Updated 5 p.m. | Sept. 13, 2018
Hurricane Florence's leading edge battered the Carolina coast Thursday, bending trees and shooting frothy sea water over streets on the Outer Banks, as the hulking storm closed in with 105 mph (165 kph) winds for a drenching siege that could last all weekend.
Forecasters said conditions will only get more lethal as the storm pushes ashore early Friday near the North Carolina-South Carolina line and makes its way slowly inland. Its surge of ocean water could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 13 feet, and days of downpours could unload more than 3 feet of rain, touching off severe flooding.
Florence's winds weakened as it drew closer to land, dropping from a peak of 140 mph (225 kph) earlier in the week, and the hurricane was downgraded from a terrifying Category 4 to a 2.
The National Weather Service warned that people should have their hurricane preparations in place Thursday before the storm moves in toward land overnight.
"It truly is really about the whole size of this storm," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. "The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact — and we have that."
Surf flows between two homes on Ocean View Drive in Avon pic.twitter.com/P38jYtMKVT
— Jeff Hampton (@jeffhampton56) September 13, 2018
The forecast calls for as much as 40 inches (102 centimeters) of rain over seven days along the coast, with the deluge continuing even as the center of the storm pushes its way over the Appalachian Mountains.
The result could be what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago: catastrophic inland flooding that could swamp homes, businesses, farms and industrial sites.
The police chief of a barrier island in Florence's bulls'-eye said he was asking for next-of-kin contact information from the few residents who refused to leave.
"I'm not going to put our personnel in harm's way, especially for people that we've already told to evacuate," Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said.
— Surfline (@surfline) September 13, 2018
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday urged residents to remain alert despite changing forecasts.
"Don't relax, don't get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality," he said.
Cooper said the storm will dump historic amounts of rain on eastern North Carolina. He urged people to stay off roads during peak storm conditions and warned against driving through standing floodwater.
"That's the second story of a house,” he said. “Battering winds and relentless rain that'll last for days."
Millions of North Carolinians Live in Hurricane Warning or Watch Areas
About 5.25 million people live in areas under hurricane warnings or watches, and 4.9 million in places covered by tropical storm warnings or watches, the National Weather Service said.
Across the state, more than 100 shelters have opened. Some are pet-friendly, and others are not.
“We have a mental health person, we have social workers, we have in some cases, we have law enforcement in the building,” said volunteer John Edwards, who was volunteering at the American Red Cross shelter in Greensboro Thursday.
At the North Carolina Zoo, workers this week were trying to figure out what to do with 1,600 animals.
Staff at the 500-acre zoo near Asheboro rushed Wednesday to move elephants, giraffes, chimpanzees and hundreds of other species indoors to protect them from the storm's predicted formidable winds and torrential rain.
Spokeswoman Diane Villa said some of the larger animals — including bison and elk — will be put in fenced-in yards instead of barns because they do not like being in fully enclosed spaces.
But many other animals will be kept in barns.
A crew of zookeepers, veterinarians, and park rangers will ride out the storm with the animals.
The zoo planned to be closed through Friday.
Officials Project At Least $1 Billion in Damage
Weather Underground meteorology director Jeff Masters said Florence eventually could strike as a Category 1 with winds less than 100 mph (160 kph), but that's still enough to cause at least $1 billion in damage. Water kills more people in hurricanes than wind does.
Scientists said it is too soon to say what role, if any, global warming played in the storm. But previous research has shown that the strongest hurricanes are getting wetter, more intense and intensifying faster because of human-caused climate change.
— WEATHER/ METEO WORLD (@StormchaserUKEU) September 13, 2018
Federal, state and local officials are concerned about massive amounts of rain and powerful winds the storm will bring. Steve Goldstein with NOAA said the Pamlico Sound and the Pamlico and Neuse rivers were particular areas of concern.
"Where 9 to 12 feet of storm surge are forecast and the beaches from the Outer Banks to the Wilmington area, 6 to 9 feet of storm surge are forecast over several astronomical high tide cycles,” Goldstein said.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said driving through floodwaters was a leading cause of death during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
It's unclear exactly how many people fled ahead of the storm, but more than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to clear out.
Airlines canceled about 1,200 flights and counting, and some airports in the Carolinas virtually shut down. Home Depot and Lowe's activated emergency response centers and sent in around 1,100 trucks to get generators, trash bags and bottled water to stores before and after the storm.
Duke Energy: Outages Could Last For Weeks
Duke Energy, the nation's No. 2 power company, said Florence could knock out electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and outages could last for weeks. Workers are being brought in from the Midwest and Florida to help in the storm's aftermath, it said.
The utility also said Thursday it is shutting down a coastal North Carolina nuclear power plant ahead of Hurricane Florence. The electricity provider says it began powering down one reactor at the Brunswick plant earlier this morning and would start shutting the second reactor later today. Florence is projected to reach land Friday near the plant located about five miles from the Atlantic Ocean near Southport.
Florence's weakening as it neared the coast created tension between some who left home and authorities who worried that the storm could still be deadly.
Frustrated after evacuating his beach home for a storm that has since been downgraded, retired nurse Frederick Fisher grumbled in the lobby of a hotel in Wilmington several miles inland.
"Against my better judgment, due to emotionalism, I evacuated," he said. "I've got four cats inside the house. If I can't get back in a week, after awhile they might turn on each other or trash the place."
Reporters Naomi Prioleau and Jeff Tiberii and the Associated Press contributed to this report.