(CN) – Millions of coastal residents in North and South Carolina spent their Tuesday morning either complying with state-issued evacuation orders or preparing to hunker down as Hurricane Florence, a Category 4 storm currently packing 130 mph winds, continued to bear down upon them.
The National Hurricane Center said Tuesday the monster storm will be close to Category 5 strength by evening, and that it has the potential to cause catastrophic damage when it comes ashore late Thursday night or early Friday.
The latest forecast advisory has the center of the storm striking somewhere along the North Carolina coast, with significant, hurricane-force winds and rain forecast for a region extending over South Carolina and Virginia.
Forecasters say hurricane-force winds will likely extend up to 40 miles from the center of the storm, and tropical-storm force winds will reach up to 150 miles from the eye.
The center of the massive storm is then forecast to meander Thursday, Friday and Saturday over a stretch of coastline saturated by rising seas, inundating several states and triggering life-threatening floods.
Seven-day rainfall totals are forecast to reach 10 to 20 inches over much of North Carolina and Virginia, and even 30 inches in some places. Combined with high tides, the storm surge could swell as high as 12 feet.
Forecasters say flooding rains over Washington, D.C. could last as long as six days.
Watches in effect Tuesday forecast a storm surge of up to 12 feet at high tide from Cape Fear to Cape Lookout in North Carolina. A hurricane watch was in effect for Edisto Beach, South Carolina, to Virginia’s southern border, with the first hurricane-force winds arriving late Thursday.
Hurricane Florence’s size is “staggering,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned.
“We could cover several states easily with the cloud cover alone,” Graham said. “This is not just a coastal event.”
Graham emphasized that models shown on television typically only show where the eye of the hurricane could land and don’t represent the scope of damages that could occur outside of the cone.
North Carolina has been hit by only one other Category 4 storm since reliable record keeping began in the 1850s.
The last time North Carolinians stared down such a threat was Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Hurricane Hugo made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 4 hurricane in 1989.
And officials in both states are taking the impending emergency very seriously.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in his state on Friday, and ordered a mandatory evacuation of Hatteras Island and Dare County on Monday.
“We have to hope and pray for the best, and prepare for the worst. The good thing is we still have a few days for people to prepare and get ready,” Cooper said during a press briefing.
In South Carolina, Governor Henry McMaster ordered the mandatory evacuation of the entire South Carolina coast to begin at noon on Tuesday. An estimated 1 million Palmetto State residents are affected by the order.
Early Tuesday morning the South Carolina Highway Patrol began the process of closing east-bound lanes of Interstate-26, and making it a westbound-only highway.
Twenty-six counties in South Carolina have ordered the closure of courts, schools, and other public facilities.
As of Tuesday morning, a hurricane watch and storm surge warnings were in place for both states, but officials in both states were urging residents hundreds of miles from the coast to be prepared for flooding rains, damaging winds and widespread power outages.
Hundreds of utility workers from other states are already being staged to sweep into the impacted areas as soon as the storm passes.
According to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, flooding is the number-one natural hazard in Mecklenburg County.
“Charlotte is more prone to flash flooding than many U.S. cities because of our climate and the lay of our land. During the same storm, rainfall amounts can vary widely in different parts of town. That makes it very difficult to predict where it will flood or how bad the flood will be,” says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management on its website.
As stores across the Carolinas are piling in large cases of water to keep up with demand, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein warned the public to keep an eye on price gouging in a public news release. “It is against the law to charge an excessive price during a state of emergency. If you see a business taking advantage of this storm, either before or after it hits, please let my office know so we can hold them accountable,” he said.
In Washington, the House GOP leadership team is reportedly weighing whether to cancel votes for the entire week as Hurricane Florence bears down on the Carolinas and Virginia, and threatens to disrupt air travel across the country.
GOP leadership aides said nothing had been decided as of Tuesday morning, adding that a final call would likely be made by Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has joined Maryland and Virginia in declaring a state of emergency.
In Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday ordered about 245,000 Virginians living in the lowest-lying areas near the coast to evacuate, the order includes parts of Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore.
In a tweet on Tuesday, President Donald Trump urged residents of the effected states to take all necessary precautions and assured them his administration is “mobilizing assets to respond accordingly.”