Mandatory evacuations were underway Monday in North Carolina and more are scheduled for Tuesday – including the entire coastline of South Carolina – as Hurricane Florence strengthened to a Category 4 storm and continued its slow but angry dance toward the East Coast.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence is expected to slam into the coast around North and South Carolina as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane on Thursday or Friday. The storm's winds had increased to 130 mph on Monday.
The hurricane roared from a Category 1 (90 mph) to a Category 4 (130 mph) in just the past 13 hours, an extremely rapid intensification, according to Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach. "The last Atlantic hurricane to intensify as rapidly as far north as Florence's current location was Hurricane Humberto in 2007," he said.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said he had asked President Donald Trump for a federal disaster declaration ahead of the storm.
"We here in North Carolina are bracing for a hard hit," Cooper said Monday. "We are taking Hurricane Florence seriously."
"Everyone in Dare County is encouraged to evacuate as soon as possible regardless of the established time frames," the county announced.
Dare County has a year-round population of more than 30,000 people, but the population balloons during tourist seasons. It was not immediately clear how many people were being evacuated.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the state’s entire coastline to be evacuated starting at noon Tuesday.
The hurricane center's description of a Category 4 hurricane begins with "catastrophic damage will occur." The center warns that such storms will snap or uproot most trees and down power poles and that power can be out in some areas for weeks or months.
The center of Florence was forecast to sweep between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday before making its assault on the U.S. coast.
"Florence is ... expected to remain an extremely dangerous major hurricane through Thursday," the hurricane center warned.
A "major" hurricane is one with sustained winds of more than 110 mph. Any Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane is classified as a major hurricane.
The hurricane center warned that the swells are likely to cause "life-threatening" surf and current conditions. Even before the evacuation order, Dare County emergency officials warned that rough seas and strong rip currents are already creating dangerous conditions.
"Red, no-swimming flags are flying and everyone must stay out of the water," Dare County Emergency Management Director Drew Pearson said.
AccuWeather meteorologist Brett Rossi said the ground in North and South Carolina and Virginia is already saturated from recent rains. Rivers are high, and the storm will be moving slowly when it arrives, exacerbating the situation, Rossi told USA TODAY.
"This is very scary rain event potentially setting up this week," Rossi said. "Florence could dump a foot of rain in places that cannot handle it, making for a very scary flooding situation in some areas."