Hurricane Florence: More than 300K evacuate South Carolina coasts; gas stations run out of fuel

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Updated coverage of Hurricane Florence (all times local):

Updated 3 p.m.: South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster says more than 300,000 people have already evacuated the state’s coasts ahead of Hurricane Florence.

McMaster told reporters Wednesday that the storm could bring more rain to the state than 1989’s devastating Hurricane Hugo.

McMaster has ordered much of the state’s coastline evacuated, reversing some lanes of a major interstate to direct all traffic inland.

Forecasters warned as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) could fall in some portions of the state through at least Monday.

The head of the state’s National Guard also says the federal government has positioned aid ships off South Carolina’s coast and they’ll be ready to assist after the storm moves through.

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Updated 3 p.m.: Two of the nation’s largest motor speedways have opened their vast campgrounds to Southerners escaping Hurricane Florence, part of a patchwork of shelters across the region serving as a last refuge for storm evacuees.

But gas shortages and jammed freeways loomed for evacuees seeking safety in far-away shelters, campgrounds and hotels. In North Carolina, 1 in 10 gas stations in Wilmington and Raleigh-Durham had no gas by midday Wednesday.

At Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia, personal belongings were spread across an open field where the first few evacuees arrived Wednesday.

Melody Rawson left her first-floor apartment in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, arriving at the Georgia speedway with two dogs and a cockatoo, and a couple of coolers holding some sandwich meat.

Bristol Motor Speedway, near the Tennessee-Virginia line, also opened its campgrounds to evacuees.

Updated 2:40 p.m.: Portions of the Georgia coast face a growing threat of strong winds as Hurricane Florence nears the Southeast coast, but officials there aren’t calling for evacuations.

Dennis Jones is director of the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency that includes Savannah. Jones told a news conference Wednesday there’s a “moderate” chance sustained tropical storm winds could reach the area as soon as Thursday evening. He said some storm impacts could last through the weekend.

The National Hurricane Center predicts the Category 3 hurricane will strike the Carolinas later this week. But forecasters say there’s a chance the storm could turn to the southwest.

Jones said there’s currently no need for evacuations in the Savannah area, but that could change if the forecast worsens. He said there’s a low risk of flooding and storm surge risks are “very low.”

(This item has been edited to correct the storm strength to category 3, not category 4).

Updated 2:25 p.m.: Hurricane Florence has gotten a little bit weaker but it remains a very large and dangerous storm.

At 2 p.m., the storm was centered 435 miles (700 kilometers) southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, moving at 16 mph (26 kph).

It’s a potentially catastrophic Category 3 storm with 125 mph (205 kph) maximum sustained winds.

Some fluctuations in strength are expected through Thursday morning. Florence will weaken once it stops drawing energy from warm ocean waters, but it’s still expected to make landfall late Thursday or early Friday as an extremely dangerous major hurricane.

The National Hurricane Center says a buoy about 100 miles northeast of Florence’s eye has clocked hurricane-force wind gusts and sustained winds of 53 mph (85 kph).

Florence is the most dangerous of three tropical systems in the Atlantic. Forecasters also were tracking two other disturbances.

Updated 2:15 p.m.: Vice President Mike Pence plans to thank American Red Cross employees and volunteers in Atlanta as they prepare for Hurricane Florence.

Pence’s office said in a news release Wednesday that Pence would visit the Delta Air Lines TechOps facility in Atlanta on Thursday, and would later stop by the American Red Cross Disaster Field Supply Center to thank the staff and volunteers.

The TechOps facility provides aviation maintenance to Delta and services its fleet.

Updated 2 p.m.: As motorists try to get away from the path of Hurricane Florence they are learning that some service stations are running out of gasoline.

Patrick DeHaan is an analyst for GasBuddy, a service that tracks gasoline prices and outages.

DeHaan says there is plenty of gasoline in the region, but getting it from distribution terminals to stations is a challenge.

He says the situation is exacerbated because “everyone wants it at the same time.”

By midday Wednesday, 5 percent of stations in North Carolina were out, including 10 percent of those in Wilmington and Raleigh-Durham. In South Carolina, 2 percent of stations had run out and in Virginia, 1 percent.

DeHaan says truck stops and major chains with bigger supply systems are more likely to have gas than small stations.

Updated 2 p.m.: Some airports in the Carolinas are shutting down as Hurricane Florence approaches, and American Airlines says it’s canceling 565 flights through the weekend.

American said Wednesday that it has stopped flying at Greenville, Jacksonville and New Bern, North Carolina, and would shut down Wednesday night in Wilmington and Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Florence, South Carolina.

American plans to stop flights in Columbia, South Carolina, and Hampton-Newport News, Virginia, on Thursday evening.

Most of the closures will run through Sunday, with a few lifting after Saturday.

American says it’s seeing no impact at its big hub in Charlotte, North Carolina, and expects only scattered cancellations through Saturday at Raleigh-Durham.

Updated 2 p.m.: Forecasters say the U.S. coast won’t see waves generated by Hurricane Florence that are anywhere near as high as the 83-foot (25-meter) giant that was possibly picked up on a satellite.

Chris Landsea is chief of tropical analysis and the forecast branch at the National Hurricane Center. He says that when waves and the hurricane move in a straight and similar line, it’s possible to get a wave as big as the image conveyed by the satellite Wednesday.

Storms this strong usually generate waves of 40 feet to 50 feet (12 to 15 meters).

But Landsea say the waves won’t be anywhere in the same ballpark when they reach shore because they get smaller as the water gets shallower.

He also says that there is a chance that radar misinterpreted rain as an 83-foot wave.

Florence is such a huge storm that 12-foot (4-meter) seas extend for 345 miles (555 miles) from the storm’s eye.

Updated 1:15 p.m.: Mississippi is sending National Guard members and search-and-rescue workers to areas affected by Hurricane Florence.

Two swift-water rescue teams including local firefighters from 22 communities have gone to Virginia to help with rescue operations in case of flooding.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Greg Michel says Virginia is paying for the deployments under an interstate emergency-assistance compact. The Mississippi Office for Homeland Security says teams arrived Wednesday in the Virginia towns of Dublin and Pulaski.

Soldiers based in Meridian, Mississippi, will provide airlift support for relief after the storm using two CH-47 Chinook helicopters. Members of the Mississippi Air National Guard are deploying to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida to help with relief planning and coordination.

More than 60 people are participating in the deployments.

Updated 1:15 p.m.: A program that provides health care benefits to military families and retirees is making it easier to get care during evacuations related to Hurricane Florence.

The Defense Health Agency announced in a new release on Wednesday that it is waiving referral requirements for TRICARE beneficiaries under mandatory evacuation orders in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

TRICARE says this means beneficiaries from 40 counties in those states may see a provider in any location without a referral from their primary care provider.

The waiver is in effect until Sept. 21. TRICARE says it has about 1.5 million beneficiaries in the Carolinas and Virginia.

Updated 12:55 p.m.: Georgia’s governor has declared a state of emergency for all 159 counties as forecasters now say Hurricane Florence could take a southwest turn.

In a news release Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal says the state “is mobilizing all available resources to ensure public safety ahead of Hurricane Florence.”

Deal’s declaration Wednesday covers comes as the National Weather Service’s storm forecast shows a chance that Florence’s track might turn toward the southwest as it approaches the Carolinas later this week.

No storm watches or warnings are in effect for Georgia. But forecasters say there’s an increased chance for tropical storm winds to reach Savannah.

Deal’s emergency declaration cited potential “changes in the storm’s trajectory” as well as an influx of evacuees coming to Georgia from the Carolinas. The order eases regulations on trucks hauling gasoline and relief supplies into Georgia.

Updated 12:40 p.m.: Airlines are starting to cancel more flights as Hurricane Florence approaches the Southeast coast.

At midday Wednesday, tracking service FlightAware said more than 400 U.S. flights scheduled for Thursday had been canceled, most of them in the Southeast.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, four-fifths of Thursday’s departures have been scrapped. Anywhere from about one-third to more than half of departures have been canceled in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

The numbers are sure to rise as airlines begin cutting flights scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Airlines typically wait until about 24 hours before takeoff before canceling a flight.

Delta Air Lines says it’s adding about 1,000 seats on flights to and from the Southeast for people trying to flee the storm.

Updated 12:40 p.m.: Virginia has opened two state-managed shelters to assist people evacuating ahead of Hurricane Florence.

The shelters at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and at The College of William & Mary Williamsburg opened Wednesday morning.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said in a statement that they are open to Virginians or residents of other states who have nowhere else to go. No identification or proof of residency is needed to seek shelter.

The facilities will provide only basic services, so anyone reporting to one is encouraged to bring supplies including a personal emergency kit, medications and medical equipment.

The statement says 24 localities across the state are opening local shelters as well. Cities and counties have been distributing information about those sites through their websites and social media pages.

Virginia is under a state of emergency as Florence approaches, and Northam has issued a mandatory evacuation order for around 245,000 people in the state’s lowest-lying coastal areas.

Updated 12:40 p.m.: Residents of South Carolina who thought they were going to be safe from Hurricane Florence are now rushing to prepare after a slight change in the forecast.

Current forecast models have the hurricane shifting south. Previously, North Carolina was forecast to be more at risk.

Chris Pennington was boarding up the windows of his Myrtle Beach house late Wednesday morning after noticing that the latest forecast has Florence coming inland nearly over his home.

Pennington says he is still leaning toward staying put, but that he’ll keep a really close eye on the weather and leave by Thursday afternoon if necessary.

He says one reason for staying is that his wife would be available to help if needed at the local animal hospital where she works.

Updated 12:15 p.m.: President Donald Trump is urging those in the path of Hurricane Florence to act now to “get out of its way.”

Trump is telling residents, “Don’t play games with it. It’s a big one.”

The president made his comments in a videotaped message from the Rose Garden that he tweeted out on Wednesday morning.

Trump says the federal government and first responders stand ready to assist, but even so, “bad things can happen when you’re talking about a storm this size.”

Trump is telling people in the Carolinas and Virginia: “it’s heading your way. … Be ready and God be with you.”

Updated 12:15 a.m.: The steady shift South that forecasters are expecting for Hurricane Florence has areas once thought to be in the clear worried. In Beaufort County, South Carolina, Emergency Management Division Commander Neil Baxley told residents Wednesday that they need to prepare for the worst — just in case.

Baxley says a direct hit from Florence could bring worse flooding than the state’s great flood of 2015 after 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain fell on parts of the county. The flooding closed several bridges and isolated big parts of the marshy, low lying county.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced evacuations of Beaufort County on Monday, but then rescinded them the next day when forecasts appeared to be sending the storm into North Carolina.

Updated 12:15 a.m.: Forecasters say conditions are still good for already powerful Hurricane Florence to strengthen a little as it moves over very warm waters.

Senior National Hurricane Center specialist Stacy Stewart says as the Category 4 Florence slows down and moves into shallower waters close to shore, the cooler sea temperatures and increasing contact with land will help reduce its strength.

But in a forecast discussion on the center’s website Wednesday, Stewart stressed the weaker winds will not diminish hazards from the storm.

Stewart says the impacts of the storm will cover a wide area “regardless of exactly where the center of Florence moves.”

Updated 11:20 a.m.: Federal regulators are reviewing preparations for nuclear plants in the Carolinas as Hurricane Florence approaches the coast.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday said it’s sending additional inspectors to plants in North and South Carolina and is activating its regional incident response center in Atlanta, to provide around-the-clock staff support during the storm.

The NRC says Duke Energy’s Brunswick nuclear plant south of Wilmington, North Carolina, could face hurricane-force winds, major storm surges and heavy rain.

Duke says it has a procedure to begin shutting down plants at least two hours before the arrival of hurricane-force winds. Duke also operates three nuclear plants in South Carolina, though none are on the coast.

Updated 11:20 a.m.: U.S. Coast Guard crews in Charleston, South Carolina, are making final preparations ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence.

Capt. John Reed says the Coast Guard is asking people to heed evacuation orders and leave coastal areas. The Coast Guard says mariners shouldn’t go out to sea in recreational boats and should use 911 and not social media to report life-threatening distress.

Gov. Henry McMaster has ordered people in coastal areas including Charleston to evacuate the area ahead of the Category 4 storm. Reed says the Coast Guard will work with local officials as soon as it’s safe to assess waterways and help anyone in distress.

Updated 11:20 a.m.: The mayor of a town outside Charleston, South Carolina, is telling people to “take control of your destiny” and leave town now before Hurricane Florence arrives.

Will Haynie is mayor of the Town of Mount Pleasant, just to the east of Charleston, South Carolina. He urged residents on Wednesday to get out of the path of the massive and powerful Category 4 storm, the likes of which he said the area hasn’t seen since 1989’s Hugo.

Haynie says local buses in the Charleston area will pick residents up and get them to shelters until 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Haynie says residents “can take control of your destiny by getting of the way of this dangerous storm.”

Updated 11:20 a.m.: North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is urging residents in evacuation zones to move to safety, saying the effects of Hurricane Florence are “only hours away.”

Cooper spoke at a news conference Wednesday morning with other emergency management officials. The governor said there’s still time for coastal residents to evacuate if their home is at risk and time for others to finish preparing for the storm.

Cooper says “disaster is at the doorstep, and it’s coming in.”

The governor added that “a lot of people that might normally stay through a hurricane have recognized that this one is different.”

Shelters began opening Tuesday and more will open Wednesday.

Cooper says state flood plain experts have been modeling the storm’s projected impacts and found that from the storm surge alone, tens of thousands of structures are expected to be flooded.

The governor also announced he had activated more National Guard soldiers. Emergency management officials said 3,000 would be on active duty by Wednesday evening, with more on standby.

Updated 11:20 a.m.: The mayor of a South Carolina city in the projected path of Hurricane Florence says residents need to leave the area as soon as possible.

Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune told CNN on Wednesday that seeing the storm’s newly projected path toward her city was like “waking up to a sucker punch.”

To the city’s roughly 32,000 residents, Bethune says Myrtle Beach “is not a place where you want to be” when the storm arrives.

Myrtle Beach is one of the state’s tourism centers. It is among coastal areas under mandatory evacuation orders by Gov. Henry McMaster. Bethune says she’s particularly worried about projected storm surge from the storm, which has slowed down and could linger along South Carolina’s coast, dumping inches (centimeters) of rain.

Updated 11:20 a.m.: Dozens of airmen are assembling at a New York Air National Guard base on Long Island to prepare for deployment to Southern states in the path of Hurricane Florence.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that 50 members of the 106th Rescue Wing based at Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach are preparing to travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He says elements of the unit will depart as early as Wednesday afternoon to offer assistance along coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

The New York Army National Guard is ready to deploy four helicopters to help storm response efforts. The aircraft are based at the Army Aviation Support Facility at Rochester International Airport.

Updated 11:05 a.m.: Forecasters say Hurricane Florence is generating enormous waves, as high as 83 feet (25 meters) as it makes its way toward the East Coast.

The National Hurricane Center says the waves were measured by satellite.

The huge waves are being produced because currents are trapped by very strong winds moving in the same direction the storm’s motion. The center’s Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch is tweeting about the phenomenon.

The center of the storm is about 485 miles (785 kilometers) out to sea, with tropical-storm-force winds extending outward up to 175

miles (280 kilometers).

Updated 11 a.m.: Forecasters say Hurricane Florence is expected to steadily slow down as it makes its way toward the East Coast.

At 11 a.m., the storm was centered 485 miles (785 kilometers) southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, moving at 15 mph (24 kph).

It’s a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm with 130 mph (215 kph) maximum sustained winds.

Some strengthening is forecast through Wednesday night, drawing energy from the warm water. Its winds could approach Category 5 strength, which means winds of 157 mph (253 kph) or higher.

Florence is the most dangerous of three tropical systems in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac was expected to pass south of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba. Hurricane Helene was expected to weaken over the eastern Atlantic. Forecasters also were tracking two other disturbances.

Updated 10:45 a.m.: Forecasters said Wednesday that Florence’s wind field is expanding, making it a large, stable hurricane with a clearly defined eye at its center.

National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warns that a slight shift in Florence’s forecast track does not mean that some communities north of the storm are now in the clear.

The “cone of error” in the forecast track only predicts where the storm’s center might go, and even on its edges, winds can push a powerful storm surge into shore dozens of miles from where Florence’s eyewall strikes land.

As Graham says, “just because you have a landfall to your south doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods, because the winds are huge around this system.”

Updated 10:30 a.m.: The Homeland Security Department is pushing back against a Democratic U.S. senator’s claim that the Trump administration transferred nearly $10 million from the government’s disaster relief agency to immigration enforcement.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said the administration was taking money from FEMA’s “response and recovery” to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency at a time when Hurricane Florence is bearing down on the Southeast U.S. coast.

But DHS officials said the money was transferred from unspent operational accounts for training, office supplies and headquarters costs. That funding cannot be spent on disaster response, they said. FEMA’s annual budget is about $15 billion.

Merkley provided no evidence for his suggestion that the money came from hurricane response funds.

Updated 9:30 a.m.: Jeff Byard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency says it is imperative locals heed the evacuation warnings.

He says the time to flee Hurricane Florence is now. Landfall was expected sometime late Thursday and FEMA officials said Wednesday was the last day for people to get out safely.

“Today’s the day,” he said. “It’s time for our citizens to be a part of the team. Heed those warnings and evacuate if you’re in one of the zones.”

Byard told a news conference at FEMA headquarters in Washington that the agency has all the resources it needs to react to the natural disaster.

Updated 8:55 a.m.: The mayor of a South Carolina city in the path of powerful Hurricane Florence is warning citizens to get out or stay “at your own peril.”

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg told CNN on Wednesday that the nearly 135,000 residents of his historic coastal city should leave now before the storm arrives later in the week.

Gov. Henry McMaster has ordered evacuations in counties along the state’s coast, including Charleston. All lanes of Interstate 26 are westbound to allow more people to leave the coast and head inland toward the state capital of Columbia.

Tecklenburg said his flood-prone city is preparing for “copious rain” by clearing out the city’s drainage system and getting boats and portable pumps ready. Many areas in the low-lying city flood with routine rain storms, causing street closures and detours.

Updated 8:30 a.m.: The National Weather Service says Hurricane Florence “will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast.”

That’s saying a lot, given the impacts from Hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd, and Matthew.

Forecasters in Wilmington, North Carolina, are emphasizing the potential for what they’re calling “unbelievable damage from wind, storm surge, and inland flooding.”

With predicted rainfall measured in feet not inches, forecasters say people living along creeks and rivers in the Carolinas should move to higher ground well ahead of the storm’s arrival.

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