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Nearing landfall, huge Hurricane Florence threatens to dump historic rainfall

The outer bands of Hurricane Florence reached North Carolina's coast Thursday morning, offering a preview of what could be a slow-motion disaster. Even though the storm has lost some of its punch, federal emergency officials warned there's much worse to come. P.J. Tobia offers an update from Wilmington, North Carolina.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's still a huge hurricane, but not as powerful as it once was.

    Florence dropped back today to a Category 2, with sustained winds at 100 miles an hour. But that may be cold comfort for those directly in its path.

    P.J. Tobia reports from Wilmington, North Carolina.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    By this morning, the outer bands of Florence reached North Carolina's coast. Along the Outer Banks, waves crashed on to empty beaches at Kitty Hawk. South of Cape Fear, a howling wind shredded an American flag at an offshore lighthouse.

    Federal emergency officials warned there's much worse to come, even if the hurricane has lost some of its punch.

  • Brock Long:

    This is a very dangerous storm. We call them disasters because they break things. The infrastructure is going to break. The power is going to go out. So, not only that, but many of you who have evacuated from the Carolina coastlines are going to be displaced for a while.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Florence is setting up to be a slow-motion disaster. The center could make landfall along the North Carolina-South Carolina border by tomorrow, then loiter for a day before plowing inland.

    Storm surges may reach nine to 13 feet, and the system's huge size and slow movement could mean up to 40 inches of rain in places.

    North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper made a final plea to stragglers today.

  • Gov. Roy Cooper, D-N.C.:

    If you're in an evacuation area, there is still time to get out. Don't risk your life riding out a monster storm.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    A mandatory evacuation order went out last night on Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, near Wilmington.

    Dan House is the police chief there.

  • Dan House:

    This is something that's always very difficult, because, just like them, I had to leave my home. And I know how hard it is. So, we really appreciate the cooperation in that matter.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Shelters have been set up as far inland as Raleigh, and beyond, for the evacuees. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, 100 miles from the coast, people raced today to finish boarding up houses, piling sandbags around buildings and stocking up on supplies.

    Many in the city remember the destruction left by another hurricane just two years ago.

  • Woman:

    It's got me nervous. I can't sleep. I have been through a storm before. I lost everything I had.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    When Hurricane Matthew hit Fayetteville in 2016, the Cape Fear River rose nearly 60 feet, reaching the bottom of the train trestle behind me. Forecasters say that Hurricane Florence could potentially dump even more rain on this area.

    Meanwhile, in South Carolina, more than 400,000 people have left areas, following mandatory evacuation orders.

  • Lawanda Sarvis:

    The only thing that really scares me is that if we get a flood. Other than that, I'm OK. I'm not really afraid of the hurricane or the wind or anything, but like I said, just only the water, if it becomes a flood.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    As evacuees seek shelter, emergency crews and the military are making ready. Hundreds of National Guard troops are on alert in the Carolinas and Virginia. The Pentagon says it has a response plan ready after the storm passes.

    But for a few at least, this was a day to head to the water, and ride the big waves and wind before the worst of the storm arrives.

    And the outer bands of the storm have arrived here in Wilmington, North Carolina, as darkness falls and most residents hunker down for the worst of the storm that's yet to come — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, P.J., we can see the rain coming down. Tell us what you're seeing right now.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    There's gusting winds, pelting rain. Really in just the last hour here, in the 5:00 hour, things really picked up.

    And almost minute by minute, it got much worse. Then there are some lulls. Then it gets worse than it was before. There's been water pooling on streets very quickly. It's only been raining for a few hours. Even some debris already on the streets, which are largely empty. Folks have heeded official warnings and stayed home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    P.J., I know you spent time today with those first-responders. Tell us what they are doing here at this late hour to get ready.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Well, of course, they have been prepping all week for this event, and the folks we spent some time with this morning were doing final checkdowns on their preparation list.

    They have inflatable Zodiac rafts, just filling up the gas tanks on those engines, so that they will be ready for the inevitable water rescues that happened here, making sure their communications equipment is checked out.

    There are also line crews from as far away as Oklahoma. These are the folks who will come in after the storm and repair the electrical grid, any of the downed lines, all of that stuff that's very, very likely to happen in this wind that is picking up now.

    And they're stationed about 100 miles west of here in Fayetteville ready to come in after the storm dies down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, P.J., you were you referred in the piece to the history of flooding in the area. Tell us how that is expected to affect everything.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    The eastern part of North and South Carolina honeycombed with rivers and streams, tributaries, even small bodies of water.

    And when this rain happens, they start to swell. And all of them run out to the ocean, which is just to our east a few miles that way. And when the storm surge happens, the flow to the ocean meets the flow from the storm surge. And that's when these rivers and streams burst their banks, begin to flood roads, highways, people's houses, even entire towns, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we certainly hope everyone who needed to get out has gotten out and that everyone is staying safe.

    P.J., thank you.

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