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‘This storm is a monster’: Carolinas brace for Hurricane Florence

As of Tuesday evening, Hurricane Florence is 500 miles wide, winds at 140 miles an hour and forecasts of 2.5 feet of rain. Power losses and flooding will be felt over several states, and the recovery is predicted to be long. William Brangham gets an update on preparation efforts from PJ Tobia in Wilmington, North Carolina, and learns more from Ken Graham of the National Hurricane Center.

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  • William Brangham:

    Hurricane Florence is being called a monster tonight. And it's still hundreds of miles off the Carolinas' coast.

    As if this evening, the storm is 500-miles-wide, with winds of 140 miles an hour, a Category 4. And there are forecasts of two-and-a-half feet of rain.

    P.J. Tobia reports from Wilmington, North Carolina, where they're bracing for the worst.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    The beaches are still calm, but the danger is growing out at sea. For many around Wilmington, near Florence's direct path, the name of the game is elevation and triage.

  • Jazz Undy:

    So, at this point in the game, you're just trying to elevate things and get them at least this high or above. So you got to look at everything. You go, is that 50 percent? Do I need that there? If I lost it, would I die or whatever? Is it irreplaceable, so to speak?

  • P.J. Tobia:

    People here are used to storms. But Florence could be the strongest to hit North Carolina since 1954.

  • William Leland:

    We have never had a hurricane like this that's come right to the beach. And there's then been 3's and 2's, but never anything this strong. So we're going to be safe.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    The hurricane is on a path to make landfall in Southeastern North Carolina Friday. Today, Governor Roy Cooper ordered evacuations of all the state's barrier islands.

  • Gov. Roy Cooper, D-N.C.:

    This storm is a monster. It's big, and it's vicious. It is an extremely dangerous, life-threatening, historic hurricane. Even if you have ridden out storms before, this one is different. Don't bet your life or riding out a monster.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    In South Carolina, mandatory evacuations began at midday for the entire coast, affecting one million people.

  • Man:

    This one looks a little uglier than other ones. Rather be safe than sorry.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    The mass evacuation is a mammoth undertaking. But Governor Henry McMaster says it's the only choice.

  • Gov. Henry McMaster, R-S.C.:

    We are in a very deadly and important game of chess with Hurricane Florence. And what we are doing, team South Carolina are doing, is doing, is staying one step ahead.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Meanwhile, supplies at grocery and hardware stores are already dwindling, as people stock up. And in places like Charleston, South Carolina, residents are readying sandbags for heavy flooding, while food banks are packing nonperishables for potential power outages.

    The immense size of Hurricane Florence and up to 30 inches of rain mean the power losses and flooding will be felt over several states. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned today the effects will not soon fade away.

  • Jeff Byard:

    This storm is going to be a direct hit onto our coast. And I want to set the expectations now that it is going to be a long time and a long-term recovery when we — when we talk about the effects of Florence. So is this not going to be a storm that we recover from in days. It will take us a good amount of time to do the full recovery.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    President Trump has now declared states of emergency in the Carolinas and Virginia, in anticipation of heavy damage and flooding.

  • William Brangham:

    And P.J. Tobia joins me now.

    P.J., I understand you're now on Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, about 50, 60 miles from the South Carolina border. That storm is coming in right from behind you, the ocean that we can see there.

    Can you just give us a sense, how our officials responding?

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Absolutely.

    Local officials that we spoke with today are very concerned about the impact of what they say could be a catastrophic storm coming their way. One city manager told us that in 20 years of government service working in communities up and down the Carolina coast, he's never seen a storm of this size or of this strength.

    And so they're also taking remarkable steps in terms of preparation. A voluntary evacuation order was sent out this weekend. That becomes mandatory tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m.. In the interim, all EMS, police and fire personnel, as well as their vehicles, are being moved off of this barrier island and to the mainland right over there.

    That's very unusual.

  • William Brangham:

    So is your sense — is the sense that they're getting that the storm surge is just going to be so intense that it's going to scrape that island clean?

  • P.J. Tobia:

    That's exactly — that's exactly what their worst fears are, yes.

    And they say after 8:00 p.m. tomorrow, after that time, once the winds start blowing above 50 miles an hour, you would better be someplace safe, because the police and fire rescue are not going to be able to come help you.

  • William Brangham:

    How about the people who live there? Are they — I know the mandatory evacuation isn't coming yet. But from people you have spoken with, are they going to heed that warning? Are they going to leave?

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, this is a beach town, right? There's kind of a laid-back vibe. Earlier this morning, there were some surfers in the waves behind me. Some cafes and even bars were open this afternoon. But everyone we spoke with was deadly serious about getting off this island by the curfew tomorrow.

    We spoke to folks who have lived here for decades who have never boarded up their homes before, but said they were worried that this was the big one, and they wanted to get a move on

    Earlier today, I met an 82-year-old woman who had been through the last Category 4 hurricane to come through here, Hazel, in the 1950s. She told me of destruction like she'd never seen before and that there were boats piled up in her backyard. She was just back here visiting with her daughter for the week. They cut their vacation short. They're headed back to Atlanta.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, P.J. Tobia, thanks so much.

    Now let's focus more on the strength of this storm and the worries over possible flooding from its rainfall.

    Ken Graham is the director of the National Hurricane Center. I spoke with him a short time ago from the center's headquarters in Miami.

    Ken Graham, thank you for being here.

    I know you have recently updated the forecast for this storm. Can you just give our viewers a sense of how massive Hurricane Florence is right now?

  • Ken Graham:

    Sometimes, we run through those numbers, and it's really tough to tell exactly how big.

    So I would say the best way to do that is really coming over here to the satellite. And you draw a circle around what we have Hurricane Florence. You draw kind of an equal circle over the Southeastern United States. You can see, it covers states. I mean, this is a very large storm, and the impact is well outside the center of it.

    So we have got to be thinking outside this path. We got to be thinking much wider than that when it comes to those impacts.

  • William Brangham:

    And right now, though, that path, as currently projected, takes the storm directly into South Carolina. Is that still correct?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, that is still correct.

    And if you look at the two-thirds of the time, we expect the center to be within this cone, so some uncertainty once it makes it inland. But, at the same time, that's where we got to really make an eye on the hurricane warnings here in the Carolinas, from South Carolina to North Carolina.

    And that's where we think the highest chances of those hurricane-force winds, basically, the warning meaning that could occur in the next 36 hours.

  • William Brangham:

    And what is your sense of the size of the storm surge residents there could be facing?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, that's going to be a significant issue. We have 50 percent of the fatalities in these tropical systems is the storm surge, so we spend a lot of time talking about the water.

    So we do have a storm surge warning for portions of South Carolina, up through North Carolina. Any one of those areas could see greater than three foot of storm surge. But when you really narrow it down, you start looking into the details, you start to surface some of these higher values, where it's not just these barrier islands. You get water surfacing over those barrier islands.

    And it really tracks into these areas. And this is an area that we're particularly concerned with, looking at the Pamlico Sound, the Pamlico River, into the Neuse River. These areas where normally the water flows out, storm surge can push that water in and where that water gets piled up.

    We are looking at some of those values, getting to 10 to 13 feet, so a staggering amount of storm surge, very life-threatening. And that's something we definitely are focusing on.

  • William Brangham:

    Separate from the potential impacts on the coast, I know the projections are that this storm could move inland and then stall, which could dump, I take it, historic amounts of rain. Is that still your forecast?

  • Ken Graham:

    It is.

    And, actually, we got a brand-new map really just created. We just got this from our Weather Prediction Center. Look at some of these values, if you really take this in, I mean, 20 inches of rain possible in the circle, even outside of it, 15 to 20 inches of rainfall, not just along the coast.

    It's really important for everyone to realize not just coastal, but look at this, 10 to 15, even 15 to 20 well inland in Virginia and North Carolina. So, this isn't just a coastal issue with the rainfall.

    You can have high — a lot of rainfall totals Maryland and Delaware. And if you talk about the terrain in some of these areas, these rainfall totals with the terrain, dangerous catastrophic flash flooding potentially in some of these areas.

    So that's why we spend so much time talking about the rainfall, because flash flooding could lead to fatalities. And we need to be prepared for that.

  • William Brangham:

    Is there anything potentially in the forecast that could change whether or not the storm does in fact stall once it's come inland?

  • Ken Graham:

    I think at this point, really, what we got to focus on are those impacts, because we — there's been a lot of talk about different sides of the cone and where the system could go.

    The bottom line is that this is a major hurricane. We're talking about incredible winds and a large size. So, no matter where we make landfall along the coast here, you're still going to have those impacts, because either way it's going to stall out. So think about that, all the rain, the storm surge.

    And the other factor here, still a tropical storm over North Carolina. And that's on Saturday, and then, by Sunday, still a depression in portions of — even in Western North Carolina. That means saturated soil. With that kind of wind, you're going to knock out a lot of trees and have significant power outages, some lasting quite a long time.

  • William Brangham:

    I know you have been doing this for a long time.

    How does this — when you look historically, how does this storm compare as far as impacts on the — on the East Coast?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, we have seen storms like this before. And it is going to be historic.

    I mean, the impacts are going to be significant. And really what we try to get the word out is not to compare those storms. Every one of them are so different. It's interesting. When we start looking at history, somebody might say, well, it didn't happen to me then, and it could this time.

    So we try not to compare those storms, because people start linking that to the category. The bottom line is, that's why we spend so much time here at the Hurricane Center talking about the impacts, the rainfall and the storm surge and the wind.

    So, yes, pretty historic, and really looking at a very dangerous, catastrophic situation. So preparedness is absolutely everything.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Ken Graham of the National Hurricane Center, thanks very much.

  • Ken Graham:

    You bet.

  • William Brangham:

    This afternoon, President Trump said the federal government is ready and totally prepared to deal with the hurricane.

    In his remarks, the president also called the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — quote — "incredibly successful."

    But the administration's response there has been heavily criticized from many quarters. The Puerto Rican government's official death toll from that storm and its aftermath is now estimated to be as high as nearly 3,000 people.

    A congressional watchdog said FEMA was overwhelmed by last year's hurricane season and didn't deploy enough personnel to Puerto Rico.

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