Reuters Wilmington/Sea Breeze/ North Carolina
Hurricane Florence’s winds began whipping coastal North Carolina yesterday as the slow-moving tempest began to unleash fierce rains that forecasters warned would cause catastrophic flooding across a wide swath of the US southeast.
The centre of Florence is expected to hit North Carolina’s southern coast today, then drift southwest before moving inland tomorrow, enough time to drop as much as 40” (1m) of rain in places, according to the National Hurricane Centre (NHC).
An estimated 10mn people live in the storm’s path, according to the US Weather Prediction Centre, and coastal businesses and homes were boarded up in anticipation.
More than 1mn people had been ordered to evacuate the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia and thousands moved to emergency shelters, officials said.
Florence’s maximum sustained winds were clocked yesterday at 105mph (165kph) after it was downgraded to a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the NHC.
The winds had been as high as 140mph earlier in the week but North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned against complacency because of the drop.
“Hurricane Florence was uninvited but she’s just about here anyway,” he said at a news conference. “My message today: Don’t relax. Don’t get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality.”
The storm’s centre was 135 miles (216km) east of Wilmington, North Carolina, at noon EDT (1600 GMT) but tropical storm-strength winds and heavy rains already were hitting North Carolina’s Outer Banks islands.
Some 11,000 power outages had been reported yesterday morning.
The NHC also said that the threat of tornadoes was increasing as the storm neared shore.
Florence could bring wind-driven storm surges of seawater as high as 13’ (4m), and NHC director Ken Graham said on Facebook that they could push in as far as two miles (3km).
Heavy rains were forecast to extend into the Appalachian mountains, affecting parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Roslyn Fleming, 56, said her granddaughter was baptised in the inlet near where she lives in the coastal community of Sea Breeze and yesterday morning she used her iPad to make a video of the scene.
“I came to video it so I can remember what it looked like before the storm because I just don’t think a lot of this is going to be here (after Florence),” she said.
Ten miles (16km) away in Wilmington, wind gusts of 20mph to 25mph (32-20kph) were stirring up frothy white caps into the Cape Fear River, although no rain had yet fallen.
Some residents enjoyed a few final hours of normalcy by ambling along the city’s riverwalk with dogs and children.
“We’re a little worried about the storm surge so we came down to see what the river is doing now,” said Linda Smith, 67, a retired nonprofit director. “I am frightened about what’s coming. We just want prayers from everyone.”
The storm will be a test of President Donald Trump’s administration less than two months before elections to determine control of Congress.
Emergency declarations were in force in Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Millions of people are expected to lose power and it could take weeks to resolve the outages.
Near the beach in Wilmington, a Waffle House restaurant, part of a chain with a reputation for staying open during disasters, had no plans to close, even if power is lost.
This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite image, taken at 1327 UTC
yesterday, shows Hurricane Florence beginning to hit the US East Coast.
Trump disputes Puerto Rico storm death toll
US President Donald Trump has disputed Puerto Rico’s official death toll of 3,000 from hurricanes last year and accused Democrats of inflating the figure, which actually came from an independent academic study.
Trump bristled at criticism of his administration’s handling of the Puerto Rico disaster as another hurricane, Florence, barrelled toward the southeastern United States.
The Republican president said that Democrats inflated the number of dead in Puerto Rico “in order to make me look as bad as possible” but he did not provide evidence.
Some well-known Republicans split with Trump on the issue.
Privately, some White House officials were exasperated with the president’s focus on Puerto Rico at a time when Florence is bearing down on the East Coast.
In a tweet, Trump said: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths.
“As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000.”
Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma before Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, destroying roads and bridges and leaving much of the Caribbean island without electricity for months.
The death toll from Maria, the most powerful storm to hit there in almost a century, was raised last month from 64, a number widely discounted as far too low, to 2,975.
That number was produced by public health experts at George Washington University in Washington in a report commissioned by the US territory’s governor, Ricardo Rossello.
The study found that those deaths could be attributed directly or indirectly to Maria from the time it struck in September 2017 to mid-February of this year.
The report compared predicted mortality under normal circumstances and deaths documented after Maria.
Rossello said Puerto Ricans “do not deserve to have their pain questioned” and backed the study.
“We left this analysis to the scientists and experts, recognising that there would be many challenges, because we wanted to have a powerful and independent voice to minimise the uncertainty,” he said in a video on Facebook.
The top Republican in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, said that he had no reason to dispute the official death toll and Republican Senator Marco Rubio said tragedy should not be politicised.
“I disagree with @POTUS,” Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, said on Twitter.
The emergency response to Maria became highly politicised as the Trump administration was criticised as being slow to recognise the extent of the devastation and too sluggish in providing disaster relief to Puerto Rico, an island of more than 3mn residents.
Trump touted the federal government’s response as “an incredible, unsung success” this week.
Yesterday’s tweets drew the ire of Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of Puerto Rican capital San Juan who has sharply criticised both the president and his administration’s response to Maria.
“This is what denial following neglect looks like: Mr Pres in the real world people died on your watch. YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING!” she wrote on Twitter before calling Trump delusional and unhinged from reality.
On Wednesday, Puerto Rican officials said about 20,000 pallets of water bottles shipped to Puerto Rico after Maria went unused and became too contaminated to drink.
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