This story was updated at 9:07 p.m. Eastern.
Hurricane-force winds are approaching North Carolina as Category 2 Florence reaches the coast.
The National Hurricane Center said sustained hurricane-force winds were hitting Cape Lookout as of 9 p.m. Thursday, and that hurricane conditions are spreading.
The center of Florence — now 300 miles wide — will move over southern North Carolina later today, and is expected to make “a slow motion over eastern South Carolina” Friday night through Saturday, the NHC reported.
Tropical storm-force winds already lashed at the coast of North and South Carolina earlier Thursday, launching tropical storm and hurricane warnings throughout the eastern and central parts of the states.
Life-threatening storm surge and rainfall have begun and the threat of tornadoes is increasing as the storm hovers near the southeast North Carolina coast and Outer Banks.
Dangerous storm-surge flooding is happening on the western side of the Pamlico Sound, the NHC said. At 9 p.m., a gauge at Oriental on the Neuse River recorded river levels 5.5 feet above normal levels, the NHC said.
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 into New York by 2 p.m. Tuesday, the latest NHC map shows.
Winds at a NOAA station at Cape Lookout reported sustained winds had increased to 83 mph and gusts up to 106 mph as of 9 p.m.
A private weather station in Davis reported a sustained wind of 75 mph and a wind gust of 92 mph, while another station at Fort Macon recorded a sustained wind of 70 mph and a gust of 105 mph, according to the NHC.
The storm was 75 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, and 135 miles east of Myrtle Beach as of 8 p.m., the NHC said.
The storm also slowed to a crawl, heading northwest at 5 mph as of 8 p.m. the NHC said.
“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 near 100 mph. That puts it at the top end of Category 2. A Category 3 hurricane has sustained winds of at least 111 mph.
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.
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 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.
In that scenario, “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.
Cooper 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.
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 warnings and hurricane warnings covered most of the Carolinas coast as of Thursday evening, with tropical storm warnings beginning to move inland as far as central North Carolina.
Flash flood warnings also were issued for most of western North Carolina and South Carolina and parts of both states near the coast, according to the National Weather Service.
A tornado warning was in effect for parts of the Outer Banks and the coast as of 8 p.m. Thursday, the NWS said.
“Heavy and excessive rainfall” of 20 to 30 inches is predicted from coastal North Carolina into northeastern South 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.”
Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs