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(CNN)The fierce winds of Hurricane Florence are weakening as it creeps closer to North Carolina but the impact of the immense storm will still be catastrophic for millions of people.
Florence, now a Category 2 hurricane, is forecast to unleash extreme storm surge, possibly historic flooding rains, and damaging winds in the Carolinas beginning Thursday. The storm is expected to slowly move inland, battering much of the US coast for days.While Florence is no longer considered a major hurricane, its reach has expanded, threatening residents from Georgia to Virginia.TRACK THE STORM Latest developmentsRead More• Storm has weakened: Florence is now a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph.• Where is Florence? The storm was about 235 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina and was moving at about 17 mph on Thursday.• The path of the storm: Florence’s center will approach the North and South Carolina coast late Thursday and Friday but it’s unclear where it will make landfall. As the storm moves inland, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland will also be in peril.• Storm surge still a big threat: Strong winds will send rising water inland from the coastline of the Carolinas. The National Hurricane Center says the storm surge could rise up to 13 feet — that’s water inundating homes up to their first floor roof.• Flight cancellations: At least 800 flights along the US East Coast have been canceled Thursday through Saturday ahead of the storm. This computer model shows a variety of potential tracks for the hurricane, including potential landfalls.Millions flee or prep for chaosOfficials in the potential path of Florence urged people to evacuate their coastal homes and directed drivers away from the coast.”You put your life at risk by staying,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said. “Don’t plan to leave once the winds and rains start.”Cooper and his South Carolina counterpart, Henry McMaster, told the more than 1 million people who have been directed to leave that if they don’t do so, they are on their own.People living in Hurricane Florence's path write messages for the stormAbout 300,000 people have been evacuated from South Carolina, McMaster said. The governor added that a million or more people could be evacuated before the storm makes landfall.”Even the rescuers cannot stay there,” he said.In Carolina Beach, authorities have stopped allowing traffic to the island via the only bridge between the island and the mainland. They also instituted a 24-hour curfew. The town is less than 5 feet above sea level and officials worry that as many as 1,000 of the town’s 6,300 residents are planning to stay.Mayor Joe Benson said the storm will batter the oceanside town through two high tide periods. Storm surge of 13 feet on top of a high tide at 7 feet could overwhelm Carolina Beach.“Our sand dunes are healthy but they’re not going to be able to keep back a wall of water like that,” he said. “Flooding is almost guaranteed.” Susan Faulkenberry Panousis has stayed in her Bald Head Island, North Carolina home during prior hurricanes, but not this time. She packed up what she could and took a ferry.”When that last ferry pulls out … it’s unnerving to see it pull away and know, ‘That’s the last chance I have of getting off this island,'” she said Wednesday.More than 10 million people are under a storm watch or warning in Virginia and the Carolinas, where up to 40 inches of rain could fall. Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inAstronaut Alexander Gerst posted this photo on Twitter of Hurricane Florence on Wednesday, September 12, saying, “Ever stared down the gaping eye of a (Category 4) hurricane? It’s chilling, even from space.” Gerst is aboard the International Space Station.Hide Caption 1 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inEvacuees take refuge at Burgaw Middle School in Burgaw, North Carolina, on Wednesday, September 12. Hide Caption 2 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inMarge Brown says goodbye to her father, George Brown, before his evacuation from a health care home in Morehead City, North Carolina, on September 12.Hide Caption 3 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inWorkers take boats out of the water in Wanchese Harbor in Wanchese, North Carolina, on September 12 as the Outer Banks prepares for Florence.Hide Caption 4 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inAstronaut Gerst also posted this photo to Twitter on September 12, saying, “Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye. Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you.”Hide Caption 5 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inJeff Bryant, left, and James Evans board the windows of a business in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Tuesday, September 11.Hide Caption 6 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inPeople fill sandbags in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, on September 11.Hide Caption 7 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inBoth lanes of Interstate 26 flow westbound in North Charleston, South Carolina, toward Columbia as people evacuate inland on September 11.Hide Caption 8 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inLaura Gretch holds Frances, a Chihuahua mix, as she helps unload cats and dogs arriving at the Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington from Norfolk, Virginia, on September 11.Hide Caption 9 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inA Costco employee attempts to direct traffic at gas pumps in Apex, North Carolina, near Raleigh on September 11.Hide Caption 10 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inVeronica Gallardo and Robert Kelly place a plastic tarp over an American flag inside the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, on September 11.Hide Caption 11 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inA man eyes a store’s bare bread shelves as people stock up on food in Myrtle Beach on September 11.Hide Caption 12 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inHurricane Florence swirls in the Atlantic Ocean in this photo from the International Space Station on Monday, September 10.Hide Caption 13 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inChuck Ledford, left, watches cartoons on a phone with his daughter Misty as they seek shelter at Emma B. Trask Middle School in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Tuesday, September 11. Hide Caption 14 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inMarcus Thurston and his wife, Shenae, evacuate a hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as they cut their vacation short on Tuesday, September 11.Hide Caption 15 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inWorkers board up the Wrightsville Beach Art Co. in North Carolina.Hide Caption 16 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inLarry Pierson buys bottled water at a grocery store in Isle of Palms, South Carolina.Hide Caption 17 of 18 Photos: Hurricane Florence closing inScott Fleenor, bottom, and Jeremiah Trendell board over the windows of a business in Myrtle Beach.Hide Caption 18 of 18Emergencies declared in several statesOfficials in several states have declared states of emergency, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms. Florence’s expanse has even captured the attention of the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station, who have been tweeting pictures of the storm back to Earth.
Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye. Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you. #Horizons pic.twitter.com/ovZozsncfh
— Alexander Gerst (@Astro_Alex) September 12, 2018 “Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye,” German astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted. “Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you.”Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac is forecast to approach the Lesser Antilles Islands on Thursday. Hurricane Helene is veering toward Europe and newly formed Subtropical Storm Joyce is not expected to threaten land. The four storms in the Atlantic come as another one in the Pacific is hitting Hawaii.