‘Threat becomes reality’: Florence begins days of rain, wind

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Hurricane Florence began its brutish slow-motion collision with the Carolina coasts Thursday, with beach towns cowering under the first bands of lashing rain. Storm surges and 90 miles-per-hour winds were expected sometime Friday.

At the same time, residents and emergency personnel throughout inland North and South Carolina were working under the grim assumption that the Category 1 storm’s pounding of the coastline would be only the first powerful punch in a fight that could go many rounds and last for many days. It will play out not only among stilted beach cottages and seaside resorts, but also in workaday towns and cities much farther west.

“This may be the first time we’ve experienced such a two-punch from these kind of conditions,” said South Carolina’s governor, Henry McMaster, at a news conference Thursday, speaking about evacuations along the coast as well as the possibility of rain-triggered landslides in the mountains.

Florence is proving to be a lumbering giant, with cloud cover as large as the Carolinas themselves. If, as expected, it dawdles over the region, the storm could drop rainfall of 20, 30 or even 40 inches in some areas.

‘‘It truly is really about the whole size of this storm,’’ National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said. ‘‘The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact — and we have that.’’

Anxiety is especially high over the fate of all of that water, which will have to go somewhere.

That means a cascading series of complications for a city such as Greenville, a handsome college town of 92,000 people set on the banks of the Tar River.

Greenville lies far inland, a few score miles west of the Atlantic Ocean, but it is connected to the sea by the Tar River, which eventually becomes the Pamlico River as it widens out and flows into the Atlantic.

On Thursday, as billowing, dark heather clouds loomed, the city’s spokesman, Brock Letchworth, said Greenville’s first concern is that Florence could drop enough water to create immediate flash flooding.

But he said the city was also worried about a massive salty storm surge roaring westward up the river from the Atlantic. Finally, there is the problem of all the rainfall on the rest of the state, which would have to eventually drain eastward out toward the ocean.

City and county officials have stationed swift-water rescue groups in place, including teams of wildlife officers from Indiana.

Police have begun going door to door in the lowest-lying areas suggesting that residents get out. Some 300 people were already using five Pitt County shelters.

But Mayor P.J. Connelly said the river flooding might not occur for days, if at all, given how capricious the storm’s track had proved to be. For the moment, the future for Greenville seemed as if it was written on water.

The drama was considerably more tangible Thursday in the coast-hugging city of Wilmington, where, at midday, winds whipped ocean spray across sand dunes on nearby barrier islands. City streets began to empty as residents made final preparations.

The storm was expected to make landfall at around 8 a.m. Friday near Wrightsville Beach, on Wilmington’s eastern shoulder.

“The winds of Hurricane Florence are upon us,” said Steven Still, director of emergency management for New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington.

Emergency officials said they were particularly concerned about the powerful storm surge, predicted to reach 9 to 10 feet on North Carolina’s barrier islands, possibly producing dangerous flooding of rivers, bays, sounds, and estuaries throughout the region.

Florence’s winds weakened as it drew closer to land, dropping from a peak of 140 miles per hour, and the hurricane was downgraded from a terrifying Category 4 to a 1.

But North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned: ‘‘Don’t relax, don’t get complacent. Stay on guard. This is a powerful storm that can kill. Today the threat becomes a reality.’’

More than 80,000 people were already without power as the storm approached, and more than 12,000 were in shelters. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.

Mayor Bill Saffo of Wilmington warned that the effects of the storm could last for several days or more, with widespread power outages, flooded roads, and homes and mountains of windblown debris.

“It’s going to pound us for quite some time,” he said.

Rick Luettich, director of the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences, who has a front-row seat for the storm in Morehead City, N.C., said the story of Florence would almost certainly play out in other areas further inland.

“We think about the front-facing beaches, and those are the front lines,” he said. “But they oftentimes have sand dunes and other protections that can hold.”

“As you get up into the estuaries, as you work your way up into the coastal plain there’s no defense,” he said. “The water from the ocean backs up into those systems.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.