Hurricane Florence is seen from the International Space Station as it churns in the Atlantic Ocean towards the east coast of the United States on September 10 2018. Picture: NASA/Handout via REUTERS
Hurricane Florence is seen from the International Space Station as it churns in the Atlantic Ocean towards the east coast of the United States on September 10 2018. Picture: NASA/Handout via REUTERS

PULL QUOTE: Hurricane Florence has the potential to bring catastrophic flooding to areas of the eastern US, already soaked by heavy rain, and it may be the strongest storm to hit the region in decades

Charleston — Powerful Hurricane Florence was tracking towards the US East Coast on Tuesday, prompting authorities to order upwards of 1-million people to evacuate the path of the extremely dangerous storm forecasters said could soon intensify. Residents scrambled to flee en mass as the Category 4 storm packing winds of 220km/h bore down on the East Coast of the US.

"This is one of the worst storms to hit the East Coast in many years," US President Donald Trump warned on Twitter. "Please be prepared, be careful and be SAFE!" South Carolina governor Henry McMaster ordered as many as 1-million residents of the state’s eastern coast to leave their homes ahead of the storm’s possible arrival on Thursday. Schools in 26 of the state’s 46 counties are to close.

The governor of neighbouring North Carolina ordered an evacuation of the Outer Banks, barrier islands that are a popular tourist destination, and parts of coastal Dare County, while a state of emergency was declared in Virginia.

"This is a very dangerous hurricane," McMaster said, adding that the evacuation order for coastal counties was "mandatory, not voluntary. We do not want to risk one South Carolina life in this hurricane. We’re liable to have a whole lot of flooding." Hours later Trump approved emergency declarations for both coastal states, a standard move allowing the release of federal funds and equipment to aid in protection and recovery efforts.

Trump said he had spoken with governors of threatened states, adding that the "federal government stands by, ready to assist 24/7". Hurricane Florence has the potential to bring catastrophic flooding to areas of the eastern US, already soaked by heavy rain, and it may be the strongest storm to hit the region in decades.

A Category 4 on the five-level Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, Florence was 750km south-southeast of Bermuda and the centre of the hurricane is forecast to pass between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in its 3am GMT advisory.

Hurricane Florence has the potential to bring catastrophic flooding to areas of the eastern US, already soaked by heavy rain, and it may be the strongest storm to hit the region in decades

Disaster buying begins

Forecasters expected some strengthening in the next 36 hours, as Florence marched west-northwest at about 20km/h. At a hardware store in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, store manager John Johnson said the rush on batteries, flashlights, plastic tarps and sandbags began on Friday.

"From eight o’clock ‘til two we were slammed," said Johnson, who sold scores of bags of sand over the weekend, saving just a few to barricade the store’s own doors. "We were non-stop."

Nurse Barbara Mack was using a small shovel to fill sandbags at a public works facility in Charleston — but she saw a silver lining in the hurricane preparations. "This is probably the only exercise I get this week," she quipped. Also out for sandbags was Deborah LaRoche. Half her supply was going to barricade a basement soup kitchen she managed, and the other half was going to protect her own home on nearby Johns Island.

She and her husband would decide Tuesday morning whether to evacuate their family of two kids and a dog, said LaRoche. Having grown up in storm-prone Florida, she said she’s careful not to underestimate any hurricane. "It doesn’t matter what happened in [previous] storms," said LaRoche, a social services director. "This one is different."

Storm surge and hurricane watches may be issued early on Tuesday for portions of south-eastern US states, the NHC said. On its current track, Florence is expected to slam the Carolinas and Virginia the hardest.

"Don’t concentrate on the exact forecast track of Hurricane #Florence. Significant effects will extend outside the cone, and will arrive at the coast sooner than the eye," the National Weather Service warned.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s office predicted "catastrophic inland flooding, high winds and possible widespread power outages," cautioning that the deadliest risk would come from flooding.

The US Navy said it was preparing to send about 30 ships stationed in Virginia out to sea. The vessels will get underway from Naval Station Norfolk and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek to avoid potential damage from winds and tidal surges, said Colonel Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesperson.

"This is a huge storm," said Robert Woodward, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, predicting 38cm to 50cm of rain. "Never have we seen quite this type of a storm approach us."

At this height of the Atlantic hurricane season, Florence was being trailed on east-to-west paths by two other storms, Helene and Isaac. Helene — 860km west of the Cape Verde islands off the African coast — had winds up to 177km/h, and was expected to continue moving west-northwest for several more days, the NHC said.

AFP

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