The fierce winds of Hurricane Florence are weakening as it creeps closer to North Carolina but the impact of the immense storm will still be catastrophic for millions of people.
Florence, now a Category 2 hurricane, is forecast to unleash extreme storm surge, possibly historic flooding rains, and damaging winds in the Carolinas beginning Thursday. The storm is expected to slowly move inland, battering much of the US coast for days.
While Florence is no longer considered a major hurricane, its reach has expanded, threatening residents from Georgia to Virginia.
• Storm has weakened: Florence is now a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph.
• Where is Florence? The storm was about 235 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina and was moving at about 17 mph on Thursday.
• The path of the storm: Florence's center will approach the North and South Carolina coast late Thursday and Friday but it's unclear where it will make landfall. As the storm moves inland, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland will also be in peril.
• Storm surge still a big threat: Strong winds will send rising water inland from the coastline of the Carolinas. The National Hurricane Center says the storm surge could rise up to 13 feet -- that's water inundating homes up to their first floor roof.
Millions flee or prep for chaos
Officials in the potential path of Florence urged people to evacuate their coastal homes and directed drivers away from the coast.
"You put your life at risk by staying," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said. "Don't plan to leave once the winds and rains start."
Cooper and his South Carolina counterpart, Henry McMaster, told the more than 1 million people who have been directed to leave that if they don't do so, they are on their own.
About 300,000 people have been evacuated from South Carolina, McMaster said. The governor added that a million or more people could be evacuated before the storm makes landfall.
"Even the rescuers cannot stay there," he said.
In Carolina Beach, authorities have stopped allowing traffic to the island via the only bridge between the island and the mainland. They also instituted a 24-hour curfew. The town is less than 5 feet above sea level and officials worry that as many as 1,000 of the town's 6,300 residents are planning to stay.
Mayor Joe Benson said the storm will batter the oceanside town through two high tide periods. Storm surge of 13 feet on top of a high tide at 7 feet could overwhelm Carolina Beach.
"Our sand dunes are healthy but they're not going to be able to keep back a wall of water like that," he said. "Flooding is almost guaranteed."
Susan Faulkenberry Panousis has stayed in her Bald Head Island, North Carolina home during prior hurricanes, but not this time. She packed up what she could and took a ferry.
"When that last ferry pulls out ... it's unnerving to see it pull away and know, 'That's the last chance I have of getting off this island,'" she said Wednesday.
More than 10 million people are under a storm watch or warning in Virginia and the Carolinas, where up to 40 inches of rain could fall.
Emergencies declared in several states
Officials in several states have declared states of emergency, including in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, where coastal areas are still recovering from summer storms.
Florence's expanse has even captured the attention of the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station, who have been tweeting pictures of the storm back to Earth.
"Watch out, America! #HurricaneFlorence is so enormous, we could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens from the @Space_Station, 400 km directly above the eye," German astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted. "Get prepared on the East Coast, this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you."
Florence is one of four named storms in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Isaac is forecast to approach the Lesser Antilles Islands on Thursday. Hurricane Helene is veering toward Europe and newly formed Subtropical Storm Joyce is not expected to threaten land. The four storms in the Atlantic come as another one in the Pacific is hitting Hawaii.