Hurricane Florence Begins Its Assault on the Carolinas [Updating]

High winds have shredded the American flag and the high seas are rocking at the Frying Pan, located 34 miles of the North Carolina Coast.

With an ear-splitting howl and booming surf, Hurricane Florence has arrived. The storm could be a landmark event that breaks rainfall records, leaves waterways flooded for weeks, and reshapes the Carolinas coast for decades.

Florence is a super-sized, powerful Category 2 hurricane with tropical storm-force winds extending 195 miles out from its core. Because of its prodigious size, the storm has yet to make landfall, but its winds have neverthless whipped the ocean into a frenzy. Those winds can heard howling at the Frying Pan, a decommissioned lighthouse 34 miles off the North Carolina coast.

The surf and storm surge are already cutting through North Carolina’s Outer Banks and bands of rain are lashing the coast. Roads from the Outer Banks have been closed and ferries have stopped running as storm surge cuts across the islands, carving new inlets, stirring sea foam, and clawing at the foundations and stilts lifting homes above the normally tranquil beach.

It’s the start of what will be a hellacious few days as Florence moves ashore at a crawl and then cuts inland. Storm surge is expected to reach up to 13 feet, inundating coastal lowlands. That soggy ground also means that winds will have an easier time toppling powerlines and leading to outages.

Paige Sheehan, a spokesperson for local utility Duke Energy, told Earther on Wednesday that the company had 20,000 workers at the ready to restore power, but that it was warning customers they could be without power for weeks.

“People who have spent their whole career here who have not seen an event like Florence,” she said.

States of emergency have been declared from Georgia to Maryland, underscoring just how wide Florence’s impacts could be. North and South Carolina as well as Virginia have ordered evacuations for coastal counties. The orders affect 1.5 million people, though some have chosen to ignore them.

The storm means business. We’ll be watching it closely and updating this post periodically. Earther also has a handy list of tools you can use to track the storm, whether you’re in harm’s way or watching from afar.

Update 3:45 p.m. ET: Right now, the biggest issue with Florence is storm surge. Water pushed ashore by Florence’s winds is cutting through the barrier islands of the Outer Banks and slamming into the coast. The images are dramatic and the surge is only going to get worse as the storms moves ashore.

The surge is bad news, but even worse news is how long it could last. Florence’s slow movement means we could see days on end of high tides, hampering rescue efforts and increasing the risk of home being washed away.

Storm surge is one of the clearest climate change links when talking about Florence. Higher seas mean higher surge. But it’s an exclamation point on an unfolding disaster: Wilmington, North Carolina saw 84 days of floods on sunny days in 2016.

Update 4:06 p.m. ET: The hurricane force winds have arrived. A buoy near Wrightsville Beach (no tie to the Wright Brothers) recorded a gust of 76 mph, just a smidge over hurricane force. The graph below also shows air pressure dropping like crazy, an indicator that more powerful parts of the hurricane are coming ashore. And yet Florence’s eye is still well out to sea. Things are only going to get more wild from here.

Update 5:50 p.m. ET: I’ve been watching the Frying Pan flag. You’ve been watching the Frying Pan flag. Nearly 90,000 are watching the Frying Pan flag live right now. The sight of the ol’ stars and stripes twisting and fraying in Florence’s howling winds 34 miles off the North Carolina coast has mesmerized the nation. Weather Nation meteorologist Dakota Smith has turned it into a time lapse so you can enjoy a whole day’s worth of drama in just 32 seconds. There’s surely a metaphor in here somewhere

Update 9:02 p.m. ET: The hurricane-force winds have arrived. Cape Lookout in the Outer Banks recorded sustained winds of 83 mph with gusts topping out at 106 mph, which are Category 2-level winds. In that same report, the National Hurricane Center noted that a few other privately operated stations are reporting hurricane-force sustained winds and gusts as well. Florence continues to scoot towards the shore and may have picked up a little steam from feeding off of the warm Gulf Stream.

Those winds and accompanying storm surge are also knocking out power and becoming extremely dangerous. A live feed set up by and being broadcast by Pattern in New Bern’s Union Point Park on the banks of the Neuse River captured the moment the lights went out in town. Residents there are among the more than 100,000 who have reportedly lost power. According to Accuweather, that includes every customer in Pamlico and Carteret counties.

And the dangers of storm surge forced WCTI meteorologists to evacuate on-air, leaving an eerie radar loop of Florence as they left the studio. When the meteorologists evacuate, you know things are getting hairy.

Update 11:15 p.m. ET: None of this is good:

We’re up to more than 150,000 without power in North Carolina and Florence is still rumbling ashore. There’s “significant flooding” occurring on rivers according to the National Weather Service. And winds are really starting to rip. And we haven’t even really begun to see the heavy rains Florence has in store for the Carolinas.

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