, said J. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist and professor of geography at the University of Georgia.
First, the coast faces high winds and storm surge from a powerful direct hit. But farther inland, he added, the probability of severe flooding is high if the storm stalls for several days once it makes landfall, as predicted. “The models are suggesting something very similar to what we saw with Harvey,” Dr. Shepherd said, referring to last year’s catastrophic flooding in Houston and elsewhere.
“This is another example of a one-two-punch storm,” he said. And although people generally prepare for coastal damage, they may underestimate the flooding threat.
“People have a hard time internalizing, preparing for something that’s outside their realm of experience,” he said. But Florence could bring conditions that people have not seen in their lifetimes. “It’s a dire situation that I believe is setting up,” he said.
Climate change is leading to more destructive storms in a number of ways, Dr. Shepherd noted. “When we have a storm like Florence, it’s certainly going to be shoving higher sea levels onto the coastline,” he said.
Although he said he was wary of linking individual storms to climate change, he added that scientific research laid out in authoritative documents like the National Climate Assessment of 2015 state that a warming climate increases the likelihood of “rainier storms,” with an increased risk of flooding.
Other scientific research suggests that Florence is part of the trend of storms affected by climate change. A 2014 study in the journal Nature shows a “poleward migration” of intense storms, and further research links climate change to a “wavier” jet stream, which could contribute to weakened steering currents, a phenomenon that kept Hurricane Harvey over Houston and could stall Florence over the Carolinas, as well.
Schools weigh how soon to close
In North Carolina, more than 483,000 students in more than 30 counties had been affected by school closings as of Tuesday evening. All were planning to stay closed at least through Friday, according to Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the state’s department of public instruction.
Mr. Elliot said school districts were trying to balance the potential for hurricane damage with the hardship to parents of having to find day care for their children.
“You don’t want to cancel schools too early,” Mr. Elliot said. “ On the other side, you need to cancel early enough so that people can make plans and evacuate, if that’s what they need to do. And if you cancel too broadly and too early and then the forecast is wrong, you get the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome of, are they going to heed the call next time.”
In South Carolina, Governor McMaster rescinded mandatory school closings in some counties that were now expected to experience less storm impact. Still, some 400,000 students in the state remain affected by the closings.
Factories, stores and trains shut down
Companies in the potential path of the hurricane hewed to a playbook established after years of experience with previous storms.
Walmart closed dozens of local stores, including several around Myrtle Beach, S.C., to give employees time to evacuate or prepare for the hurricane, the company told customers in a letter. The stock price of home improvement chains like Lowe’s and Home Depot, which typically see a surge of customers before and after bad weather, swung up to new records this week.
Manufacturing plants in the area suspended operations in response to local evacuation orders. Mercedes-Benz opened a new van factory in Charleston earlier this month, but the company said on Tuesday that it would be shuttered until further notice. Cargill will close its facilities, including sites that handle agricultural products and food, in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina on Friday.
Boeing, with 6,700 employees in South Carolina, most of them building the aerospace giant’s 787 airliners at a manufacturing facility in Charleston, said it would close up shop in the state and “resume operations once it is safe to do so.”
Volvo, which makes sedans in a plant in Charleston, also shut down operations.
For travelers in certain cities in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia, Delta Air Lines is waiving its baggage fees, as well as its usual charge for traveling with pets in the cabin, and its limit on the number of pets. Other airlines, including United, Southwest, JetBlue and American, are also waiving certain fees.
Amtrak said it would cancel several trains between Wednesday and Sunday, including the Auto Train and the Silver Meteor service between Miami and New York.
Puerto Rico nervously watches another storm
Other storms besides Florence continued to traverse the tropics on Tuesday. The National Hurricane Center said that Tropical Storm Isaac, now a tropical storm headed west toward the Lesser Antilles Islands, could be “at or near hurricane levels” on Thursday and on a path that might brush Puerto Rico on the weekend.
Just word of a hurricane some 175 miles south was enough to send hundreds of panicked Puerto Ricans rushing to the store to stock up on water and supplies.
Puerto Rico is nine days away from the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which crossed the Lesser Antilles before pummeling the island, knocking out power, damaging more than 300,000 homes and claiming some 3,000 lives over the subsequent five months.
“The store was exploding — exploding,” said Josefina García, a 64-year-old retiree who lives in Ciales. “The news said to prepare, so we’re preparing. I bought batteries and water, water, water.”
Ms. Garcia said she was nervous, because her damaged roof still needed several sheets of metal to be fully repaired. She plans to stay in a concrete apartment her son recently built on her property.
FEMA recently announced that it was prepared for this hurricane season: after getting caught flat-footed in Hurricane Maria, the agency has filled warehouses with nearly 14 million liters of water and 4 million meals.
But Vanessa Quiñones, a mapping analyst in Puerto Rico who delivers food to the needy, said her studies show there are some 80,000 tarps still covering unrepaired homes on the island.
“Everyone is aware that it can happen and obviously the less prepared and less sturdy the infrastructure is, the more people are going to be reactive,” she said. “We look like rabbits with their ears straight up.”
She said people were also concerned about Hurricane Florence.
“Remember, everybody has family in the United States,” she said. “The topic of the weekend: hurricanes.”
Prisoners join the massive evacuation
One group of people in Hurricane Florence’s path can’t choose for themselves whether to evacuate: prisoners. But as the storm approached on Tuesday, officials in North Carolina and Virginia began to move some inmates.
Jerry Higgins, a spokesman for the North Carolina prison system, said fewer than 10 of the state’s 55 prisons were being evacuated, and that they were smaller, lower-security facilities. The larger, higher-security prisons, like Central Prison in Raleigh, were not, he said.
Buses staffed with corrections officers were already being loaded with prisoners at some locations, Mr. Higgins said. He added that the state system was also working with some county jails in the predicted path of the storm to temporarily house inmates.
In Virginia, state officials evacuated the Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake on Monday night following a mandatory evacuation order by the governor, Ralph Northam. The prison had about 1,000 inmates as of June, according to records from the Virginia corrections department.
In South Carolina, there are no plans so far for prison evacuations. Officials said it might be safer to shelter in place for the one state prison inside the evacuation zone.
“We’re monitoring that situation,” said Dexter Lee, a spokesman for the South Carolina corrections department, “but we have not made a decision to move inmates from that institution.”
How do you prepare to evacuate your home?
When a hurricane is poised to make landfall and the authorities issue an evacuation order, you may not have much time before you leave to protect your home from the storm — and from flooding.
Here’s what you can do to get ready.
• Make a family plan. Pack an emergency kit, including cash, prescription medicines and three days’ worth of food and water (for people and pets)
• Take documents and protect valuables. Photograph or scan important documents like driver’s licenses, social security cards, passports, prescriptions, tax statements and other legal papers
• Bottle water and freeze food. The Food and Drug Administration recommends switching your refrigerator and freezer to the coldest possible settings and moving fridge items to the freezer so they stay cold longer if the power goes out.
• Take stock of household chemicals. Look for any potentially dangerous substances, like bleach, ammonia and drain cleaners.
• Think about power. Move electronics, small appliances, portable heating systems and other things with wires to upper levels and high shelves — as far away from water as possible.
• Clear the yard and secure windows. Trim and safely dispose of tree branches, which can fall during hurricane winds or become projectiles if left on the ground.