WILMINGTON, United States (AFP) — “Life-threatening” Hurricane Florence edged closer to the east coast of the United States Thursday, with tropical-force winds and rain already lashing barrier islands just off the North Carolina mainland.
The huge storm weakened to a Category 2 hurricane overnight, but forecasters warned that it still packed a dangerous punch — 110 mile-an-hour (175 kph) winds and torrential rains.
Georgia joined four other coastal states issuing an emergency declaration as forecasts showed Florence dumping historic amounts of rain on the southern state.
As Florence closed in, President Donald Trump and state and local officials urged residents in the path of the storm to evacuate.
“We are completely ready for hurricane Florence, as the storm gets even larger and more powerful. Be careful!” Trump tweeted.
Appeals to stay safe came from as far away as space. 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) downgraded Florence to a Category 2 storm from Category 3 on the five-level Saffir-Simpson wind scale, 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 on Wednesday. “We’ll handle it. We’re ready, we’re able.
“Protection of life is the absolute highest priority,” he added.
Florence is forecast to dump up to 40 inches (one metre) of rain in some areas after it makes landfall in North and South Carolina Thursday night or Friday.
“This rainfall would produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding,” the NHC said.
Life-threatening storm surges of up to 13 feet 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 one million to three million customers could lose electricity because of the storm and that it could take weeks to restore.
As of 8:00 am (1200 GMT), the eye of the storm was 170 miles (275 km) east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, moving northwest at 12 mph.
The storm was heading for the coast of the two states but heavy rain was also expected in Virginia to the north and Georgia to the south.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency “in light of the storm’s forecasted southward track after making landfall”.
“The state is mobilising all available resources to ensure public safety,” Deal said. “I encourage Georgians to be prepared for the inland effects of the storm as well as the ensuing storm surge in coastal areas.”
A state of emergency has also been declared in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina,Virginia and Washington.