Hurricane Florence made landfall on North Carolina's Atlantic coast early Friday, triggering a life-threatening storm surge of floodwater kilometers inland and tearing apart buildings with strong winds and heavy downpours.
The National Hurricane Center said Florence came ashore near the town of Wrightsville Beach, nearly 10 kilometers east of the city of Wilmington, with maximum sustained winds of 150 kilometers per hour and higher gusts.
Florence had been downgraded to a Category One hurricane before landfall, but forecasters say it is still capable of delivering a lethal punch.
"This storm will bring destruction," said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. "Catastrophic effects will be felt."
Officials say 321,000 people are without power in North Carolina as Florence pounds the area.
In Craven County, authorities say they have received more than 150 telephone calls from people in the historic town of New Bern asking to be rescued because water has entered their homes.
New Bern resident Latasha Jones is one of the more fortunate ones. "The evacuation was county wide but since we’re not in a flood zone, we weren’t really worried about that," she told VOA. We were worried about the hurricane, had it continued to be as strong as what they were originally stating."
Regarding the possibility of a storm surge, Jones said, "Everyone has to be on the lookout for that, however, the way our house sits, it’s elevated. We have steps on the sides of the house so it's a few feet off the ground anyway. And since we’re already on high ground, those two things together kind of help insulate us a little more than, I would say, others.”
Officials have assured them they will be rescued by FEMA teams who are ready to do swift water rescue. Authorities have advised people, however, to move to higher levels in their homes while they wait to be rescued.
The outer bands of Hurricane Florence began battering the coast of North and South Carolina Thursday with strong winds and rain.
The National Hurricane Center said late Thursday that Florence had already brought a life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds to the North Carolina coast.
The center said the threat of freshwater flooding will increase over the next several days.
The storm's movement, not its strength, has forecasters and officials worried.
Florence is moving at 9 kilometers per hour -- giving it more time to churn, suck up water, batter the coast, and bring massive amounts of rain inland. The center of the storm is expected to maintain a westward track across southeastern North Carolina Friday and across eastern South Carolina Friday and Saturday.
The hurricane center predicts as much as 101 centimeters of rain for some parts of North Carolina and storm surges as high as 4 meters -- taller than many houses.
"This rainfall will produce catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding," the hurricane center said.
Tornadoes are also possible. The Weather Channel is reporting that tornado warnings were in effect further north for Virginia Beach, Virginia.
US military rescue effort
The Pentagon has dispatched two ships and a Marine unit offshore to provide help if needed. It has also moved most ships, submarines, and planes from their base at Hampton Roads, Virginia to safety far at sea or in distant airbases.
Rescue helicopters and trucks that can navigate floodwaters are also standing by.
More than 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it is not clear how many left. Officials say anyone who has not heeded mandatory evacuation orders is on his or her own.
"The idea of having to leave with my two cats and go somewhere for a week or more...once you leave, you don't know how many days it will be before you can return," a Wilmington resident named Kate told VOA.
Another Wilmington resident said she did not want to leave because she was afraid to see what she would come back to after the storm.
The police chief of Wrightsville Beach suggested that those who decided to stay give him their next-of-kin contact information.
White House priority
President Donald Trump has said protecting lives is his "absolute highest priority" and that the White House is standing by to offer affected states whatever help they request. On Friday, he applauded the efforts of emergency responders.
"Incredible job being done by FEMA, First Responders, Law Enforcement and all. Thank you!," Trump wrote on Twitter.
Florence is forecast to significantly weaken as it crawls across central South Carolina Saturday; however, residents inland have been warned to expect life-threatening floods and to be without power for days.
Parts of the mid-Atlantic can also expect heavy rains from what is left of Florence well into next week.