US & World

Hurricane Florence: Mass evacuation from ‘storm of a lifetime’

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Media captionPeople have left homes and taken precautions ahead of the hurricane

Highways in US East Coast areas bracing for Hurricane Florence are congested with motorists fleeing “the storm of a lifetime”.

Up to 1.7 million people have been ordered to evacuate across South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

South Carolina authorities have turned four motorways into one-way routes away from the coast to speed the exodus.

The category four storm with 130mph (215km/h) winds is forecast to make landfall early on Friday.

Hurricane Florence could wreak more than $170bn (£130bn) of havoc, according to analytics firm CoreLogic.

Its projection suggested the storm could damage nearly 759,000 homes and businesses from Charleston, South Carolina, to Virginia Beach, Virginia.

A National Weather Service forecaster in Wilmington, North Carolina, said: “This will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast.

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Media captionHurricane Florence threatens east coast US

“And that’s saying a lot given the impacts we’ve seen from Hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd and Matthew.

“I can’t emphasise enough the potential for unbelievable damage from wind, storm surge and inland flooding with this storm.”

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Media captionHurricane Florence seen from space

As well as in the Carolinas and Virginia, states of emergency have been declared in Maryland and Washington DC amid concern over flooding.

Jeff Byard, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged people to flee before the hurricane hits.

“This is not going to be a glancing blow,” he said.

“This is going to be be a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A vacationer from Ohio tells Getty News he plans to ride out the storm from his rental condo at North Carolina’s Outer Banks

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned citizens that a “disaster is at the doorstep”, and that “tens of thousands” of buildings are likely to be flooded.

A National Hurricane Center (NHC) plane flying inside the storm found that pressure is continuing to drop, indicating its strength may still be growing.

Waves measuring 83ft tall were recorded at sea on Wednesday morning.

The NHC said “these enormous waves are produced by being trapped along with very strong winds moving in the same direction [of] the storm’s motion”.

Image copyright Getty Images

Eastern North Carolina may see several tornadoes beginning late on Thursday morning, the NHC warns.

But while many coastal residents have complied with mandatory evacuation orders, others are boarding up their homes and vowing to ride out the storm.

In other developments:

  • Farms and ranches in low-lying parts of North Carolina are moving livestock and their waste in order to save the animals and to prevent drinking water supplies being contaminated. Hurricane Floyd left hundreds of thousands of dead hogs and chickens floating in floodwaters in the state in 1999
  • While evacuations of prisoners in North Carolina are underway, nearly 1,000 prisoners in South Carolina will not be moved from their cells, despite a mandatory evacuation order affecting their area. “In the past, it’s been safer to leave them there,” said a state department of corrections spokesman
  • Dozens of college sports matches have been cancelled, and the NFL said the storm may impact several games scheduled for Sunday

In a video posted to his Twitter account on Wednesday, US President Donald Trump warned residents in Florence’s bullseye to heed official warnings.

“Get out of its way, don’t play games with it, it’s a big one, maybe as big as they’ve seen, and tremendous amounts of water,” said Mr Trump.

“Bad things can happen when you are talking about a storm this size. It’s called Mother Nature. You never know, but we know. We love you all, we want you safe.”

What makes Florence so dangerous?

Forecasters say the storm poses such a threat because it is expected to slow down and hover for nearly three days over the Carolina coast, before dipping south towards Georgia.

It is forecast to bring 20-40in (50-100cm) of rain and life-threatening storm surges of up to 13ft (4m).

Hurricane force winds will emanate up to 70 miles from the centre of the storm, say meteorologists, meaning the impact may be felt on shore well before Florence makes landfall early on Friday.

National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned that rivers up to 40 miles inland may flood.

Mr Graham said on Wednesday morning the Pamlico and Neuse rivers in North Carolina will see their flows “reversed” as storm surges push water back inland.

He added that half of fatalities during hurricanes are caused by storm surges, and another quarter of deaths are due to inland rains and flooding.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The barrier islands of the Carolina coastline could be prone to flooding

Is global warming to blame?

The relationship between climate change and hurricanes is a complex one.

Warmer seas power hurricanes. So as the temperature of ocean water goes up, we might expect the intensity of hurricanes to increase in future.

A hotter atmosphere can also hold more water, so this should allow hurricanes to dump more water on affected areas.

But there are so many factors that contribute to these rare events, it has been difficult to tease out clear trends from the data.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Chuck Ledford (L), watches Looney-Tunes with his daughter Misty as they evacuate in Wilmington, North Carolina
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Navy ships that are under repair and cannot go to sea are secured to the Norfolk, Virginia, port with heavy moorings


A guide to the world’s deadliest storms

Hurricanes are violent storms that can bring devastation to coastal areas, threatening lives, homes and businesses.

Hurricanes develop from thunderstorms, fuelled by warm, moist air as they cross sub-tropical waters.
Warm air rises into the storm.

Air swirls in to fill the low pressure in the storm, sucking air in and upwards, reinforcing the low pressure.

The storm rotates due to the spin of the earth and energy from the warm ocean increases wind speeds as it builds.

When winds reach 119km/h (74mph), it is known as a hurricane – in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific – or a typhoon in the Western Pacific.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Well, we’re about to get punched in the face.”
Florida Mayor Bob Buckhorn, ahead of Hurricane Irma (2017)

The central eye of calmer weather is surrounded by a wall of rainstorms.
This eyewall has the fastest winds below it and violent currents of air rising through it.

A mound of water piles up below the eye which is unleashed as the storm reaches land.
These storm surges can cause more damage from flooding than the winds.

“Urgent warning about the rapid rise of water on the SW FL coast with the passage of #Irma’s eye. MOVE AWAY FROM THE WATER!”
Tweet from the National Hurricane Center

The size of hurricanes is mainly measured by the Saffir-Simpson scale – other scales are used in Asia Pacific and Australia.

Winds 119-153km/h
Some minor flooding, little structural damage.
Storm surge +1.2m-1.5m

Winds 154-177km/h
Roofs and trees could be damaged.
Storm surge +1.8m-2.4m

Winds 178-208km/h
Houses suffer damage, severe flooding
Storm surge +2.7m-3.7m

Hurricane Sandy (2012) caused $71bn damage in the Caribbean and New York

Winds 209-251km/h
Some roofs destroyed and major structural damage to houses.
Storm surge +4m-5.5m

Hurricane Ike (2008) hit Caribbean islands and Louisiana and was blamed for at least 195 deaths

Winds 252km/h+
Serious damage to buildings, severe flooding further inland.
Storm surge +5.5m

Hurricane Irma (2017) caused devastation in Caribbean islands, leaving thousands homeless

“For everyone thinking they can ride this storm out, I have news for you: that will be one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your life.”
Mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin ahead of Hurricane Gustav, 2008

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