Heavy rain, gusting winds and rising floodwaters from Hurricane Florence deluged the Carolinas on Thursday as the massive, slow-moving storm crept toward the coastline, threatening millions of people in its path with record rainfall and punishing surf. "Catastrophic effects will be felt".
While hurricane-force winds can rip the roofs off houses, it is the water-storm surge, inland flooding, surf and drowning at sea-that kills almost 9 out of 10 people in hurricanes like Florence.
"Just because the wind speed came down, the intensity of this storm came down to a Cat 2, please do not let your guard down", said Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Much of the North Carolina Outer Banks and mainland areas adjacent to Pamlico Sound, Albemarle Sound and Onslow Bay, North Carolina, will be especially hit hard by storm surge, high winds and torrential rain.
In its 0300 GMT advisory, the National Hurricane Center said the maximum sustained winds of Florence were 150kph, dropping it to the weakest of five categories on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
Avair Vereen, 39, took her seven children to a shelter in Conway High School. "Once you leave, you don't know how many days it will be before you can return", she said. "I've got four cats inside the house".
Florence's top winds were clocked on Thursday at 100 miles per hour (170 km per hour) as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean, down from a peak of 140 mph (224 kph) earlier this week when it was classified a Category 4 storm.
Hurricanes Isaac and Florence continue to pose problems for Caribbean countries
Meteorologists are also keeping an eye on yet another tropical disturbance that's spinning in the western Gulf of Mexico. Satellite images show very little left as a recognizable tropical storm.
"We expect the eye of Hurricane Florence to reach the coast near Wilmington, North Carolina, early Friday morning", according to AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski. He said parts of North Carolina had seen storm surges - the bulge of seawater pushed ashore by the hurricane - as high as 10 feet. In New Bern, on the Neuse River, a CNN team had to keep shifting position in a park as the water kept rising until it was too risky to stay in the area. Rainfalls up to 40 inches (102 centimeters) in some places are expected in a region ranging from coastal North Carolina to northeastern SC, with flash flooding likely, according to the NHC. Several places already had more than 16 inches (40 centimeters) of rain, and Oriental, North Carolina got more than 20 inches (50 centimeters) in just a few hours. Florence, a storm expected to significantly impact the U.S.
"Your time is running out", he warned.
Overall, Young says that evacuees from the coast who have fled to the mountains made the right choice.
The company said as many as three-fourths of its 4 million customers in North Carolina and SC could lose power.
Almost 2 million coastal residents are now under mandatory evacuation orders, although it remains unclear how many have actually done so.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster did not mince words Thursday, delivering a dire message to coastal residents who have chosen to remain in their homes despite repeated warnings to leave as Hurricane Florence moved toward the state.
The head of Duke Energy Corp.'s North Carolina operations says it could take weeks to restore electricity if the company's prediction that 1 million to 3 million of its 4 million customers lose power.