WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) - North and South Carolina residents are running out of time to evacuate before Hurricane Florence roars in with pounding surf and driving rain that will bring potentially deadly flooding, officials warned on Wednesday.
Florence had maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour) and was on a trajectory that showed its center most likely to strike the southern coast of North Carolina by late Thursday or early Friday, the National Hurricane Center said.
Updated NHC forecasts showed the storm lingering near the coast, bringing days of heavy rains that could bring intense inland flooding from South Carolina to Virginia. Parts of North Carolina could get 40 inches (1 meter).
Florence is rated a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) invoked a former boxing champion to warn residents that it would bring "a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast."
"Heed the warnings," Byard said.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper predicted that tens of thousands of homes and businesses would be flooded in his state.
"The time to prepare is almost over," Cooper warned.
More than 1 million people have been ordered to evacuate the coastline of the three states, while schools and factories were being shuttered.
The NHC said the first tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 miles per hour (63 kph) would hit the region early on Thursday with the storm's center reaching the coast Friday. At 11 a.m. (1500 GMT) on Wednesday, the storm was located about 485 miles (785 km) southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina.
FEMA FUNDS MOVED
MSNBC reported the Trump administration had diverted nearly $10 billion from FEMA to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which leads border enforcement. But that has not affected the response to Florence, Byard told a news conference.
He said there was "well over $20 billion" in FEMA's disaster relief fund.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Twitter warned of the storm's dangers and praised his administration's handling of past hurricanes, rejecting criticism for its response to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico. Some 3,000 people died in the aftermath of that storm.
"Hurricane Florence is looking even bigger than anticipated," Trump said. "We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!"
Emergency preparations in the area included activating 2,800 National Guard troops in North Carolina, stockpiling food, setting up shelters, switching traffic patterns so that major roads led away from shore and securing 16 nuclear reactors in the three-state region.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Duke Energy Corp's Brunswick nuclear plant in southeast North Carolina could face hurricane-force winds, major storm surges and heavy rain. Other plants near the storm's path include Duke's Harris near Raleigh, North Carolina, and Robinson near Hartsville, South Carolina, and Dominion Energy Inc's Surry in southeast Virginia.
Wilmington was sunny near midday Wednesday and Bill Saffo, a real estate agent and the town's part-time mayor, urged residents to use the calm to evacuate or secure their homes.
"I'm not approaching Florence from fear or panic," said Brad Corpening, 35, who planned to ride out the storm in his boarded-up delicatessen in Wilmington, just north of where the hurricane is expected to come ashore. "It's going to happen. We just need to figure out how to make it through."