Chavez Gallegos helps his family move out of a flooded home in Kinston, N.C., in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.(Travis Long / Raleigh News & Observer)
A road is washed out by the rains from Hurricane Florence as it passed through the area in Fayetteville, N.C.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Flood waters from Hurricane Florence surround a house and flow along the street in Fayetteville, N.C.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
A man moves his horses from rising water in Lumberton, N.C., following flooding from now Tropical Depression Florence.(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)
Helen McKoy walks down a flooded street in her neighborhood as Florence continues to dump heavy rain in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Homes along the New River are flooded as a result of high tides and rain from Hurricane Florence, which moved through the area in Jacksonville, N.C.(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
Members of the North Carolina Task Force urban search and rescue team wade through a flooded neighborhood looking for residents who stayed behind as Florence continues to dump heavy rain in Fayetteville, N.C.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rush down Cool Spring Street, inundating the St. James Church in Fayetteville, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / Shutterstock)
Erick Martinez grills chicken on the porch of his home as floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rise in the Magnolia Mobile Home Park north of Lumberton, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / Shutterstock)
A resident walks from his flooded house toward the crew of the Cajun Navy in Lumberton, N.C.(Alex Edelman / AFP/Getty Images)
A boat pushed ashore by Hurricane Florence rests in front of a damaged home in New Bern, N.C.(Gray Whitley / Associated Press)
Floodwaters surround buildings on Front Street in downtown Swansboro N.C.(Tom Copeland / Associated Press)
A sign asks for prayer Friday in Lumberton, N.C., as Florence bears down(David Goldman / Associated Press)
High winds toppled a scoreboard, knocked down a wall and uprooted trees, crushing a car, at a baseball field in New Bern, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
A section of an exit ramp on Highway 17 was washed away when Florence hit new Bern, N.C., as a Category 1 hurricane.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
A man makes a phone call from the front porch of his home surrounded by floodwaters in Jacksonville, N.C.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
A store awning partially ripped away by high winds in Myrtle Beach, S.C.(Alex Edelman / AFP/Getty Images)
A mother and her infant were killed Friday when a massive tree fell on their house in Wilmington, N.C. They were the first reported fatalities from Hurricane Florence.(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteers help rescue residents and their pets from flooded homes Friday in New Bern, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Homes are flooded after a surge from Hurricane Florence flooded the Neuse River in New Bern, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
The Trent River (background) overflows its banks and floods a neighborhood during Hurricane Florence in River Bend, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
People walk through the high winds from Hurricane Florence in downtown Swansboro N.C.(Tom Copeland / Associated Press)
Mike Kiernan takes photos of the damage to his home in Wilmington, N.C.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
A woman holds a baby as she watches rising flood waters on the Cape Fear River during Hurricane Florence in Wilmington, N.C.(ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP / Getty Images)
Members of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 4 from Oakland search a flooded neighborhood for evacuees in Fairfield Harbour, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Sam Parks walks through flooded Water Street as Hurricane Florence comes ashore in Wilmington, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
Kite Boarder Dimitri Maramenides heads out next to Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, N.C.(L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot)
Residents drive through flooded Water Street as Hurricane Florence comes ashore in Wilmington, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
Wind and water from Hurricane Florence damages the highway leading off Harkers Island, N.C.(Jordan Guthrie / Associated Press)
Residents look at downed trees as Hurricane Florence passes over Wilmington, N.C.(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters arrive at a home where a large tree fell and trapped three people in Wilmington, N.C. One man was taken out of the home in critical condition, and the condition of the others is unknown.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
A boat is wedged in trees during Hurricane Florence in Oriental, N.C.(Angie Propst / Associated Press)
Rescue workers rush a man to an ambulance after a giant tree toppled onto his house, killing two other people when Hurricane Florence came ashore in Wilmington, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
Mitchell Floor, left, holds a flashlight as Comfort Suites general manager Beth Bratz, center, and employee Dee Branch go to make coffee as Hurricane Florence rages in Wilmington, N.C.(Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)
Waves slam the Oceanana Pier & Pier House Restaurant in Atlantic Beach, N.C.(Travis Long / Associated Press)
Electric poles that snapped in half sway from their wires as Hurricane Florence comes ashore in Wilmington, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
A sign warns people away from Union Point Park after it was flooded by the Neuse River in New Bern, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
The awning of a Shell gas station was torn off when Hurricane Florence came ashore in Wilmington, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
Volunteers from the Civilian Crisis Response Team help rescue three children from their flooded home in James City, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Volunteers from the Civilian Crisis Response Team help rescue three children from their flooded home in James City, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Linda Deem walks along the beach as winds from Hurricane Florence are felt in Myrtle Beach, S.C(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Linda Stephens checks out the weather as the force of Hurricane Florence is beginning to be felt in Myrtle Beach, S.C.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Portions of a boat dock and boardwalk are destroyed by powerful wind and waves as Hurricane Florence arrives in Atlantic Beach. Coastal cities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are under evacuation orders.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Michael Nelson floats in a boat made from a metal tub and fishing floats after the Neuse River went over its banks and flooded his street during Hurricane Florence in New Bern, N.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
A child sits on a mattress at a Hurricane Florence evacuation shelter at Conway High School in Conway, S.C.(Alex Edelman / AFP/Getty Images)
Alejandra Rubio comforts her daughter Sarahi Ramos on Thursday in their hotel room in Wilmington, N.C., where they will wait out Hurricane Florence.(Robert Gourley / For The Times )
Cyrus Lewis watches the surf roll up on the beach beneath the Avon Fishing Pier as the first effects of Hurricane Florence reach Hatteras Island, N.C.(Steve Earley / Virginian-Pilot)
Beachgoers take in the scenery in Atlantic Beach, N.C., on Wednesday as Hurricane Florence threatens.(Travis Long / Raleigh News & Observer)
The Ramos family prepares dinner and watches the weather forecast in their hotel room Thursday night in Wilmington, N.C., where they will wait out Hurricane Florence.(Robert Gourley/ For The Times )
Vickie Grate, left, waits in a shelter with her son Chris, center, and his girlfriend, Sarah, after evacuating from their homes in Conway, S.C., on Wednesday.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Doug Lewis, left, and Chris Williams cover the windows of Knuckleheads Bar and Grill in Myrtle Beach, S.C.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
A statue of Poseidon stands along the boardwalk in Morehead City, N.C., on Wednesday. Many coastal areas in Virginia and the Carolinas are under evacuation orders.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Sunset on the Isle of Palms, S.C., on Wednesday. Hurricane Florence has weakened slightly, but is still expected to cause potentially life-threatening storm surge and flooding.(Mic Smith / Associated Press)
Boats are dry-docked at the Wrightsville Yacht Club on Wednesday in Wrightsville Beach, N.C.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
The Lager Heads Tavern is secured on Tuesday as locals prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Wrightsville Beach, N.C.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
A satellite image provided by NASA and the European Space Agency shows Hurricane Florence on Wednesday as it churns through the Atlantic Ocean toward the East Coast.(NASA)
Willy Cortright, foreground, and Erik Barfield, on roof, cover the windows of a home with plywood panels in Beaufort, N.C. Both said they planned to ride out the storm on the coast.(Robert Gourley / For The Times)
Sandbags surround homes on North Topsail Beach, N.C.(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)
Poolside furniture is placed in the pool of a hotel before the storm arrived in Myrtle Beach, S.C.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
A mandatory evacuation is in effect in Topsail Beach, N.C.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Daniel Vaughn, left, and Frank Murphy fill sandbags while preparing for Florence in Wrightsville Beach, N.C.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Sunrise in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., two days ahead of the predicted landfall of Hurricane Florence.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
The bread aisle at Walmart is empty two days before Hurricane Florence is expected to strike Wilmington, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
Johnny Mercer’s Fishing Pier juts into the Atlantic Ocean two days before Hurricane Florence is expected to strike Wrightsville Beach, N.C.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
Chuck Ledford, left, watches “Looney Tunes” with his daughter, Misty, as they evacuate ahead of Hurricane Florence in Wilmington, N.C.(Caitlin Penna / EPA/Shutterstock)
Jacob Whitehead, left, and Matt Jones hit golf balls into the surf as Hurricane Florence approaches in Wrightsville Beach, N.C.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
People evacuate ahead of Hurricane Florence as they seek shelter at Emma B. Trask Middle School in Wilmington, N.C.(Caitlin Penna / EPA/Shutterstock)
The leading edge of Hurricane Florence lashed the coast of the Carolinas on Thursday as the weakened but widening storm edged closer to the Southeastern U.S., bearing dangerous winds and drenching rains.
Florence’s sustained winds fell to 110 mph overnight, dropping it back to a Category 2 storm. But the still-powerful storm also grew even larger, visible from outer space as an enormous circular mass set to envelop the coastline, with tropical-storm-force winds extending nearly 200 miles ahead of Florence’s center.
“Please hear my message — we cannot underestimate this storm,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, speaking Thursday at a briefing in Raleigh, the capital. He warned of “battering winds and relentless rains that will last for days,” with storm surges up to 13 feet, reaching the second stories of buildings in vulnerable coastal areas.
“We’re on the wrong side of this thing,” he said. “Today, the threat becomes a reality.”
In Wilmington, a port city of 120,000 people, many homes were empty and boarded up Thursday. Almost all businesses — ice cream shops, seafood restaurants, banks and real estate offices — were shuttered.
But as the rain and wind bore down with the approaching dusk, the lights were still on at a local Waffle House, the popular chain known for staying open through almost anything. Cooks cracked eggs and slung hash browns; servers poured coffee with a “There you go, sweetie.”
An employee standing under an awning outside to greet a stream of arrivals said the restaurant would stay open unless conditions became unsafe — “if the hurricane pulls off the roof or breaks the glass.”
Amid the darkening daytime skies that heralded the arrival of the monster storm’s outer bands, some businesses conveyed a spirit of jaunty defiance.
Someone had spray-painted, “HEY FLO … KISS MY GRITS! Wilmington will survive,” on the plywood covering a window at the Liquid Room, a downtown nightclub.
Travel will be hazardous, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster warned at an afternoon briefing. “Trees will be down on the road. Power lines will be down on the road,” he said. “This is enormously dangerous.”
Some vulnerable areas were already affected. The ocean was washing across parts of North Carolina Highway 12, which connects many barrier islands to the mainland.
By early evening, Florence was 100 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, lumbering its way toward the Outer Banks, with the eye of the storm expected to make landfall Friday.
Authorities warned that the greatest peril could come from epic rains the storm will drop as it lingers at the shoreline, with more than 2 feet expected along the coast and significant amounts far inland as well.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long appealed to coastal residents in a briefing Thursday not to read too much into the drop in Florence’s wind speed as it approached the mainland.
“Please do not let your guard down.... The ocean is going to start rising,” he said. “Your time to get out of those areas is coming to a close.”
President Trump offered fresh reassurances about federal preparedness for Florence, but also renewed acrimonious commentary about last year’s heavily criticized response to Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico.
On Twitter on Thursday, he disputed an academic study citing nearly 3,000 deaths in the U.S. territory following the storm, which the Puerto Rican government accepted as its official tally. Trump falsely alleged that the figure was put forth “by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
“I love Puerto Rico!” he wrote.
Utility providers, meanwhile, told customers in the Carolinas and beyond to expect prolonged power losses once the storm hits. Officials warned of the dangers of gas-powered generators and candles.
Duke Energy, the main regional power company, projected that some 3 million people could lose power, possibly for a long time. The company was mobilizing thousands of out-of-state workers for the response.
There are half a dozen nuclear power plants in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, the three states expected to be hit hardest, but most are situated well inland.
One that lies just four miles from the coast is Duke’s 1970s-era Brunswick plant. Its location, about 20 miles south of Wilmington, puts it near the storm’s expected path. One of its two reactors was shut down earlier Thursday and the second was to be shut by day’s end, the Reuters news agency reported.
In Wilmington, as wind gusts picked up, a row of three elderly men sat quietly at a bus stop outside Solomon Towers, an 11-story public housing complex near downtown. There were no buses and hardly any cars on the road.
Billy Brooks, a 76-year-old resident of the complex, was 12 when Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 storm, hit Wilmington in 1954. He recalled huddling in the basement of a cotton mill and emerging many hours later to a scene of devastation: downed trees and ravaged buildings.
“We’re just going to tough it out,” he said, puffing a cigarette. “I’m not scared.”
Nearly 200 miles north, in the North Carolina town of Columbia on the Albemarle Sound, the sky was gray, and wind-driven rain whipped across a mainly empty road. Many people had fled, but Harold Davenport, who has lived all his 57 years in the town, planned to ride out the storm. He pointed out that it was forecast to tack south, not north.
“Some of them turn, some of them don’t,” he said.
In the storm’s path, some were already looking ahead toward hardships to come. “We’re about to lose everything,” said Donna Hammonds, 47, who lives in the coastal community of Monkey Junction south of Wilmington.
Hammonds, a former medical billing officer who was sheltering at a middle school in Wilmington, said she expected the storm surge to flood the mobile home she shares with her cousin. As she spoke, her phone buzzed: It was her sister calling to say she’d put a few hundred dollars into Hammonds’ bank account to help tide them over.
They had to move quickly to get to the bank. The wind was picking up.
Jarvie reported from Wilmington, and King from Washington. Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Columbia, N.C., contributed to this report.
3:45 p.m.: This article was updated with storm’s early-evening position and strength, and more details from Wilmington.
12:58 p.m.: This article was updated with storm’s new position, highway connecting barrier islands beginning to flood, nuclear plant near coast being shut down, more details and quotes.
8:40 a.m.: This article was updated with reaction from Wilmington and the storm’s latest position.
This article was originally published at 7:40 a.m.