FLORENCE, S.C. – Early Tuesday evening Hurricane Florence was forecast to go ashore near Jacksonville, North Carolina, and leave Florence County with 2-3 inches of rain and some wind.
That all changed late Tuesday night, and not in a good way – at least for South Carolina.
Now the forecast calls for 10 inches of rain in Florence County.
“If you remember yesterday, we talked about a lot of things, and one of the things I said is we have to be flexible, because this is a changing environment,” Dusty Owens, Florence County Emergency Management Division director for Florence County, said during a storm briefing Wednesday afternoon. “And it has changed tremendously since yesterday. Unfortunately, not to our advantage.”
The current projected path of Hurricane Florence has it approaching the South Carolina/North Carolina border before dipping south and coming ashore at Myrtle Beach at 8 a.m. Saturday before passing south of Florence and approaching Columbia by 8 a.m. Sunday morning and Greenville by 8 a.m. Monday as a tropical depression.
The forecast has the storm approaching the North Carolina coast near Cape Fear as a major hurricane – Category 3 or stronger – before heading south and dropping below Category 3. The hurricane dropped to a Category 2 hurricane late Wednesday night, but the surge and flood risk still are considered life threatening.
Owens said the lack of strong weather system to steer the storm means the final path remains uncertain.
What is certain, though, is that the storm will take several days to pass as it stalls out and “meanders” over land, he said. The only weather system around to influence the storm is a high pressure system that is going to push the storm south.
“We’ve never had a tropical storm or hurricane that’s lasted for this long,” Owens said. “Normally we get hit, the storm passes through and the next morning we get up, go out into the sunshine and start cleaning up our yard. It will begin on Thursday and run all the way to Sunday morning.”
Strong winds should move into the area Thursday afternoon, in the 20-30 miles per hour range, Owens said.
Friday wind speeds should increase to 35 to 50 mph and should remain that way through Saturday before dropping to 25 to 40 miles per hour early Sunday morning and then ending throughout the later morning hours, Owens said.
Three days of rain and extended high winds will be what does the damage in the area, Owens said.
Ground that is dry at the start of the storm will be saturated after 10 inches of rain spread out over three days, and that puts trees at risk of being pushed over by the wind – damage reminiscent of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Owens said.
The main rivers through Florence County – the Great Pee Dee River, the Lynches River and Black Creek – are all running well below flood stage, and Owens said there was confidence they could handle the rain here and the flow from areas in North Carolina that are slated to get rain from the storm.
Owens said he expected the county’s emergency operations center to go to 24-hour operations starting Thursday morning and that the Florence County Council has a meeting set for 8 a.m. today to discuss a state of emergency declaration for the county.
Wednesday there were four shelters opened across Florence County: South Florence, Wilson, Timmonsville and Lake City high schools. A shelter will open today at Hannah-Pamplico Elementary/Middle School, Owens said.
Shelter numbers Wednesday were low but expected to climb in the days leading up to the storm’s arrival, he said.
PDRTA shuttle buses to take residents to a shelter were set to start today but started Wednesday instead.
“A lot of people, because of the shift in the track, have become very concerned and very nervous, and we’ve had a lot of requests to get to the shelters, so we went ahead and moved that up and are starting that today,” Owens said.
Neighboring counties also opened shelters and urged residents to consider their own safety when making decisions on whether to evacuate to a shelter.
In addition to Florence’s forecast of 10 inches of rain, Pee Dee communities along the North Carolina border could see up to 15 inches of rain from the storm, according to the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, N.C.
Areas along the North Carolina coast around Wilmington and Jacksonville and inland areas near them could see up to 20 inches of rain from hurricane Florence.
Owens said to expect power outages brought about by high and sustained winds dropping trees and snapping utility poles.
Florence County 911/Dispatch Center Manager Mitch Fulmore said that the center had plans to bring on additional staffers, up to double the usual level, to field what he expects to be an exponentially greater number of calls than the center usually receives.
“We’re going to get inundated with calls coming into the call center,” Fulmore said.
During a one-hour period during Hurricane Matthew, dispatchers received more than 450 calls, Fulmore said.
“We went from an average of 900 calls a day to 3,685 calls in that 24-hour period,” Fulmore said. “By the way, every one of those calls was answered.”
Fulmore said that because of increased call volumes, callers to 911 could expect the phone to ring several times before a call taker answers, but that all calls would be answered and dispatched. Callers should not hang up and redial. That will drop them to the back of the line to be answered.
Residents should not call 911 to report their power is out, Fulmore said.
Dispatchers will remain on the line in situations where assistance can be given during times that emergency responders are unable to respond because of the weather, Fulmore said.
Owens said the nature of the storm is such that there will be power outages throughout Florence County.
Duke Energy says damage from Hurricane Florence could cut off electricity to three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas, and the outages could last for weeks.
The nation’s No. 2 power company said Wednesday that 1 million to 3 million homes and businesses could lose power for lengthy periods, depending on the storm’s track.
Duke Energy North Carolina President David Fountain said Florence is so massive and its potential for damage so extensive that people could be without power for a very long time. Fountain says most storms are an inconvenience, “but Hurricane Florence will be a life-changing event for many people here in the Carolinas.”
The company says it already is shifting thousands of power workers from its Midwest and Florida regions and getting added workers from as far away as Texas.
Duke Energy Spokesman Ryan Mosier said the Pee Dee response would be based at Darlington Raceway to take advantage of the proximity of major interstates and the access it would give crews on their way to restore electricity.
Along the coast
“It should approach as a dangerous hurricane,” said Steven Pfaff, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Whether it comes ashore as a CAT 3 major hurricane or a CAT 2 I think is going to be relatively inconsequential in regards to some of these hazards, especially storm surge.”
No matter how you spell it, Pfaff said, a life-threatening storm surge will start today and carry into Friday.
“It’s going to be a long-lasting series of impacts which will ultimately affect recovery,” Pfaff said.
North Myrtle Beach to Cape Fear could see a surge of 6 to 9 feet while south Santee River to North Myrtle Beach could see a surge of 4 to 6 feet, according to a Wednesday afternoon briefing on the storm. Those levels do not take into account large, wind-driven breakers that also would hit the coast, Pfaff said.
Any surge above three feet is considered life-threatening, he said.
Such surges could cause extreme beach erosion with the loss of dunes, damage to marinas, docks and piers as well as damage to coastal roads by either sand deposition or by erosion.
The surge and battering waves would cause severe damage to structures along barrier islands and could cause the formation of new inlets.
Pfaff said any body of water affected by the tides would be subject to these threatening storm surges.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story