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Residents flee before Florence strikes land

Hurricane Florence has the potential to cause "massive damage" to parts of the southeastern and mid-Atlantic United States -- and not just in the coastal areas where the storm aims to make landfall Friday morning, officials warned. CNN's Nick Valencia reports.

Posted: Sep 12, 2018 6:12 PM
Updated: Sep 12, 2018 6:12 PM

Even by major hurricane standards, Florence is a beast like no other.

The National Weather Service calls it a "storm of a lifetime" -- and for good reason.

A perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances means Florence will likely be catastrophic for parts of the Southeast. Here's what makes this hurricane so unusual:

1. Its brute force

Florence catapulted from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane in just a few hours. Even scarier: It could get more violent as it gets closer to the Carolinas.

"This storm is going to get stronger before it makes landfall," CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

As of midday Wednesday, Florence was hurling 130-mph winds. But before it pummels the US coastline, Florence could become close to a Category 5 storm -- meaning winds could approach 157 mph.

2. Its marathon attack

Around the same time Florence makes landfall, the steering winds pushing it forward will die down. In other words, this hurricane will basically stall -- pounding the same parts of the Carolinas over and over again.

From late Thursday through early Sunday, Florence will travel "literally slower than a walking pace (2 to 3 mph on average)," CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.

As a result, the coastal Carolinas will suffer more than 24 hours of hurricane-force winds and storm surge, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said.

This kind of long-term attack portends severe destruction. While a fast-traveling hurricane might blow off some shingles, a relentless onslaught such as this could easily blow off roofs or destroy houses.

"It's cumulative damage," Myers said. "If you're blowing 100 or 120 mph on homes, they're going to start to deteriorate. So will the trees. So will the power lines, as the power lines fall down as well."

3. The deadly walls of water

But astonishing winds aren't the biggest danger. That would actually be Florence's storm surge, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

"Storm surge has the highest potential to kill the most amount of people," FEMA Administrator Brock Long said. "It also has the highest potential to cause the most destruction."

Storm surge is basically a wall of water that could swallow parts of the coast.

"This will have a storm surge in the 20-foot range," Myers said.

To put things in perspective, any storm surge taller than 12 feet is "life-threatening," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said.

And no one knows how far inland that coastal flooding will spread, and how many inland communities will be washed out.

4. It will cause massive inland flooding

Aside from the coastal flooding, expect colossal freshwater flooding as well. That's because the longer this slow-moving hurricane hovers over land, the more rain it'll dump in the same places.

"With this storm, what's unique is it's forecast to stall ... dropping copious amounts of rainfall across the Carolinas and into Virginia," Long said. "So this is not just going to be a coastal threat. It's a statewide threat for the states involved."

Florence will unload up to 40 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina. By comparison, Washington, D.C., gets an average of 40 inches of rain per year.

What's worse: Much of the Carolinas are already saturated from rainfall. So the land can't absorb much more water.

"Inland flooding will be a major threat and something people far from the landfall location should be concerned about," CNN's Miller said.

5. It's barreling toward people not used to big hurricanes

The Carolinas will likely bear the brunt of Florence's wrath. But that part of the East Coast rarely sees major hurricanes.

And in the 29 years since Hurricane Hugo struck, the population of the coastal Carolinas has skyrocketed.

"There's 25% more people living between Charleston (South Carolina) and Morehead City (North Carolina) than there were when Hugo was making landfall," Myers said.

"Many of the people here have never seen a storm this strong," he said.

"They have no idea what 'overwash' of an island will do to a home, what the wind could do to your home and what to do to your home to make it safer after you evacuate."

Even Wilmington, North Carolina -- a coastal city accustomed to severe weather -- is bracing for an unusually brutal impact.

"We're a resilient bunch down here. We go through a lot of these hurricane scares throughout the years," Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said. "But this is pretty serious."

He warned residents to take precautions "because once this storm is upon us, we're not going to be able to send emergency personnel out to rescue you."

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