About 1.7 million people across three states have been told to evacuate ahead of the arrival of Storm Florence on the US east coast.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has told locals “don’t bet your life on riding out a monster” as 140mph winds get set to batter the shoreline, with South Carolina and Virginia also braced for impact.
President Donald Trump has declared a state of emergency for all three states, with Florence likely to bring widespread flooding and destruction once it arrives late Thursday or early Friday local time.
Governor Cooper has urged people to heed warnings from weather experts and forecasters, describing the incoming storm as “extremely dangerous” and “life-threatening”.
He said: “This storm is a monster – it’s big and it’s vicious.
“It is an extremely, dangerous, life-threatening, historic hurricane. The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen.
“Even if you’ve ridden out storms before, this one is different.”
President Donald Trump – who was criticised for his response to the deadly Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year – has said the White House is “absolutely, totally prepared” to provide aid once Florence hits, but there are concerns the states in its path are ill-prepared for what is to come.
Store shelves have been picked clean of bottled water and other supplies, while many have boarded up their homes before leaving them behind in the hope they avoid destruction.
Florence is currently around 800 miles from Cape Fear, North Carolina, moving at 16mph with winds of 130mph. It stretches 340 miles across, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
The category four storm is expected to intensify to a category five as it slows down over warm waters, with 1.7 million people warned that they should get out of its way.
NHC director Ken Graham admitted: “This one really scares me.
“You’re going to get heavy rain, catastrophic life-threatening storm surge and also the winds. The water could overtake some of these barrier islands and keep on going.
“With time, the wind pushes the water into every nook and cranny you can think of. All you have to do is look up at your ceiling and think about 12ft of water – that, folks, is extremely life-threatening.”
People living on the coastal barrier islands have been issued with a mandatory evacuation order by Governor Cooper for the first time in history.
Typically, local governments in North Carolina make the call on hurricane evacuations, but Governor Cooper said “this one is different”.
There are fears Florence could match the devastating impact of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which brought 130mph winds to North Carolina, destroying 15,000 buildings and killing 19 people.
In addition to thousands of homes and businesses, five military bases and half a dozen nuclear power plants are also in the path of the storm.
Duke Energy spokesman Ryan Mosier said operators would begin shutting down nuclear plants at least two hours before hurricane-force winds arrive.
There are also hog manure pits, coal ash dumps and other industrial sites, which could be concocted into a noxious brew of waste if flooding is as bad as computer models are suggesting it could be.
More than 3ft of rain is expected in the eastern part of North Carolina, a fertile low-lying plain boasting brackish rivers with a propensity for bursting their banks.
If they do, and the industrial sites are flooded, tainted water could wash into homes and threaten drinking water supplies.
Meanwhile, there are two other storms in the vicinity – Isaac and Olivia have become tropical storms, with the former heading for the Caribbean and the latter set to hit Hawaii early on Wednesday.
Florence is by far the most dangerous of the three.