WILMINGTON, N.C. – As potentially catastrophic Hurricane Florence reached Category 4 intensity Monday, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for residents living along the entire South Carolina coast.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the evacuation to start at noon today as Hurricane Florence approaches. The order applies to all eight counties along the coast: Jasper, Beaufort, Colleton, Charleston, Dorchester, Georgetown, Horry and Berkeley counties.
Schools in and around Florence County, some of which are evacuation shelters, announced they would be closed ahead of the storm.
Once evacuations are called for designated shelters have three hours to set up and open to accommodate evacuees.
McMaster said storm surge could reach as high as 10 feet (3 meters) and estimates 1 million residents will be leaving the coast. Eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 heading into Charleston and U.S. 501 heading into Myrtle Beach will be reversed when the order takes effect.
McMaster has already declared a state of emergency in South Carolina and asked President Donald Trump for a federal declaration ahead of the storm, which intensified Monday with maximum sustained winds near 130 mph.
Forecasters say the hurricane’s strength is expected to fluctuate but it still will be a dangerous storm by the time it reaches the coast of South Carolina or North Carolina on Thursday.
“This storm is something to be taken very seriously,” said Florence County Emergency Management Director Dusty Owens during a Monday afternoon briefing.
Of specific concern to the Pee Dee is the wind field, he said.
The storm’s slow speed approaching the coast makes it easier for the storm to change course – either north or south.
“South would be bad for us,” Owens said. “Don’t get fixed on that little dotted line where they eye of the storm is projected to make landfall. We will expect tropical-storm-force-winds to start affecting coastal South Carolina on Wednesday. The storm itself it forecast to make landfall sometime Thursday evening. That should tell you how slowly this storm is moving.
“Once this storm makes landfall, it is going to slow down, and that is very bad for whomever is underneath it. Unlike Hurricane Hugo, which blew directly through South Carolina, this one is apparently going to take its time grinding through either South or North Carolina, which means an extended period of time when you will be exposed to high winds.
“Look at that tropical force wind field and where it is.”
Owens demonstrated predictive weather software that forecast where the storm’s various wind fields would be.
“While the storm making landfall in North Carolina is good for us, because the greatest wind and greatest rainfall will be to the northeast quadrant of the storm, you can see on our side, the weaker side of the storm, you can see that blue field,” Owens said. “The tropical storm force wind field is still going to cover much of Florence County. And if this storm stalls, we could have winds of 39 mph with gusts with greater than that for an extended period of time.”
Rainfall forecasts, he said, are along the lines of what the Pee Dee experienced with Hurricane Joaquin in 2015. And while the Pee Dee might not get the rain initially, it will fall onto the Great Pee Dee River Basin, so the Pee Dee will see the rainfall eventually as it flows toward the coast.
The governors of North and South Carolina and Virginia declared states of emergency far ahead of the approaching storm.
“It’s got a pretty good eye with it now, so it’s anticipated to become a major hurricane at some point today, and it will likely threaten somewhere along the Southeast coast sometime Thursday,” Steven Pfaff, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, North Carolina, said Monday morning in a conference call about the storm.
“The uncertainty lies with who is going to get the direct impacts. Florence will be large enough that there will be far reaching impacts far inland as well. The determination of who gets the radius of maximum winds, the highest storm surge, the highest winds, where they come ashore are still a big question mark.”
The environment is extremely favorable for rapid intensification, Pfaff said.
By noon Monday, Florence had top sustained winds of 130 mph. It was centered approximately 1,230 miles east-southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina, and moving west at 13 mph. Its center will move south of Bermuda today and Wednesday and approach the coast of South Carolina or North Carolina on Thursday, the National Hurricane Center said.
“Just to give you an idea, the water temperature at Johnny Mercer Pier (Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina) today it was 88, yesterday it was 87,” Pfaff said Monday. “Those water temperatures are typically in the low 80s this time of year.”
Three weeks of easterly winds and direct sunlight on the western Atlantic Ocean are behind the jump in water temperatures, he said.
Wherever anyone is in the Carolinas, he or she needs to be prepared to deal with the potential of a Category 3 or maybe even a Category 4 hurricane at landfall, Pfaff said.
“We haven’t been challenged by something this intense, I think you would need to go back to Fran in ’96 as far as the intensity,” Pfaff said. “Even Hugo, for parts of South Carolina, going back into the ’80s.”
Coastal areas at or near landfall could experience destructive winds and storm surge, Pfaff said.
National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned that Florence was forecast to slow down significantly once it reaches shore and linger over the Carolinas. Predictions for heavy rainfall stretch into West Virginia.
“When you stall a system like this and it moves real slow, some of that rainfall can extend well away from the center,” Graham said. “It’s not just the coast.”
He warned that people living on the coasts and well inland to prepare to lose power, among other storm impacts.
“Rain plus winds equals a lot of trees down and power outages that could be for an extended period of time,” Graham said.
Pfaff said residents should read the projected drop in wind speeds and understand that the areas in the forecast cone could experience 24 hours of hurricane-force winds that would be eroding down to tropical-storm-force winds – not a good situation.
Divergent models make specific forecasts a challenge this far out from the storm’s arrival, but they are starting to come together, he said.
“Most confident about extreme maritime conditions,” Pfaff said. “Limited confidence, because it is so track dependent, about the storm surge and the wind.”
Many areas in the storm’s path have experienced only 5 percent to 50 percent of their usual rainfall amounts in the past couple of weeks, and that will be of some help.
“Rivers and basins are on the low side,” Pfaff said. “We have a little buffer, but you start talking 10 inches of rain, that buffer is going to go away real quick, and we’ll start to see rises on the rivers as a result.”
Residents in and around Nichols, located near the convergence of the Little Pee Dee and Lumber Rivers, should pay careful attention to the storm’s path.
“If the track shifts west and slows, then it is not out of the realm of possibility” that the community could see some version of the massive floods it experienced during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Pfaff said.
“There are some scenarios that after it moves on shore, it kind of gets stuck in a weak area of steering,” Pfaff said. “There the rainfall amounts would go up.”
It probably would not be as bad as what Houston experienced last year with flooding from Hurricane Harvey, though.
“I think it would be farfetched to see 50-inch rainfall amounts at this far north in latitude,” Pfaff said. “Certainly conceivable higher than what is being predicted right now.”
Certainty of the storm’s track will increase as its arrival time approaches and forecast models start to come into agreement, he said.
“We hope to see these models come into better alignment so we can start hammering home specific details on where the radius of maximum winds may impact,” he said.