485,000 Without Power As Florence Makes Landfall; "Major Structural Damage" Reported

Update (10 am ET): North Carolina officials report that over 485,000 customers are without power.

Update (9 am ET): Florence has officially made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Landfall occurred around 7:15 am, bringing blinding rain and winds of up to 90 mph. In New Bern, a coastal town near the eye of the storm, hundreds of people are awaiting rescue, per the New York Times. 

Here's the most recent update from the NHC, which was issued shortly before the eye of the storm came ashore:

After making landfall, the storm has slowly drifted to the southwest along the coast of southeastern North Carolina.

*EYE OF HURRICANE FLORENCE WOBBLING SLOWLY SOUTHWESTWARD NEAR THE COAST OF SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA : NHC

Some are already speculating that the storm could make a second landfall near Myrtle Beach.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster warned that the driving rain could trigger mudslides in some areas as the storm, which is almost as large as the combined territory of the Carolinas, could linger over the states for days.

At the same time, residents and emergency personnel throughout inland North and South Carolina were working under the grim assumption that the Category 1 storm’s pounding of the coastline would be only the first powerful punch in a fight that could go many rounds and last for many days. It will play out not only among stilted beach cottages and seaside resorts, but also in workaday towns and cities much farther west.

"This may be the first time we’ve experienced such a two-punch from these kind of conditions," said South Carolina’s governor, Henry McMaster, at a news conference on Thursday, speaking about evacuations along the coast as well as the possibility of rain-triggered landslides in the mountains.

Florence is proving to be a lumbering giant, with cloud cover as large as the Carolinas themselves. If, as expected, it dawdles over the region, the storm could drop rainfall of 20, 30 or even 40 inches in some areas. Anxiety is especially high over the fate of all of that water, which will have to go somewhere.

In what will come as a relief to many, Gov. Roy Cooper confirmed that there have yet to be any storm-related deaths.

Meanwhile, in what we imagine is a landmark occasion in the world of extreme news reporting, CNN has enlisted John Berman to host its morning newscast in 90 mph winds.

Despite projections that Florence could be one of the costliest storms in US history, Fed President Robert Kaplan said hurricanes typically don't have a long-lasting impact on economic growth.

"If you’re growing before the storm, this’ll put a dent in your growth for a quarter or two," he says, speaking in an interview on Fox Business Network. "The GDP impact tends to be transitory."

...Tell that to the survivors of Hurricane Maria.

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North Carolina's Outer Banks were getting absolutely pummeled by wind and rain Friday morning as Hurricane Florence neared the coast, with the eye-wall of the storm (believed to be the area where the wind and rain are most severe) roughly 25 miles away from making landfall, according to the NHC. The storm is expected to make landfall somewhere between Wilmington, NC and Cape Lookout. The storm has been downgraded to Category One as wind speeds slowed slightly, but meteorologists now expect the storm to slow down as it reaches the coast, allowing it even more time to cause severe flooding and wind damage.

Here's a quick rundown of storm stats courtesy of Bloomberg:

  • Max. sustained winds steady at 90mph
  • Florence moving at 6mph; tropical storm force winds still extend outwards by 195 miles
  • Observation site at Cape Lookout, N.C., reported sustained wind of 72mph and a gust of 90mph
  • Storm surge still forecast to reach as much as 11 feet in parts of North Carolina; isolated totals of 30-40 inches of rain expected in parts of coastal North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina

Expectations for a devastating storm surge have been lowered slightly to between 4 and 6 feet along the coast. But heavy rainfall persisted, with an expected 40 inches possibly causing extreme flooding along the coast and further inland. Already, more than 280,000 homes and businesses in the state have lost power. Most of the outages are along the coastline in Beaufort, Carteret, Craven, New Hanover, Pamlico, Pender and Onslow counties, per ABC 11.

Despite warnings that FEMA wouldn't risk the lives of first responders to rescue coastal residents who have ignored the governor's mandatory evacuation order, many residents have stayed behind. According to one recent count, roughly 150 people were awaiting rescue. Meanwhile, major structural damage has been reported to homes and businesses in Onslow County, while a 10 foot storm surge was reported in Morehead City. As of 5 am Friday, 200 had already been rescued. More than 1,300 flights along the East Coast have been canceled.

About 12,000 people have relocated to 126 evacuation shelters, state officials said. River flooding peaked at 10.1 feet on the Neuse River, according to a USGS gauge cited by the Weather Channel. The river flooded downtown New Bern and elsewhere in Craven County as County Manager Amber Bearn said she was bracing for "conditions to deteriorate." Meanwhile, "people are trapped on roofs and in vehicles." The nearby Trent River had also overflowed. A map released by the county depicted just how widespread the flooding had become.

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Officials warned residents to charge their phones and any other electronic devices because it would be unclear how long power outages would persist.

Roads were covered with flood water in what was expected to be the first of many waves of ever-worsening floods near NC 12, the roadway that runs through North Carolina's Outer Banks. More than 12.5 inches of rain had already fallen on Atlantic Beach Thursday night.

"We in North Carolina have to shift from preparation to determination. We will survive this and endure," said NC Gov. Roy Cooper as heavy winds ripped trees and business canopies from their groundings.

Meanwhile, photos from areas badly hit by the storm flooded (no pun intended) social media:

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Officials warned that the storm would have the impact of a Category 4 Hurricane, despite having been downgraded to a Category 1.

"With this storm, it's a (Category 1) but the storm surge and the flooding is going to be that of a category 4," CNN Meteorologist Jennifer Gray said Thursday night.

The storm is expected to move slowly through the Carolinas, whipping up hurricane force winds and dumping rain until at least Saturday, according to CNN. The storm is expected to drop 10 trillion gallons of rainfall in North Carolina. 

"It's not going to take much in a lot of these areas to saturate the soil, so trees are going to come down really easily" and knock down power lines, said Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center.

While some residents ignored the evacuation order out of stubbornness, others stayed put because they had nowhere else to go, according to CNN.

Cheryl Browning lives with her husband and son, who has terminal cancer, in Richlands, North Carolina. They also have three dogs and three parrots.

Browning's choice to stay in the hurricane warning zone wasn't easy, she said, but she "could not find anywhere to go."

"Either no (hotel) rooms are available, or we are denied because the breed or size of dogs," she said. "Many that will accept them only allow one per room. And since we have three dogs and three parrots, they're requesting us to purchase two to six rooms."

And there's no way her family could afford that -- or the $1,728 per room another hotel quoted. Other residents have told CNN they're not evacuating because emergency shelters won't accept pets.

[...]

"Since my husband retired and my health declined, we have his retirement as an income. He is the only caregiver to me and my son," Browning said. "So since we can't find anything within our means ... we've opted to stay."

Her neighbors gave her the key to their house, which is two stories and might be safer from flooding, she said. It's a kind gesture but doesn't alleviate Browning's fear.

"I'm not going to lie: I'm scared," she said. "But I think it'll be OK."

Meanwhile, officials have declared states of emergency in a few states, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.

For those interested in tracking the storm's path, a live feed of radar images can be viewed below:

Meanwhile, video of the storm's massive eyewall was aired on CNN:

...And here's more live coverage from ABC:

Florence is expected to cause more than $30 billion in damage during its run through the southeast, and what's worse, it won't be the last major storm to strike the eastern US. As one meterologist pointed out, there are now 4 named storms traveling int he Atlantic.