‘Disaster is at the doorstep’: As thousands flee Hurricane Florence, some plan to ride out the storm
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)
Up and down the aisles of the Sea Merchants grocery store in the North Carolina seaside town of Carolina Beach, locals hustled to pick up last-minute supplies of Bud Light and batteries, dog food and Ritz crackers, honeybuns and boiled peanuts.
Ashley Parks, a tanned 33-year-old house cleaner in an aqua sundress, had been all set to leave her little yellow bungalow about a block from the beach — until her best friend, Jamie, called and asked if she and her pets could stay.
Parks made a snap decision: Riding out the approaching Hurricane Florence might be easier than leaving with her three dogs and three cats in tow. They’d make it a party, she figured. Cook out on the grill.
But she admitted that, in TV reports, the storm looked “kind of big and scary.”
Big and scary indeed. With what was shaping up as one of the most powerful storms in a generation due to make landfall on Friday or early Saturday in the Carolinas, state and federal authorities pleaded with residents to obey evacuation orders, secure homes and stock up on necessary supplies.
Florence is predicted to have devastating effects over a wide swath of territory, bringing howling winds and torrential downpours across an arc of southeastern states from Georgia to Virginia.
Carolina Beach lies on a sliver of barrier island a dozen miles south of Wilmington, nestled between the Atlantic and the Cape Fear River. The eastbound lane of Snow’s Cut Bridge, the only point of entry to the island, was closing Wednesday evening at 8.
Once winds reach 45 mph, the entire bridge was to close. And authorities were sounding a stark warning: You’ll be on your own.
From President Trump on down, officials used drastic language to describe the storm’s power. North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, implored coastal residents to flee while they still could.
“The time to prepare is almost over,” he said at a news conference Wednesday. “Disaster is at the doorstep.”
In neighboring South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster made a similar plea.
“The thing to do is get away from the storm — you gotta get away from what’s coming,” he said. “At some point, the rescuers will not be able to rescue you.”
With train service and flights already curtailed, the exodus from a long stretch of coastline, extending through the Carolinas and into Virginia, clogged highways and filled motels and hotels farther inland. Shoppers depleted store shelves of basics like bottled water, diapers and batteries, and motorists searched for available gas.
As the storm approached, the U.S. military sent ships out to sea and repositioned aircraft. Major military installations evacuated nonessential personnel and families, while also readying troops to assist as needed. North Carolina activated 2,800 members of its state National Guard.
Although the National Hurricane Center was warning of storm surges higher than many homes, some were simply trusting their luck.
“I’m praying for no surges; my house is just 4 feet off the ground,” Parks said as she took a puff of her vape and tossed fig bars into a shopping buggy piled high with Cheetos, sugar-iced oatmeal cookies and tortilla chips.
“Stay safe, hon!” called out Rachel Houze, the 33-year-old cashier.
Despite officials’ pleas, nearly half of the town’s 6,300 permanent residents appeared to remain on the island Wednesday afternoon, said Joe Benson, the mayor of Carolina Beach.
“They’ll be facing a storm the likes of which hasn’t happened in maybe a hundred years,” he said. “We’ve told them, ‘You’re essentially on your own. Don’t expect to be rescued if you come into trouble.’”
On Wednesday, police and fire officials went door to door alerting people to leave the island — and, striking a grim note, encouraging anyone staying to provide names and contact information for their next of kin. By early evening Wednesday, Florence was barreling toward the coastline, less than 400 miles from Wilmington, with sustained winds of 120 mph.
“When wind speeds get above 50 mph, I won’t be sending out any of our police and fire,” warned town manager Michael Cramer.
Mike Patel, the Sea Merchants’ genial 50-year-old owner, looked worried as he contemplated the fate of longtime customers and the small midcentury grocery store a few blocks from the beach that he has owned for four years.
Built in 1949, the squat concrete and glass grocery store has weathered many hurricanes, including Hazel, a powerful Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in 1954 and wiped out a section of the island.
Patel planned to close in a few hours, and was not sure his store would survive.
“They say this storm is going to be like a washing machine,” he said. “I have to be ready to rebuild.”
At least 1.7 million people in three states — North and South Carolina, along with Virginia — were told to leave coastal areas. By Wednesday, all three, along with Maryland and Georgia, had declared states of emergency.
Once the storm arrives, forecasters say, it might linger for days, dumping relentless rains in a manner reminiscent of last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged Houston as it inundated already soaked ground, flooding zones previously considered safe from rising waters.
Officials warned that tens of thousands of people may be without power for days on end, or find themselves cut off by raging floodwaters.
“This may be a marathon, not a sprint,” said Cooper, the North Carolina governor. “Expect this storm to batter our state for days.”
In Carolina Beach, though, the holdouts perusing the Sea Merchants’ emptying shelves remained stubborn.
“I ain’t leaving my house,” said Kenneth Cavanaugh, a 54-year-old mason, citing worries over looters. His phone buzzed: another call from his brother, James, in North Dakota, urging him to “get off the beach.”
Cavanaugh admitted to some nervousness. He planned to go home to board up his windows and fill up his pool with water to flush toilets.
Then he would hunker down with his girlfriend and two roommates. At least five families on his block of Sumter Avenue planned to ride out the storm, he said.
Cavanaugh glanced at his cart full of chicken wings, milk, mozzarella sticks, peanut butter and coffee creamer. Out on the beach, the surf surged. And far out to sea, the storm just kept bearing down.
“I hope I’m prepared,” he said.
Times staff writer Laura King in Washington contributed to this report.
4:50 p.m. The article wsa updated with additional details.
12:35 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 7:15 a.m.
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