AFP WILMINGTON, N.C. (AFP-Jiji) — Hurricane Florence was on course Wednesday to deliver a powerful blow to the east coast of the United States, with forecasters warning of life-threatening rainfall and flooding even as it weakened to a Category 2 storm.
Georgia joined four other coastal states issuing an emergency declaration as forecasts showed Florence dumping historic amounts of torrential rain on the southern state.
As Florence closed in, U.S. President Donald Trump and state and local officials urged residents in the path of the storm to evacuate before it was too late.
Appeals to stay safe came from as far away as space, as German astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted pictures of the monster storm taken from the International Space Station along with the warning: “Watch out, America!”
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said that Florence’s maximum sustained winds had eased to 175 kph and it had been downgraded to a Category 2 storm from Category 3 on the five-level Saffir-Simpson wind scale.
It was the second such drop in the space of hours, but the Miami-based NHC stressed it remained “a life-threatening situation” due to the risks of storm surge around coastal areas.
Up to 1.7 million people are under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders, and coastal residents were frantically boarding up homes and businesses and hitting the road on Wednesday as the storm approached.
“Get out of its way, don’t play games with it, it’s a big one, maybe as big as they’ve seen,” Trump said. “We’ll handle it. We’re ready, we’re able.”
Florence is forecast to dump up to 1 meter of rain in some areas after it makes landfall in the Carolinas.
Life-threatening storm surges of up to 4 meters were also forecast in some areas along with the possibility of tornadoes in North Carolina.
“This is going to be a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast,” said Jeff Byard, associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“This is not going to be a glancing blow,” Byard said, warning of power outages, road closures, infrastructure damage and potential loss of life.
Duke Energy, a power company in the Carolinas, estimated that 1 million to 3 million customers could lose electricity because of the storm and that it could take weeks to restore.
The storm was heading for the coast of the two Carolinas, but heavy rain was also expected in Virginia to the north and Georgia to the south.