One Million Ordered To Evacuate As Hurricane Florence Bears Down

Sustained winds of up to 195 km/h have been recorded.

Hurricane Florence exploded into a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm Monday as it closed in on North and South Carolina, carrying winds up to 195 km/h and water that could wreak havoc over a wide stretch of the eastern United States later this week. The South Carolina governor ordered the state's entire coastline to be evacuated starting at noon Tuesday.

The storm's first effects were already being seen on barrier islands as dangerous rip currents hit beaches and seawater flowed over a state highway. Communities along a stretch of coastline that is vulnerable to rising sea levels due to climate change prepared to evacuate.

In announcing his evacuation order, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said an estimated one million people would be fleeing the coast. When the order takes effect, eastbound lanes on two major highways will be reversed, allowing more people to flee the storm.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said his state was "in the bullseye" of the storm and urged people to "get ready now."

For many people, the challenge could be finding a safe refuge: If Florence slows to a crawl just off the coast, it could bring torrential rains to the Appalachian mountains and as far away as West Virginia, causing flash floods, mudslides and other dangerous conditions.

The storm's potential path also includes half a dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous eastern hog farms that store animal waste in massive open-air lagoons. National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned that Florence was forecast to linger over the Carolinas once it reaches shore.

By noon Monday, Florence was centered about 2,000km east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, and moving west at 20 km/h. Its center will move between Bermuda and the Bahamas on Tuesday and Wednesday and approach the coast of South Carolina or North Carolina on Thursday, the hurricane center said.

Hurricane Florence's projected path. Source: National Hurricane Centre.

People living well inland should prepare to lose power and endure flooding and other hazards, he warned.

"It's not just the coast," Graham said. "When you stall a system like this and it moves real slow, some of that rainfall can extend well away from the center."

People in Wilmington, North Carolina, were stocking up on water, plywood and generators to prepare for the storm, CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reports. Some store shelves were already empty.

Florence could be the first major hurricane to slam North Carolina dead-on since Fran hit as a Category 3 in 1996.

Fran toppled homes and businesses across the state, causing more than $8 billion ($11 billion) in damage. Thirty-seven people were killed.

"These storms are catastrophic events," said Andrew Wunderley, who works for a water-conservation group in South Carolina. He said the low-lying cities on the coast are particularly vulnerable to flooding.

"I think what we found is that we're not really that prepared for these events," Wunderley said.

In October 2015, a storm system caused 36 dams to fail across South Carolina, resulting in what was called a "thousand-year flood" where at least 25 people died.

If Florence ends up stalling after it makes landfall in the southeastern U.S., the fear is that could happen again.

Photo: National Hurricane Center