(This story was updated at 11:30 p.m. Eastern)
The National Hurricane Center issued its first set of hurricane and storm surge watches Tuesday for the East Coast as Hurricane Florence continues its trek toward North Carolina.
The “extremely dangerous major hurricane” is predicted to hit the coast late Thursday or early Friday morning, dropping as much as 35 inches of rain in some areas and wind gusts in the 140 mph range, says the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
A “probable” track of Category 4 Hurricane Florence continues to show the storm hitting the North Carolina coast, according to the latest maps issued by the National Weather Service.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The 11 p.m. update shows Florence’s track has shifted slightly southwest, which would bring it inland across northern South Carolina, according to the National Weather Service, which added there is the possibility for changes in the track and intensity in the coming days.
That would bring the weakening hurricane into South Carolina on Saturday night, according to a tweet from WNCN meteorologist Brad Panovich.
“While some weakening is expected on Thursday, Florence is expected to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane through landfall,” according to the NHC.
The NHC is predicting “tropical force winds” — in the 39 to 73 mph range — will reach the Carolinas coast by late Wednesday and move inland within 24 hours., and landfall is expected Thursday evening or early Friday morning.
Part of the danger may come later in the week, due to increased fears Florence “will slow considerably or stall, leading to a prolonged and exceptionally heavy and dangerous rainfall event Friday-Sunday,” the NHC said Tuesday.
As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, Hurricane Florence had maximum sustained winds of about 140 mph with higher gusts, a slight weakening from the morning, the NHC said. The eye of the storm was located at Latitude 28.4 North, Longitude 68.7 West. That puts the eye about 670 miles east-southeast of Cape Fear, NC.
“Florence is expected to begin re-strengthening later today and continue a slow strengthening trend for the next day or so,” the NHC said.
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 11 p.m., 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 watch: North of the North Carolina/Virginia border to Cape Charles Light, Virginia and Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.
“A storm-surge warning means there is a danger of life-threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline, during the next 36 hours,” the NHC said. “A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected somewhere within the warning area. A warning is typically issued 36 hours before the anticipated first occurrence of tropical-storm- force winds.”
“Additional watches may be required later today,” said the National Hurricane Center, warning inland areas have as much to worry about as the coast.
“The combination of storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline.”
The water could rise 6 to 12 feet in the area of Cape Fear to Cape Lookout, including the Neuse and Pamlico rivers, says the National Hurricane Center. Cape Lookout to Ocracoke Island could see 5 to 8 feet of water, experts say.
The deepest water will be along the immediate coast “in areas of onshore winds, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves,” the NHC said.
The storm is moving west-northwest at about 17 mph and that speed is expected to increase in the next few days, the NHC said as of 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Hurricane-force winds were extending up to 60 miles from the storm’s center and “tropical storm force winds” were showing up as far away as 175 miles, the NHC said. Those winds were expected to reach the coast on Friday.
“Winds are expected to first reach tropical storm strength on Thursday, making outside preparations difficult or dangerous. Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” the NHC said Tuesday at 11 p.m.
Category 4 hurricane winds are in the 130 to 156 mph range, according to the National Hurricane Center.
On Tuesday, the NHC tweeted that predictions for maximum wind gusts that showed Jacksonville, Emerald Isle and North Topsail Beach could see gusts from 125 to 144 mph as the storm moves ashore.
Nearby Jones County could see gusts in the 100 mph range, while neighboring counties will be in the 60 to 95 mph range, officials said.
Rain and flooding
“Life-threatening flash floods” are now being predicted as the storm brings “very heavy, prolonged rainfall” across a large portion of the Carolinas and mid-Atlantic, said a tweet from the NHC.
Larger cities and towns that lie within the most threatened zone include Jacksonville, Greenville, New Bern, Morehead City and Kinston, says the center. All could face widespread “power and communication outages, impassable roads filled with debris and numerous large trees snapped and uprooted along with fences and roadway signs blown over.”
A graphic released Tuesday morning shows 15 to 20 inches of rain falling in all or parts of Jones, Onslow, Craven, Pamlico, Cateret counties. That same block of counties is also facing an elevated tornado threat, according to the NHC.
Nearby counties like Pender, Beaufort, Pitt, Greene and Lenoir could see 10 to 15 inches of rain.
However, the impacted counties could shift if the storm veers from its current “probable path,” the NHC said.
“Florence is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 15 to 25 inches with isolated maximum to 35 inches near Florence’s track over portions of North Carolina, Virginia, and northern South Carolina through Saturday,” the NHC said in the 11 p.m. update.
“This rainfall could produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding.”
Evacuations of coastal North Carolina began at noon Monday, with Dare County officials calling for the entire county to evacuate. Other counties are evacuating low lying and flood prone areas. South Carolina is also seeing a mass exodus, after the state’s governor ordered a mandatory evacuation of the coastal counties.