WILMINGTON, N.C. ó Florence has decreased to a Category 3 storm, but could still bring life-threatening storm surge and rainfall across the Carolinas. According to the National Hurricane Center, the stormís peak winds have decreased.
Communities along the Southeastern coast buttoned up against the onslaught of Hurricane Florence as forecasters Wednesday warned that the monster storm could hesitate just offshore for days ó punishing a longer stretch of coastline harder than previously feared ó before pushing inland over the weekend.
In a videotaped message from the White House, President Donald Trump said the government is fully prepared for Florence but urged people to "get out of its way."
"Donít play games with it. Itís a big one," he said.
The National Hurricane Centerís projected track had Florence hovering off the southern North Carolina coast from Thursday night until landfall Saturday morning or so, about a day later than previously expected. The track also shifted somewhat south and west, throwing Georgia into peril as Florence moves inland.
The overall trend is "exceptionally bad news," said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy, since it "smears a landfall out over hundreds of miles of coastline, most notably the storm surge."
Forecasters said Florence was expected to blow ashore late Thursday or early Friday, then slow down and dump 1 to 2Ĺ feet (0.3 to 0.6 meters) of rain that could cause flooding well inland and wreak environmental havoc by washing over industrial waste sites and hog farms.
At 5p.m., the storm was centered 385 miles (615 km) southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, moving west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph). Winds have decreased to near 120 mph with higher gusts.
Waves 83 feet high were measured near the eye of Florence, according to a tweet from the National Hurricane Center. But that was out in the open ocean, where deeper water means bigger waves.
"This is not going to be a glancing blow," warned Jeff Byard, an administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "This is going to be a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast."
As of Tuesday, about 1.7 million people in North and South Carolina and Virginia were under warnings to evacuate the coast, and hurricane watches and warnings extended across an area with about 5.4 million residents. Cars and trucks full of people and belongings streamed inland.
Georgiaís governor has declared a state of emergency for all 159 counties.
In a news release Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal says the state "is mobilizing all available resources to ensure public safety ahead of Hurricane Florence."
No storm watches or warnings are in effect for Georgia. But forecasters say thereís an increased chance for tropical storm winds to reach Savannah.
Dealís emergency declaration cited potential "changes in the stormís trajectory" as well as an influx of evacuees coming to Georgia from the Carolinas. The order eases regulations on trucks hauling gasoline and relief supplies into Georgia.
If some of the computer projections hold, "itís going to come roaring up to the coast Thursday night and say, ĎIím not sure I really want to do this, and Iíll just take a tour of the coast and decide where I want to go inland,í" said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private Weather Underground forecasting service.
Florence could strengthen some over open water and then weaken as it nears land, but the difference wonít make it any less dangerous, forecaster Stacy Stewart wrote in a National Hurricane Center discussion.
With South Carolinaís beach towns more in the bullís-eye because of the shifting forecast, Ohio vacationers Chris and Nicole Roland put off their departure from North Myrtle Beach to get the maximum amount of time on the sand. Most other beachgoers were long done.
"Itís been really nice," Nicole Roland said. "Also, a little creepy. You feel like you should have already left."
For many of those under evacuation orders, getting out of harmís way has proved difficult, as airlines canceled flights and motorists had a hard time finding gas.
Michelle Stober loaded up valuables at her home on Wrightsville Beach to drive back to her primary residence in Cary, North Carolina.
"This morning I drove around for an hour looking for gas in Cary. Everyone was sold out," she said.
Florence is the most dangerous of three tropical systems in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac was expected to pass south of Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, while Hurricane Helene was moving northward away from land. Forecasters also were tracking two other disturbances.
The coastal surge from Florence could leave the eastern tip of North Carolina under more than 9 feet (2.75 meters) of water in spots, projections showed. The Navy, Air Force and Army were moving ships and aircraft out of harmís way. Thousands of Marines and their families evacuated from Camp Lejeune, leaving the rest to dig in ahead of what could be a direct hit.
Florenceís projected path includes half a dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous hog farms that store manure in huge lagoons.
In Wilmington, resident Michael Wilson fortified his home against the wind and rain, and worried.
"The biggest thing is youíre always worried about yourself and friends and family ó and whether theyíll have a place to come back to," he said.