This story was updated at 5 p.m. Eastern.
Tropical-storm-force winds already are lashing at the Carolinas coast Thursday afternoon as Category 2 Hurricane Florence makes its approach.
As of a 5 p.m. update Thursday from the National Hurricane Center, life-threatening storm surge and rainfall was expected and the threat of tornadoes was increasing as the storm moved closer to the southeastern North Carolina coast and the Outer Banks.
The latest “probable” path of the center of the storm shows a change as of 5 p.m. The storm is expected to curve sharply north and east beginning Sunday at the western edges of North and South Carolina and move upward through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and further before 2 p.m. Tuesday, the latest NHC map shows.
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Winds at a NOAA station at Cape Lookout reported sustained winds had increased to 68 mph and gusts up to 85 mph as of 5 p.m.
The storm was 97 miles southeast of Wilmington, the NHC said as of 5 p.m.
The storm also slowed to a crawl at 5 mph as of 5 p.m. the NHC said.
Outer bands of rain from Catefory 2 Hurricane Florence reached the coast of North Carolina on Thursday, promising “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall,” said the NHC. The storm was expected to continue to slow.
At a news conference at 5 p.m. Thursday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said the storm had just reached the state and “we have days more to go.”
“Right now, tropical storm force winds powerful enough to destroy buildings are at our coast. Conditions will continue to deteriorate. With the extreme storm surge, rivers will start to overflow. Remember that rivers keep on rising after the storm stops,” Cooper said. “Wind and waves are driving water onto roads in the coast. Nearly 30,000 people in NC are already without power, and these numbers are rising.”
FEMA said Thursday morning that would not make landfall for at least 36 hours, meaning the worst may not happen until Friday afternoon or early Saturday.
The NHC said the center of the storm will approach the Carolinas coast late Thursday, then “move near or over the coast of southern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina in the hurricane warning area tonight and Friday. A slow motion across portions of eastern South Carolina is forecast Friday night through Saturday night.”
“Florence is a tremendously large hurricane,” the NHC said. “Hurricane-force winds (74-95 mph) extend outward up to 80 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds (39 to 73 mph) extend outward up to 195 miles.”
The National Hurricane Center said Thursday evening that the storm has sustained winds of 100 mph. That puts it at the top end of Category 2. A Category 3 hurricane has sustained winds of at least 111 mph.
“Little change in strength is expected before the eye of Florence reaches the coast, with slow weakening expected after the center moves inland or meanders near the coast. More significant weakening is forecast on Saturday as Florence moves farther inland over central South Carolina,” the NHC said.
The first of the rain and wind gusts rolled ashore just before dawn Thursday at Morehead City, a Carteret County town that is expected to get 20 to 30 inches of rain in the next three days. The Weather Channel is reporting waves have already breached dunes along some parts of the Outer Banks, something experts predicted would add to rapid storm surge flooding.
The National Hurricane Center believes the center of Florence — now 300 miles wide — will move over southern North Carolina later today, but is expected to make “a slow motion over eastern South Carolina” Friday night through Saturday.
FEMA used the word “disaster” in describing the storm Thursday, explaining “we call them disasters because they break things.” The winds and rain will wreak havoc with the state’s infrastructure, FEMA says, including knocking out power and displacing people for days.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday that “power losses in the millions” are possible.
The storm began to “pile up water” along the coast Thursday and bring a “tremendous amount of inland flooding,” officials said Thursday. The storm could also bring “40 inches or more” of rain to some parts of the state, the NHC said.
“A turn toward the west- northwest and west at an even slower forward speed is expected by tonight and continuing into Friday, and a slow west-southwestward motion is forecast Friday night and Saturday,” the NHC said.
The majority of both North and South Carolina are within the “cone of uncertainty” in the latest path, according to the NHC.
Among the most devastating scenarios, as reported by the Weather Channel: The storm could stall off the North Carolina coast, creating lingering storm surge and rain, then move slowly south before going inland around Charleston, dumping even more rain as it rolls northwest back toward western North Carolina.
Florence’s major impacts are expected to be storm surge on the coast and torrential rain and “unprecedented” flooding inland, the NHC said. There was also concern that the slow-moving storm could stall over the Carolinas, dumping rain for days.
“If it gets close to the coast and just hits the coast or is just slightly inland, but then just sits there, it’s like pressing pause at the most violent part of the landfall,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, according to The Washington Post.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday announced that in anticipation of “historic major damage” across the state, he was requesting “a presidential disaster declaration” to expedite the state getting federal aid for recovery.
“We know this massive storm will cause incredible damage and I’m asking Washington to act quickly so federal recovery help can come as soon as possible,” Governor Cooper said in a news release.
The additional disaster declaration would go beyond the federal efforts already happening, according to Cooper, by providing federal help not only with preparation ahead of the storm but also with debris removal after, and “FEMA search and rescue teams, disaster medical teams, hazardous material clean up assistance, meals, generators, fuel and more.”
Watches and warnings
Storm-surge warning: South Santee River South Carolina to Duck North Carolina and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, including the Neuse and Pamlico rivers as of 2 a.m. Wednesday, the NHC said.
Storm-surge watch: Edisto Beach, South Carolina to South Santee River, South Carolina and North of Duck, North Carolina to the North Carolina/Virginia border.
Hurricane warning: South Santee River South Carolina to Duck, North Carolina and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.
Hurricane watch: Edisto Beach, South Carolina to South Santee River, South Carolina and North of Duck, North Carolina to the North Carolina/Virginia border.
Tropical storm warning: South of South Santee River to Edisto Beach, South Carolina.
Tropical Storm watch: North of the North Carolina/Virginia border to Cape Charles Light, Virginia and Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.
Storm surge is also expected to produce “life-threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline, during the next 36 hours in the indicated locations,” says the National Hurricane Center.
The ocean is moving inland ahead of Florence as storm surge begins to flood the Carolinas coast, according to the NHC.
The water could reach as high as 9 to 13 feet “from Cape Fear to Cape Lookout, including the Neuse, Pamlico, Pungo and Bay Rivers.”
From North Myrtle Beach to Cape Fear, and Cape Lookout to the Ocracoke Inlet, water could rise 6 to 9 feet.
From the Ocracoke Inlet to the North Carolina-Virginia border and from the South Santee River to North Myrtle Beach, the NHC forecast that water could rise as high as 6 feet.
Water could reach as high as 4 feet from Edisto Beach to the South Santee River.
“The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast in areas of onshore winds, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves,” the NHC said.
“Heavy and excessive rainfall” of 20 to 30 inches is predicted along coastal North Carolina, with isolated spots of 40 inches. The Appalachians could see 3 to 6 inches of rain, with isolated areas of 12 inches.
“This rainfall would produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding.”
What happens to NC’s wild horses when a major hurricane like Florence hits?
Abbie Bennett: 919-835-5768, @AbbieRBennett
Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs