This story was updated at 11:20 p.m. Eastern.
The path of Hurricane Florence is still set squarely on the Carolinas, but the storm continued to weaken throughout Wednesday, and was downgraded to a Category 2 and remained that way as of 11 p.m. Wednesday.
With winds in the 110 mph range, Florence is still close to being a Category 4, the National Hurricane Center said. A Category 2 is 96-110 mph; a Category 3 is 111 to 129 mph; and a Category 4 is 130 to 156 mph.
Little change in speed is expected until the “center reaches the coast, with weakening expected after it moves inland,” according to the NHC.
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Changes in the storm’s strength are possible through Thursday morning, according to the NHC, and though the storm may slowly weaken late Thursday, Florence “is still forecast to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane” when it nears the coast.
As of 11 p.m., Hurricane Florence was 280 miles away from Wilmington, N.C., and 325 miles off of Myrtle Beach, according to the NHC.
Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 80 miles from the center of Florence. Tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 195 miles.
The NHC reported that Hurricane Florence is expected to take a turn to the west-northwest at an even slower forward speed on Thursday.
The “probable” forecast path for Florence as of 11 p.m. Wednesday showed the storm shifting farther toward the southern North Carolina coast and the northern half of the South Carolina coast, with the forecast cone stretching into Georgia, western North Carolina and Tennessee, according to the NHC.
Once it makes landfall, the current forecast path shows the storm making a turn even farther south toward southern South Carolina and Georgia around Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center was reporting waves within the storm are 83 feet high, and rainfall projections for coastal North Carolina are in the 20 to 40 inch range.
The first projections of tornadoes have also been released, with the National Hurricane Center reporting “a few tornadoes are possible in eastern North Carolina beginning late Thursday morning.”
Watches and warnings
Storm-surge warning: South Santee River South Carolina to Duck North Carolina and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, including the Neuse and Pamlico rivers as of 2 a.m. Wednesday, the NHC said.
Storm-surge watch: Edisto Beach, South Carolina to South Santee River, South Carolina and North of Duck, North Carolina to the North Carolina/Virginia border.
Hurricane warning: South Santee River South Carolina to Duck, North Carolina and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.
Hurricane watch: Edisto Beach, South Carolina to South Santee River, South Carolina and North of Duck, North Carolina to the North Carolina/Virginia border.
Tropical Storm watch: North of the North Carolina/Virginia border to Cape Charles Light, Virginia and Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.
Storm surge is also expected to produce “life-threatening inundation, from rising water moving inland from the coastline, during the next 36 hours in the indicated locations,” says the National Hurricane Center.
The ocean is moving inland ahead of Florence as storm surge begins to flood the Carolinas coast, according to the NHC.
The water could reach as high as 9 to 13 feet “from Cape Fear to Cape Lookout, including the Neuse, Pamlico, Pungo and Bay Rivers.”
From North Myrtle Beach to Cape Fear, and Cape Lookout to the Ocracoke Inlet, water could rise 6 to 9 feet.
From the Ocracoke Inlet to the North Carolina-Virginia border and from the South Santee River to North Myrtle Beach, the NHC forecast that water could rise as high as 6 feet.
Water could reach as high as 4 feet from Edisto Beach to the South Santee River.
“The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast in areas of onshore winds, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves,” the NHC said.
“Heavy and excessive rainfall” of 20 to 30 inches is predicted along coastal North Carolina, with isolated spots of 40 inches. The Appalachians could see 3 to 6 inches of rain, with isolated areas of 12 inches.
In South Carolina, 5-10 inches is expected, with isolated areas of 20 inches, says the NHC.
“This rainfall would produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding.”
“If you are told to evacuate and do not do so, you need to realize you are putting your life in danger,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long said in a statement on Wednesday. “This storm is not to be taken lightly. The entire states of North and South Carolina could be heavily impacted by this storm. People do not live to tell the tale of surviving storm surge. It’s the most deadly part of the hurricane that comes in and it causes the most destruction.”
“We cannot stress this enough, Florence poses a very serious threat to people who live far away from the coast,” said a National Weather Service tweet late Tuesday. “Heavy and long-lasting rainfall could lead to catastrophic flooding in inland parts of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.”
“This will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast,” the National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina said Tuesday evening, according to The Weather Channel and ABC News.
“My message is clear: Disaster is at the doorstep and is coming in,” N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said during a Wednesday morning press conference. “This may be a marathon — not a sprint.”
Cooper encouraged people at the coast to leave now, while there is still time to do so safely. “For those not under an evacuation order, finish your preparations today if you haven’t already,” he said. “Move to safety if your home is at risk – bring in supplies if it’s not. Plan to be without power for days.”
Florence is continuing to move northwest at 17 mph but is expected to slow. Its winds are in the 110 mph range according to the National Hurricane Center. As of 11 p.m. Wednesday, the site of “probable” landfall continues to be somewhere along the coast of North or South Carolina on Thursday night or Friday morning and “move slowly near the coastline through Saturday.”
Early Wednesday morning, the storm’s path shifted south and west, encompassing more of South Carolina and western North Carolina.
Some models reported by The Weather Channel suggest the storm may actually skirt the coast on Friday, and divert south to the Charleston area of South Carolina. That could create multiple days of widespread storm surge, the Weather Channel says.
That lack of clarity has caused the so-called “cone of uncertainty” to expand. Coastal areas in both Carolinas have taken steps to evacuate residents and tourists, including a mandatory evacuation in South Carolina and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
A NOAA buoy about 100 miles northeast of the eye of Hurricane Florence recorded sustained winds of 53 mph and gusts up to 74 mph as of 2 p.m. Wednesday, according to the NHC.
Hurricane-force winds (74 to 95 mph) are currently extending out up to 80 miles from the center of the storm, and tropical-storm-force winds are being felt as much as 195 miles around the storm.
Hurricane conditions are expected to reach the Carolinas on late Thursday or Friday, says the NHC, but tropical force winds are expected to show up somewhere along the coast Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center is predicting the storm will produce “catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding.”
“Florence is forecast to be an extremely dangerous major hurricane as it approaches the U.S. coast,” the NHC said.
There is increased fear that Florence “will slow considerably or stall, leading to a prolonged and exceptionally heavy and dangerous rainfall event Friday-Sunday,” the NHC said Tuesday.